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Ukraine orders troop pullout from Crimea

Mar. 24, 2014 - 05:34PM   |  
Ukrainian sailors leave the Konstantin Olshansky ship Monday in the bay of Donuzlav, Crimea. Ukraine's fledgling government ordered troops to retreat from Crimea on Monday, ending days of wavering as Western leaders tried to present a unified response to Russia's increasingly firm control of the peninsula.
Ukrainian sailors leave the Konstantin Olshansky ship Monday in the bay of Donuzlav, Crimea. Ukraine's fledgling government ordered troops to retreat from Crimea on Monday, ending days of wavering as Western leaders tried to present a unified response to Russia's increasingly firm control of the peninsula. (Pavel Golovkin / AP)
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DONUZLAV, CRIMEA — Ukraine’s fledgling government ordered troops to pull back Monday from Crimea, ending days of wavering as Russian forces stormed and seized bases on the peninsula. Bystanders mocked some retreating sailors as “rats” fleeing a sinking ship.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin formally annexed Crimea last week, Russian forces have raised the heat on the Ukrainian military on the Black Sea peninsula, seizing their ships and breaking into walled military installations with armored personnel carriers.

Tired of weeks of tension and uncertainty, some Ukrainian troops were already leaving, including the crew of the navy ship Konstantin Olshanskiy in the bay of Donuzlav in western Crimea.

The Ukrainian sailors, using a small rubber boat that needed several trips to ferry them to land, were greeted by hecklers on the shore. One man shouted they were “rats” fleeing a ship, while another man blasted the Russian national anthem from his car.

“We aren’t rats, we aren’t running,” said one sailor, who only gave his first name of Yevgeny to discuss a sensitive subject. “Why should we have stayed, what would we have accomplished?”

At a naval base near the eastern Crimean port of Feodosia, two injured servicemen were taken captive Monday and as many as 80 were detained at the site, Ukrainian officials said.

With the storming of at least three military facilities in Crimea over the past three days — and the decision by some Ukrainian troops to stay employed by switching to the Russian side — it wasn’t clear how many Ukrainian troops remained on the peninsula. The former chief of Ukraine’s navy, who was charged with treason after he swore allegiance to Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities and urged others to defect, was named a deputy chief of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchnynov, whose new government in Kiev has struggled to maintain control and cohesion, said the Defense Ministry was ordered to withdraw all servicemen in Crimea to Ukraine’s mainland.

Speaking to lawmakers in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, Turchnynov said Ukrainian troops would be evacuated with their families in response to threats from what he called occupying Russian forces.

The situation in Ukraine is expected to dominate President Barack Obama’s agenda as he begins a week of international travel. He arrived in the Netherlands on Monday to attend a nuclear security summit but the event was overshadowed by hurriedly scheduled talks on Ukraine among the Group of Seven industrialized economies — the U.S., Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

“We’re united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far,” Obama said.

The interim government in Kiev has been criticized for its indecision over what outmanned Ukrainian troops in Crimea should do in the face of overwhelming Russian military might. Over the weekend, Russian troops stormed the Belbek air force base near Sevastopol and detained its commander. Last week, they trapped Ukrainian navy warships by sinking some vessels to block the port’s entrance.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said Monday that it has registered an increase in Russian troops in Crimea and seen large amounts of Russian forces bordering the mainland.

“The number of Russian armed forces on Crimean territory has risen over 22,000,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevgeny Perebiynis was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.

The Ukrainian military declined to specify the precise number of soldiers on Crimea before its annexation. But Oleksandr Rozmaznin, deputy chief of operations for Ukraine’s armed forces, said Monday around half the troops in Crimea may have defected to the Russians.

“A corridor will be created in order to pull out our troops,” Rozmaznin said, adding that the retreating troops will cross the two slender isthmuses that link Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland. Negotiations were still ongoing about whether the troops would redeploy with their weaponry, he said.

He was vague about how long the redeployment could take but said the goal was to retreat without “fighting or using weapons.”

Moscow says its absorption of Crimea is legitimate after a referendum earlier this month in which the vast majority of residents approved the move, but the process has come under sustained criticism from the international community.

Crimea had been part of Russia for centuries until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to his native Ukraine. The move mattered little until the 1991 Soviet collapse made Ukraine independent. Many residents on Crimea appeared genuinely happy about rejoining Russia, although the vote did take place after Russian-led troops seized control of the region.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Crimea on Monday to inspect the Black Sea Fleet, which has been stationed there under an a deal with Ukraine that allowed Moscow to have up to 25,000 troops in the peninsula.

Shoigu met with Ukrainian servicemen, explaining the benefits they will have if they join the Russian military.

He also named the former head of Ukraine’s navy, Denis Berezovsky, as deputy commander of the Black Sea Fleet. Berezovsky was appointed commander of Ukraine’s navy on March 1, only to surrender the country’s base in Sevastopol to pro-Russian forces a day later. Authorities in Kiev have charged him with treason.

In Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev chaired a meeting on providing economic aid to Crimea, promising that residents will continue receiving pensions and subsidies even after the region switches to the Russian ruble.

The West has leveled a raft of sanctions against Russia for its moves in Crimea and Russia has responded by barring entry to nine U.S. officials and lawmakers. On Monday it also slapped an entry ban on 13 Canadian lawmakers and officials for that country’s sanctions.

In Moscow, some restaurants mocked the U.S. sanctions, posting signs saying they have banned Obama from their premises.

———

Mills reported from Donuzlav, Crimea. Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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