Pro-Russian forces–identified by all except Russia as Russian forces–stormed two separate naval units in Crimea Wednesday. The bases were taken, and one Ukrainian commander was taken hostage. Shortly thereafter, Ukraine announced an ultimatum for the release of the commander.
Sevastopol’s navy chief, Sergiy Gayduk, was captured after 200 armed pro-Russian soldiers wearing ski masks crashed the headquarters’ gate and moved into the building. The attacking force included Russian Cossacks. Ukrainian officers barricaded themselves in the building. According to a Ukrainian soldier present, the Ukrainians did not resist the attack because they “had no order and no weapons.” “We met them empty-handed,” said another Ukrainian soldier.
Later, the prosecutor’s office in Sevastopol commented that the commander–appointed when his predecessor switched sides to the pro-Russians–was taken in on suspicion of “ordering Ukrainian military units… to open fire on peaceful civilians.”
The Ukrainian government in Kiev soon issued a demand to the Crimean authorities that they release the commander and other hostages within three hours of the communication. The warning to the Crimean authorities threatened “an adequate response… of a technical and technological nature.”
A similar military action was conducted at Donuzlav Lake, nearby, when pro-Russian militia crashed the gate of a navy facility there. Ukrainian soldiers barricaded themselves inside and threatened to shoot to kil. The pro-Russian forces withdrew.
These attacks follow hard on Tuesday’s takeover of a Ukrainian army base where one Ukrainian officer was killed by a gunshot to the neck after a firefight. Two other Ukrainians were injured in the incident. A pro-Russia militia soldier was also reported killed, but it has not been confirmed whether the death was a result of the same incident.
Ukraine’s 13 army bases on the Crimean peninsula have been surrounded by pro-Russian forces and barricaded since late February, when pro-Russian forces seized control of Crimea.
Ukraine has begun to prepare for war, allocating $600 million dollars to ready Ukraine’s armed forces and recalling 40,000 Ukrainian reserves for active duty. Ukraine has a total of 130,000 soldiers. Crimea had 15,000 of those soldiers, but some deserted when their bases were invaded. Russia originally had 12,000 soldiers stationed in Russia’s four Crimean bases. Russin forces in Crimea currently total over 20,000. Russia also has 80,000 troops and a large amount of military equipment just beyond Ukraine’s eastern border. Russia’s total military force is 845,000 soldiers. Russia’s military budget is 50 times that of Ukraine’s.
Ukraine has seen some support from its allies. Militarily, the U.S. has sent fighter jets to Poland for war games and maintains an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. Most actions against Russia so far have been low-grade economic sanctions. The intention of the sanctions is to show Russia that the international community disapproves, in order to convince Russia to refrain from what the rest of the world considers an illegal annexation of a piece of Ukrainian land. Russia has shown that it is completely undeterred. Stronger sanctions are being considered by interested nations.
The takeover of Ukraine has been sudden. Any sanctions by the EU have to be approved unanimously by representatives of that organization’s 28 members at meetings. Any sanctions decided on are only as strong as the most reluctant member of the union, and decisions cannot be made faster than meetings can be held (under usual circumstances). The most recent UN meeting, which was held March 15 to consider the validity of Crimea’s referendum, resulted in 13 members agreeing to find the referendum invalid, but was boycotted by Russia’s vote, while China abstained.
Ukraine and Russia currently have a “peace treaty,” which ends March 21. Russia has demanded that all Ukrainian soldiers leave Crimea by that date. Russia has offered the Ukrainians safe passage to the Ukrainian mainland. No provisions have been made for what Russia will do if Ukrainians are not willing to leave Crimea by the deadline.
By Day Blakely Donaldson