The Russian military seized a gas plant and village near the Crimean Peninsula.
Russia’s military staged a provocative new act of aggression on Saturday, occupying a gas-pumping station and village on a narrow strip of Ukrainian land near the Crimean Peninsula and prompting Kiev’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to denounce “a military invasion by Russia.”
The incident marked a fresh escalation in already-high tensions as well as the first face-to-face standoff between the Ukrainian and Russian militaries outside the Crimean Peninsula, suggesting Moscow is testing the will of Kiev amid fears of further Russian incursions in eastern and southern Ukraine. The move comes on the eve of a vote in Crimea on whether the residents of the peninsula want to break away from Ukraine and join Russia.
A force of Russian troops in four helicopter gunships and three armored combat vehicles descended on a pumping station near the village of Strilkove around 1:30 p.m. local time, according to Ukrainian officials.
The Russians said they had seized the pumping station out of fears it would be targeted by “terrorists,” according to a Ukrainian Defense Ministry official who declined to be named.
Oleg Slobodyan, a spokesman for the Ukrainian boarder guard, said Saturday evening that 120 Russian soldiers were still occupying the pumping station, and had not agreed to Ukrainian demands to leave. No shots had been fired, he said, but added that Ukrainian military forces had mobilized to just outside the city of Henichesk, putting themselves between the Russian force and the Ukrainian mainland.
Initially, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the Russians had appeared to leave the area after a period of negotiation, but a Foreign Ministry statement suggested the Russians remained in place.
“Ukraine Foreign Ministry declares the military invasion by Russia and demands the Russian side to immediately withdraw its military forces from the territory of Ukraine,” the ministry said in a statement. “Ukraine reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia.”
The standoff, which apparently occurred just a few miles from Crimea, could mark a significant escalation in a conflict that shows no sign of easing a day before the Crimeans vote. The allegations by Ukrainian authorities came as tens of thousands of antiwar demonstrators turned out in Moscow to protest Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, marking the largest political rally in the Russian capital in more than a year.
Earlier on Saturday, Ukrainian officials reported a shootout between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators that took place overnight Friday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Two people were left dead and dozens injured after a group of Russian separatists approached offices being used by pro-Ukrainian activists, according to Tatiana Gruzinskaya, spokeswoman for the city’s mayor.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a menacing statement Saturday in response to the violence. “There have been many appeals for Russia to protect peaceful civilians,” the statement said. “These appeals will be considered.”
That warning, which follows other, similar threats, is likely to add to fears that Russia will expand its intervention beyond Crimea and into eastern Ukraine. While Russia has blamed such clashes on right-wing Ukrainians and on the new government, Ukrainian officials placed responsibility squarely on Russia’s shoulders.
Speaking from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said it was “Russian agents” who were “causing people to be murdered.”
As Turchynov spoke, demonstrators in Moscow showed their solidarity with Ukraine by carrying Russian, Ukrainian and European Union flags as they walked from Pushkin Square to Sakharov Prospekt, which they filled. Participants also protested against increasing pressure the government has been bringing to bear on Russian news organizations.
One indication of the state of the media in Russia was in the reported turnout for the demonstration. Russian wire services quoted police as saying 3,000 people had taken part — but that was nowhere near the truth. Dozhd TV, an independent channel that earned the Kremlin’s ire and now faces closure, put the number at 50,000.
“No blood. No tears. We don’t need any more,” read one sign. “We are Russia. Not Putin,” read another.
“The result of this is to show Ukrainian citizens our solidarity, so they will see there is another Russia, a Russia that doesn’t want war,” said Maria Lobanova, 30, who had come to the rally with her father, husband and two sons, ages 4 and 1. “I don’t understand why Europe and the United States talk about sanctions so much but don’t do anything about them.”
The shootout in Kharkiv left two people dead, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page Saturday. It was not yet clear whether the fatalities were pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian, and activists on both sides were arrested, officials said.
On Saturday in Kiev, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya called on Russia to “stop interfering” in eastern Ukraine, saying that authorities here could handle issues of law and order in the region themselves. He described the threatening statements from Russia’s Foreign Ministry as an attempt to “provoke” and escalation of the tense situation in the east.
Deshchytsya called for U.N. monitors to fan out across southern and eastern Ukraine to independently assess the situation on the ground.
He also reiterated Kiev’s position that Sunday’s referendum in Crimea would be “illegal” and would not be recognized by the international community. He emphasized the new government’s desire to avoid any military conflict and referred to the current stand off as more of a “diplomatic war.” But he added that he would travel to Brussels on Monday to meet with NATO’s secretary general to discuss “military and technical cooperation.”
Russia on Saturday blocked passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have declared that Sunday’s referendum “can have no validity, and cannot form the basis for any alteration of the status of Crimea.” The veto was expected, but in a possible sign of Russian isolation, Moscow’s close ally China opted to abstain rather than join Moscow in vetoing the measure. The other 13 Security Council members supported the measure.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Friday warned against a “back-door annexation” of Crimea by Russia. But he conceded that six hours of talks in London with Russia’s top diplomat neither stopped Sunday’s vote nor opened a new diplomatic path for Moscow to step back from the Cold War-tinged standoff.
The United States and other nations have been dangling a diplomatic solution for Russia, tacitly acknowledging that the referendum would produce a pro-Russia outcome while suggesting that Russia could avert further escalation by leaving Crimea’s status vague.
Kerry said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had made it clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin was not prepared to take that step.
“We don’t have a common vision of the situation” after the crisis talks, Lavrov said.
Lavrov said Russia will “respect” the results of the plebiscite, and it was clear from Kerry’s tone that the United States fears full annexation. When pressed about whether Russia would annex Crimea after the vote, Lavrov said, “There are no what-ifs in politics.”
A new poll suggests the Crimean vote to join Russia will be overwhelming. In a GfK poll of 600 residents taken Thursday and Friday, 70 percent said they will vote to become part of Russia, while 11 percent said they will vote to restore Crimea’s status as part of Ukraine. If they were offered more options, they told pollsters, 19 percent would vote for independence. But a majority, 54 percent, would still favor becoming joining Russia.