The Crimea crisis continued down an ominous path Wednesday, as Russian forces stormed Ukraine military bases in the territory, on the coast of the Black Sea, and arrested Ukraine’s top naval commander. Ukraine demanded that Russia release the commander with hours or face what Ukraine interim President Oleksandr Turchynov called “an adequate response.”
At the same time, however, Ukraine announced that it would begin withdrawing all of its troops from Crimea, effectively conceding defeat to Russia, which on Tuesday declared Crimea now part of Russia.
Crimea citizens took to the polls this week on a referendum in which they voted to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, which gave the territory to Ukraine in 1954, when both countries were part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
But Western leaders decried the vote, saying that heavy presence of Russian troops in Crimea rendered the balloting illegitimate.
On Wednesday, pro-Russian forces wearing masks and military uniforms without the insignia of any country took over two Ukraine Navy bases in Crimea and seized Sergiy Gayduk, who took over as chief of the Ukraine Navy when the previous chief switched sides to Russia earlier in March.
“Unless Admiral Gayduk and all the other hostages– both military and civilian ones — are released, the authorities will carry out an adequate response of a technical and technological nature,” said Turchynov, in a cryptic statement Wednesday.
United States Vice President Joseph Biden, on an official visit to Eastern Europe, warned of stepped up sanctions and even a military show of force if Russia continued its takeover of Crimea.
“As long as Russia continues on this dark path, they will face increasing political and economic isolation,” Biden said from Lithuania, where he was visiting Wednesday after a stop in Poland earlier in the week. “We are exploring a number of additional steps to increase the pace and scope of our military cooperation, including rotating US forces in the Baltic region to conduct ground and naval exercises and training missions.”
Even though Crimea voters approved their own annexation by Russia, not everyone in Crimea supports the Russian presence. Muslim Tartars who have settled in Crimea are expected to be forced out of their homes, raising the specter of an ethnic cleansing campaign, something they faced 70 years ago, during World War II.
The Muslim Tartars are likely to resist the Russian takeover with violence, said one expert on the region.
“Expect widespread resistance, probably violence,” said Alexander Motyl, of Rutgers University “Having been ethnically cleansed in 1944, the Tatars won’t go without a fight.”
Also Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the Crimea crisis “the gravest threat to European security and stability since the end of the Cold War,” and British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Russia should be expelled from the G8 economic conference due to its moves into Crimea, at the group’s meeting in The Hague next week.
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