Diplomatic chaos adds to Ukraine's woes

Russian troops fire warning shots at Ukrainians while diplomats dither over how to help the interim Ukrainian government.

The Russian-supported new prime minister of Crimea, a part of Ukraine currently occupied by Russian forces, claims that more than 5,500 Ukrainian troops deserted to the Crimean side. According to RIA Novosti, a Russian news outlet, a spokesman for Prime Minister Sergei Aksionov said that “of the 34 units of the Ukrainian army stationed in Crimea, 23 have deserved.” On March 3, Aksionov said that the desertions came about following negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian commanders.  Aksionov came to power after a vote in the Crimean regional parliament once Russian troops secured the strategic peninsula in the Black Sea. According to a Crimean spokesman, some of the deserters came from the Belbek airport, near Sebastopol, along with three regiments from S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries.
 
According to RIA Novosti on March 4, at least 50 Ukrainian naval officers are under detention out of fear that they will desert to Russia. Denis Berezovski, who the interim Ukrainian government had named to head the navy, deserted and swore allegiance to Crimea on March 1. According to Crimean leader Aksionov, Berezovki will be the head naval officer for Crimea, which will have its own Ministry of Defense.  The Ukrainian government has denied that any desertions have taken place.
 
In a dramatic development on March 4, unarmed Ukrainian troops led by their commanding officer and flying the flag of Ukraine and a red banner bearing the hammer and sickle of the Soviet era, approached armed Russian troops in the Crimea. The approximately 300 Ukrainian troops sang the Ukrainian national anthem as they marched towards their Russian counterparts despite several commands to halt. When they reached the Russian military cordon, one of the Russians demanded them to stop and threatened to shoot at their legs. Dress in combat gear, the Russian soldier fired several warning shots into the air and then leveled his weapon at the Ukrainians. Other Russian troops were seen to point various small arms and rocket launchers. In a video, an apparent civilian was heard to say “America is with us!” as the Ukrainian officer and Russian soldier argued. An officer from the Russian side finally told his troops to stand down but did not let the Ukrainians pass.
 
Secretary John Kerry was in Kiev on March 4 where he paid tribute to the nearly 100 persons who died in the weeks-long confrontation between protesters and security. In a weekend phone call to Putin, President Barack Obama expressed his “deep concern” over Ukraine and that “there will be costs” should Russia thwart the will of the Ukrainian people. Observers agree that Obama’s options are limited, given the evident vacillation in European diplomatic circles and the EU’s dependence on Russian natural gas.
 
In addition, it was revealed in the press that a classified memo was taken into Prime Minister David Cameron’s Number 10 Downing Street residence detailing the UK's position that it is not considering curbing trade with Russia - or closing London's financial center to Moscow as part of any possible package of sanctions against the country. Many reports suggest that Russian government officials and business owners have extensive properties in the UK, as well as bank accounts in Austria, Switzerland, and Cyprus. Nevertheless, the glamorous former prime minister of Ukraine – Yulia Tymoshenko – expressed optimism on March 3 that both the US and UK will not abandon her country.


Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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