BELBEK: Elite Russian troops firing into the air and backed by armored vehicles stormed a Ukrainian airbase in Crimea on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) as Russia’s defiant march across the rebel peninsula rolled on despite sanctions and growing global isolation.
The dramatic takeover provided the most spectacular show of force since Russia sent its troops into Crimea three weeks ago before formally absorbing the flashpoint peninsula on Tuesday.
It came as the chill in East-West relations intensified with a charge by Germany—a nation whose friendship Russian President Vladimir Putin had nurtured—of a Kremlin attempt to “splinter” Europe along Cold War-era lines.
Europe’s most explosive security crisis in decades will now dominate a nuclear security summit that kicks off in The Hague on Monday and will include what may prove the most difficult meeting to date between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The diplomats’ encounter will come with Russia facing the loss of its coveted seat among the G8 group of leading nations and Putin’s inner circle reeling from biting sanctions Washington unleashed for their use of force in response to last month’s fall of a pro-Kremlin regime in Kiev.
Crimea’s rebel authorities estimate they together with Russian forces control at least half of Ukraine’s bases on the Black Sea peninsula and about a third of its functioning naval vessels.
Russian troops on Friday marked a treaty sealing the Kremlin’s absorption of the mostly Russian-speaking region by seizing Ukraine’s only submarine in the region.
The hulking Zaporozhye vessel flew the Russian navy flag on Saturday as it was moved to a bay controlled by the Russian Black Sea fleet.
Several hundred protesters also raised the Russian flag after storming a Ukrainian airforce base in the western Crimean town Novofedorivka while pro-Kremlin forces watched.
And in Sevastopol, armed men seized control of the Slavutich, one of the last navy ships in Crimea still flying Ukraine’s flag.
But Saturday’s most dramatic episode saw Russian forces break into the Belbek airbase near the main city of Simferopol after an armored personnel carrier blasted through the main gate.
Two more armoured personnel carriers followed and gunmen stormed in, firing automatic weapons into the air and pointing guns at Ukrainian soldiers who had earlier received an ultimatum to surrender from the surrounding Russian troops.
An Agence France-Presse reporter heard stun grenades before the situation calmed and the gunmen lowered their weapons. Several of the base’s unarmed soldiers began singing the Ukrainian national anthem during the ensuing lull.
“It’s so disappointing,” one told Agence France-Presse. “So disappointing, that I don’t have any other words to say.”
Ukraine’s defense ministry later confirmed its men had left the base and said a journalist and a Ukrainian soldier had been wounded in the incident.
Bid to ‘splinter Europe’
Germany—whose economic power is playing a decisive role in forging Europe’s response to Putin’s increasingly belligerent stance—warned after talks with Ukraine’s besieged interim leaders that the continent’s future was at stake.
“The referendum in Crimea . . . is a violation of international law and an attempt to splinter Europe,” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters after meeting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper brought his own message of support for “courageous” Ukrainians on a first visit by a G7 leader since Crimea staged a contentious March 16 independence vote that the international community almost unanimously proclaimed illegal.