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A soldier stands guard at a military base in Simferopol, Crimea. (Uriel Sinai for The New York Times)

Russia Raises Flags Over Ukraine Naval HQ in Crimea

Day after annexation made official in Moscow, the threat of military confrontation heightens tensions in Ukraine

Jon Queally

Russian flags were raised above Ukraine's naval headquarters in Crimea on Wednesday, shortly after pro-Russian 'defense forces' took over the base and at least some Ukrainian officers were seen walking off the base in civilian clothes.

Orders from Kiev on Tuesday authorized Ukraine soldiers stranded on their bases on the peninsula to use their weapons, but in this case no shots were fired.

According to Reuters:

Interfax Ukraine news agency said the commander of the Ukrainian navy, Admiral Serhiy Haiduk, was among those who left and was driven away by officers of Russia's FSB intelligence service. The report could not be independently confirmed.

The first group of servicemen was followed within a few minutes by a handful of troops in Ukrainian uniform, looking shell-shocked at the dramatic turn of events.

"This morning they stormed the compound. They cut the gates open, but I heard no shooting," said Oleksander Balanyuk, a captain in the navy.

"This thing should have been solved politically. Now all I can do is stand here at the gate. There is nothing else I can do," he told Reuters, appearing ashamed and downcast.

Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported that Alexander Vitko, commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet which is based in Sevastopol, had been involved in talks at the headquarters.

The takeover comes a day after an incident at a separate military installation on the Crimean peninsula—whose citizens declared their independence from the government in Kiev on Sunday—left one Ukrainian soldier dead, raising worries that the growing political tension could lead to further violence.

Following a fiery speech on Tuesday in which he accused western nations of hypocrisy over their stance on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a declaration making the annexation of Crimea official. Leaders of the government in Kiev, however, called the move an "illegal" form of military aggression and said they do not recognize Crimea's newly declared status as a Russian republic.

The Guardian reports:

In his speech to the Russian parliament, Putin ridiculed the idea that events in Crimea amounted to Russian aggression and said there had been no shots fired and no casualties during recent weeks. Yet hours after he spoke, a Ukrainian soldier was shot dead at an army base in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, the first military fatality on the peninsula since the crisis began.

Ukrainian military sources said one junior officer had been killed and another injured by a sniper after an assault on the base by "unknown forces, fully equipped and their faces covered".

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Ukraine's prime minister, accused Moscow of committing a war crime and said the conflict with Russia was "moving from a political to a military one". After the incident, Kiev issued a statement authorising its armed forces to use weapons to defend themselves.

Both the US and EU states have taken the side of Kiev in the debate, but have so far fulfilled threats to "punish" Russia by imposing what most analysts agree are rather insignificant sanctions against Russian officials, including freezing of assets and travel bans.

Stronger sanctions are under consideration, according to White House officials, including Vice President Joe Biden who spoke on the issue on Tuesday from Poland.

At a joint press conference with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Biden promised that Poland would continue to receive military aid as one of its key NATO allies bordering Russia, including a controversial missile "defense" system.

“That is our commitment — an operational missile-defense system by 2018 here in Poland,” Biden said.

The issue of the missile shield in Poland is important because Moscow has repeatedly stated that the crisis in Ukraine partly stems from repeatedly broken promises about NATO's eastward expansion. Placing missile installations in Poland and other Baltic states is seen by Russians as a threat, given their memories of two world wars in which they faced military invasions from their western borders with Europe.

As Melvin Goodman, a former CIA analyst, recently wrote:

In expanding NATO, the United States has been guilty of betraying a guarantee that Secretary of State James Baker gave to Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in 1990, when the United States stated that it would not “leapfrog” over East Germany to place U.S. military forces in East Europe in the wake of the Soviet military withdrawal from Germany.

The administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush ignored that commitment when the United States sponsored the entry of eight former Warsaw Pact members as well as three former Soviet Republics into NATO. The Obama administration, meanwhile, appears ignorant of the geopolitical context of its foreign policies, which have not taken this betrayal into account in the Crimean crisis.

President Clinton seemingly had no appreciation of the great difficulty involved in Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s acceptance of the unification of Germany and German membership in NATO in view of Russian historical memories and huge World War II losses. One of the few sources of Soviet pride in foreign policy was the Soviet defeat of the German Wehrmacht, which was the key to the U.S. and British victory on the Western front. Three-fourths of the German Army fought on the Eastern front, and three-fourths of German losses took place on the Eastern front.

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