Russia Says It’s Preparing Counterproposals for Crimea as Russian Forces Strengthen Grip There
By Steven Erlanger, NY Times, March 10, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine—Russia said Monday that it cannot accept the “fait accompli” of the new Western-backed government in Ukraine and was preparing diplomatic counterproposals to serve “the interests of all Ukrainians,” even as Russian forces strengthened their control over Crimea, less than a week before a contentious referendum on the future of that southern Ukrainian region.
The Russian position came in a televised clip showing Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov briefing President Vladimir V. Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, the site of the Winter Olympic and Paralympic games.
Mr. Lavrov said that proposals made by Secretary of State John Kerry “did not completely satisfy us” because they used “the situation created by the coup as a starting point.” He told Mr. Putin that Mr. Kerry had delayed a visit to Moscow and that Russia was working on new proposals of its own.
But in Washington, State Department officials said that it was the Kremlin that had thwarted the prospects of a negotiated solution, or even another meeting between Mr. Kerry and his Russian counterpart, by refusing to engage on the American proposals, especially the idea that Russian officials meet with officials from the new Ukrainian government.
The Russian diplomatic moves seemed to Ukrainian officials to be delaying tactics as Russian forces acted more assertively in Crimea, taking over a military hospital in the regional capital, Simferopol, and a military base in Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based.
The Russians also took over a small Ukrainian naval supply base at Chornomorskoye, on the western coast, where pro-Russian “self-defense units” and police patrolled the town. They also took a small base housing a Ukrainian motorized battalion in Bakhchisarai after firing in the air, said Aleksey A. Mazepa, a spokesman for the Ukrainian ministry of defense in Crimea. No one was reported hurt.
Pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Crimea have been broken up, some Ukrainian journalists have been beaten and Ukrainian television channels there have been replaced with Russian ones ahead of the contentious referendum next Sunday about whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, the Ukrainian prime minister, will speak to the United Nations on Thursday, a day after he meets President Obama in the White House in what the administration intends to be a show of firm American support. The United States and its allies have joined the Ukrainian government in declaring the Russian occupation of Crimea illegal and the referendum unconstitutional and non-binding.
The United States and European countries like Germany, Britain and France have been pushing for a contact group to include Russia and Ukraine to de-escalate the conflict, one of the most serious East-West confrontations since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
But while the West recognizes the new interim government in Kiev, with presidential elections scheduled for May, Russia wants to return to a late February deal that former President Viktor F. Yanukovych signed, agreeing to a new unity government and new presidential elections in December. Moscow insists Mr. Yanukovych remains Ukraine’s lawful president and was deposed, while the West says he abandoned his post and was legally replaced by a constitutional majority vote of the Ukrainian parliament.
According to the Russian media, Mr. Yanukovych will make a public statement on Tuesday in Rostov-on-Don, in southern Russia, where he has sought Russian protection.
Germany, with close ties to Russia, has so far not succeeded in budging Moscow in any clear way. “We can see that time is really very pressing,” Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for the German government, said in Berlin on Monday, one day after Chancellor Angela Merkel again called Mr. Putin and urged him to facilitate the creation of a contact group to bring Russia and Ukraine into talks.
There were signals, too, that the Kremlin was focusing closely on events in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian feeling runs high.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that lawlessness now rules in eastern Ukraine as a result of extreme rightists “with the full connivance” of the Kiev authorities.
The statement claimed that masked men had fired on and injured peaceful protesters last week in Kharkiv. Ukraine has said that Russia is fabricating such charges as part of a propaganda campaign to destabilize the Kiev government and justify possible new military action in the east. Kharkiv police said that they are treating the alleged shooting as a minor incident, according to Reuters.
Kiev has been working to reassert its control over the cities of the east. In Lugansk, the capital of a coal-mining region that borders Russia, police freed a regional administration headquarters, which had been captured by pro-Russian demonstrators on Sunday, and briefly arrested their leader, Arsen Klinchayev, a local councilman.
Oleg Lyashko, a far-right member of the Kiev government who flew to Lugansk to break the siege, released a video of himself and several supporters arresting Mr. Klinchayev and violently interrogating him before later handing him over to police.
In Kiev, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the wealthy Russian businessman and dissident who was jailed for a decade until December, said that the struggle over Crimea had importance for Europe and the world.
He said Crimea should remain part of Ukraine but with broad autonomy akin to Scotland in the United Kingdom.
“For Russians, it’s a sacred place, an important element in our historical memory and the most painful wound since the Soviet collapse,” Mr. Khodorkovsky told a packed audience at Kiev Polytechnic University. But nothing, he said, could justify “such a blatant incursion into the affairs of a historically friendly state.”
Speaking later, he said that the stakes were high for Mr. Putin and Russia, too. “If a war between Ukraine and Russia happens, or even a paramilitary conflict which does not go into military phase, then we can forget about democratization of Russian public life forever,” he said.