By Laura Mills And Peter Leonard Associated Press
NOVOOZERNOE, 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, commandeering their ships and breaking into walled military installations with armored personnel carriers.
In the bay of Donuzlav in western Crimea, dozens of Ukrainian sailors marooned on the Konstantin Olshanskiy navy landing vessel abandoned ship Monday after weeks of tension and uncertainty. The Olshanskiy and two other warships have been trapped in the bay since Russian forces scuttled mothballed ships at the bay’s inlet.
The sailors, using a small rubber boat that needed several trips to ferry them to land, were greeted by the taunts of hecklers on the shore.
One man shouted they were deserting “rats,” 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?”
Twenty out of the estimated 60 sailors originally on board remained on the ship, which was later in the day stormed by armed men, presumed to be Russian forces.
Defense Ministry spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said the crew, which barricaded itself in the bulkhead, heard stun grenades and rifle fire.
At a naval base near the eastern Crimean port of Feodosia, two injured servicemen were taken captive earlier in the day and as many as 80 were detained at the site, Ukrainian officials said.
As tensions remained high in Crimea, President Barack Obama and Western allies moved to purge Russia from the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations a few months before it was to host its summit.
In the Hague, where Obama arrived to attend a nuclear security summit, he met with leaders of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations that includes the U.S., Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan for talks on Ukraine.
“We’re united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far,” Obama said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that the G-8 meeting set for the summer will not take place. The G-7 said they would meet instead in Brussels in June, without Russia.
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, signed a decree Monday ordering the withdrawal of all servicemen in Crimea to Ukraine’s mainland. But in remarks that seemed to underline the disarray that has characterized the Ukrainian authorities, the Defense Ministry spokesman later stated he had heard about no such order.
Speaking in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, Turchnynov said troops would be evacuated with their families in response to threats from what he called occupying Russian forces.
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 to more than 22,000,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevgeny Perebiynis was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
The Ukrainian military has declined to specify the precise number of soldiers in 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 only 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 would continue receiving pensions and subsidies even after the region switches to the Russian ruble.
In a development that hinted at a possible diplomatic opening, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with his Ukrainian counterpart Monday in The Hague, on the sidelines of an international security summit. The meeting was the highest level encounter between the two countries officials since last month’s ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Lavrov said he reaffirmed Moscow’s demand for a constitutional reform in Ukraine that would give more autonomy to all regions of Ukraine. Russia, eager to retain its influence in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern regions and prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, has pushed for Ukraine to become federation — demands the new Ukrainian government has rejected.
Speaking before the meeting, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia said his government remains concerned about a Russian military buildup near Ukraine’s border.
“The possibility of a military invasion is very high. We are very much worried about this concentration of troops on our eastern border,” he said.
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.