Risk of armed conflict in Crimea escalates

THE spectre of the Crimea crisis erupting into all-out military conflict is growing after pro-Russian forces stormed Ukraine's naval headquarters there, captured its commander, raised Russian flags, then later seized a second Ukraine navy base in the peninsula.

The reports came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty with Crimean leaders to add the southern region to its map, defying the United States and Europe, which appeared to be struggling to find a way to respond.

US Vice-President Joe Biden, on a trip to Lithuania and other former Soviet allies worrying that they too could face Russian aggression, said Washington could send forces to the Baltic states.

"We are exploring a number of additional steps to increase the pace and scope of our military cooperation, including rotating US forces in the Baltic region to conduct ground and naval exercises and training missions," he said of the region, which also includes Latvia and Estonia. "Under Article 5 of the Nato Treaty, we will respond, we will respond to any aggression against a Nato ally."

The leaders of what had been the Group of Eight nations also announced that they would meet next week as the Group of Seven, according to the New York Times, excluding Russia from a club it once desperately craved to join.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is also scheduled to meet Mr Putin in Moscow today and Ukraine's interim leaders, President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in Kiev tomorrow in hopes of resolving the crisis peacefully.

Thus far, the US and European Union have imposed only limited travel and financial restrictions against some Russian officials. Japan and Australia have joined them in announcing that they too would impose targeted financial sanctions and travel bans against those officials.

The situation escalated early this week after the recent overthrow of the pro-Russian government in Ukraine by pro-Western forces prompted a referendum in its Crimea region on Sunday in which voters overwhelmingly approved joining Russia.

Mr Putin signed Tuesday's treaty to annex the peninsula after a patriotic speech in which he declared: "Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of people."

Russia's military, swelled by unarmed volunteers, then moved in quickly to quell armed resistance in Crimea.

On Wednesday, Interfax-Ukraine reported the country's defence ministry as saying that its naval forces commander, Admiral Serhiy Haiduk, had been taken to an unknown location after Crimean self-defence forces and Russian Cossacks broke into the Sevastopol headquarters and ordered the navy to leave.

A dejected-looking Captain Oleksander Balanyuk, who was seen walking out of the naval compound in his uniform and carrying his gear, told Reuters: "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."


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