The tension in Crimea does not show signs of abating and seems to be slowly going down the path of an inexorable escalation, as the first shots were fired on Saturday by occupying Russian troops to scare off a group of observers from the Organization for the Cooperation and Security in Europe (OCSE).
After the seizure of Crimea by Russian troops 10 days ago, the situation in the peninsula has become increasingly unstable, especially after the pro-Russian leadership set up a referendum for Crimea’s secession for March 16, to which Western leaders have responded with the threat of sanctions.
Meanwhile, reports confirmed that Russian troops currently deployed in the region are turning increasingly aggressive vis-à-vis Ukrainian troops.
According to Reuters, overnight the Russians drove a truck into a Ukrainian missile base in Sevastapol smashing the gate and taking control of it.
Sergei Aksynovov – the new, self-proclaimed and pro-Russian leader of Crimea – played down the incident declaring that the action was undertaken by a “self-defence-unit” that had no intention of attacking.
Early on Saturday, a separate action took place in the eastern part of the peninsula in a border area at Schelkino, where Russian troops stormed a Ukrainian guard outpost and kicked out the officers and their families from the apartments in the middle of the night.
Meanwhile the Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski announced today that Poland has left its consulate offices in Sevastopol following repeated interferences by Russian troops.
In the middle of a tense day, the OCSE announced that a group of it unarmed inspectors had reached the border with Crimea but were forced to return toward the city of Kherson, in Ukraine, after some warning shots were fired in the air to intimidate them. Today’s attempt to enter Crimea was the third one that failed this week.
Furthermore, the Ukrainian ministry of defense told CNN that on Saturday a military vehicle carrying Russian troop was heading toward the city of Armyansk, a city located in the south of the peninsula that is the main point of access to the Crimean region from Ukraine. It is not clear as of now, whether the troops intend to stop there.
Notwithstanding today’s series of increasingly bullying maneuvers by its forces, Moscow continues to deny that the presence of Russian troops in Crimea is not an occupation.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has repeatedly said that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are intended to protect Russian-speaking citizens from the right-wing nationalist hotheads that seized power in Kiev after ousting Yanukovych.
Despite its version of the story and its declared intention of wanting to avoid a confrontation with the West in Ukraine, Russia is refusing to let international observers into Crimea and has announced a cancellation of an energy deal with Kiev that is likely to exacerbate Ukraine’s financial troubles.
Fortunately, the tensions in Crimea have produced no bloodshed or violence so far. However, the first shots fired by Russian troops on Saturday with the aim of preventing OCSE inspectors to enter Ukraine raises the specter of an imminent escalation in the region that has so far being avoided only by Ukraine’s cold blooded diplomacy.
By Stefano Salustri