The interim government in Ukraine has sent its defense minister to Crimea, where tensions are escalating. Meanwhile, Russia has accused the EU of refusing to "learn the truth" regarding the situation surrounding Ukraine.
Ukraine's acting defense minister, Igor Tenyukh, was sent to Crimea on Wednesday morning along with Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema, according to the interim government. The announcement followed shortly after reports that Crimea's self-defense forces had taken control of Ukraine's navy headquarters in the port city of Sevastopol on Wednesday morning. A Ukrainian naval spokesperson said the plain-clothes volunteer militiamen entered the building unarmed.
"There are about 200 of them, some wearing balaclavas. They are unarmed and no shots have been fired from our side. The officers have barricaded themselves inside the building," Ukrainian navy spokesperson Sergiy Bogdanov said.
Before noon, Ukrainian servicemen were seen leaving the headquarters. There were no reports of violence.
However, eyewitness accounts reported seeing armed men at the site, too. A photographer with the Associated Press news agency said that Crimea self-defense forces had stormed at least one building on the naval base. An eyewitness speaking to Reuters news agency also said armed men had entered the building and that, later, three Russian flags were seen flying over one of its entrances.
On Tuesday, troops stormed a Ukrainian base on the outskirts of Simpferopol, which lies roughly 80 kilometers (49 miles) northeast of Sevastopol. One Ukrainian soldier was killed in the crossfire with Russian soldiers, according to Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who called the incident a "war crime."
Crimean officials declared independence from Ukraine on Monday after the results of the March 16 referendum showed that 96.7 percent of voters wanted to join the Russian Federation. Following the decision, they also said that all remaining institutions on the Black Sea peninsula were property of the Crimean state.
Steinmeier: OSCE mission 'needed now'
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on Russia to approve the deployment of an observer mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to Ukraine.
"It doesn't help us if we have an observer mission week after next or next month," Steinmeier told a news conference in Berlin on Wednesday. The statement followed a telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
"We need one now," the German foreign minister said. "In my conversation this morning [with Lavrov] I said agreement on a mandate must take place within the next 24 hours."
Russia blasts EU for cancelled visit
While tensions flared in Crimea, Russian officials criticized the European Union for cancelling an upcoming meeting in Moscow. The president of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, had planned to travel to the Russian capital on Wednesday to discuss the crisis involving Ukraine and Crimea.
"[The EU] did not allow the European Council president to come to Moscow…After all, why should he learn the truth when everything is already decided anyway?" the Russian foreign minister said in a statement.
Both the EU and the US have levied sanctions on Russians and Ukrainians involved in the political crisis that caused bloodshed in Kyiv and, then later, paved the way for Russia to annex the Crimean peninsula.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed the Western leaders' condemnation of his government's role in the political crisis. Not only has he refused to negotiate with the interim government in Kyiv - which Russia does not recognize as legitimate - to de-escalate tensions, but he has also denied sending Russian troops to Crimea.
Reuters also reported on Wednesday that the Russian defense ministry had announced the OSCE would conduct its final inspection of Russian military facilities in coming days. Based on a 2011 agreement, the security organization had "exhausted" its inspection quotas, the ministry said in a statement. The announced came a day after OSCE chairperson Didier Burkhalter accused Moscow of violating both international law and OSCE commitments to honor the security needs of other member states.
Biden in Baltic
As a warning signal to Russia, Washington sent US Vice President Joe Biden on a two-day trip to several eastern European countries. He was scheduled to meet with the presidents of Lithuania and Latvia on Wednesday.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite called the US vice president's visit "symbolic."
"The situation is alarming," she told Biden at the beginning of their meeting at Lithuania's presidential palace.
The previous day, he reaffirmed US support for the region following a meeting with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in Warsaw.
Calling the annexation of Crimea "nothing more than a land grab," Biden assured Poland that the US would honor its NATO commitments and stood ready to support the region, where Russia's latest actions in Ukraine and Crimea have raised concerns over military aggression.
kms/mz (AP, AFP, Reuters)