KIEV: European leaders will meet on Thursday (Friday in Manila) to discuss ways to punish Russia for its absorption of Crimea, as Ukraine draws up plans to pull troops out of the flashpoint peninsula.
The European Union (EU) faces tough decisions in finding a credible response to an explosive security crisis on its eastern frontier, with biting sanctions likely to hurt member states with strong economic links to Russia.
Kiev said it was looking to withdraw its embattled troops from Crimea after pro-Moscow forces seized naval bases and detained Ukraine’s naval chief in a tightening of Russia’s grip on the peninsula.
An ultimatum set by Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov for Crimean authorities to release naval commander Sergiy Gayduk expired on Wednesday, as the White House warned Russia it was “creating a dangerous situation.”
Meanwhile, Kiev announced it was dropping out of a key post-Soviet alliance and would slap entry visas on Russians in response to Moscow’s absorption of the strategic Black Sea peninsula.
A defiant President Vladimir Putin brushed aside global indignation and Western sanctions on Tuesday to sign a treaty absorbing Crimea and expanding Russia’s borders for the first time since World War II.
A Sunday referendum in Crimea, dismissed as illegal by Kiev and the West, showed nearly 97 percent supporting a shift from Ukrainian to Kremlin rule.
Putin employed the help of local militias to seize the mostly Russian-speaking peninsula—a region the size of Belgium that is home to two million people as well as Russia’s Black Sea Fleet—after a tumultuous change in leadership in Kiev in February.
Three months of street revolts led to the ouster of pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych by pro-Europe leaders who spearheaded three months of deadly protests aimed at pulling Ukraine out of the Kremlin’s orbit.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) head Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Russia’s intervention in Crimea marked “the gravest threat to European security and stability since the end of the Cold War.”
Moscow’s ‘wider strategy’
Pro-Russian forces earlier seized two Crimean navy bases and detained Ukraine’s naval chief, sending dozens of despondent Ukrainian soldiers—one of them in tears—fleeing.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu later urged Crimea’s pro-Russian leaders to free the naval head Gayduk, but only after the expiry of a 9 p.m. (7 p.m. Manila time) deadline set by Turchynov for the Crimean authorities to release the commander.
Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council chief Andriy Parubiy said Ukraine was developing a contingency plan to withdraw Crimean servicemen and their family members “so that they could be quickly and efficiently moved to mainland Ukraine.”
The greatest fear facing Kiev’s new leaders and the West is that Putin will push huge forces massed along the Ukrainian border into the Russian-speaking southeastern swathes of the country in a self-professed effort to “protect” compatriots he claims are coming under attack from violent ultra-nationalists.
“We are not speaking about military actions in the eastern regions of Ukraine,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the BBC.
“But Russia will do whatever is possible . . . to protect and to extend a hand of help to Russians living in eastern regions of Ukraine.”
The head of NATO said the alliance was acutely worried that the crisis reflected a wider “strategy” by Moscow to exert control in the region.