KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov says the captains and crews were 'ready to defend their ships,' while a Russian spokesman insisted no threat had been delivered to Ukraine's government.
President Obama said the administration is mulling economic and diplomatic steps to ‘isolate Russia,’ and the Pentagon suspended all military relations with the country.
Surrender your warships — or we’ll take them.
That was the ultimatum from Moscow on Monday as the crisis in Crimea escalated and President Obama warned that Russia was on “the wrong side of history.”
Four Russian Navy vessels had the Ukrainian ships Ternopil and Slavutych boxed inside the Black Sea port of Sevastopol and were refusing to let them leave.
Accusing the Russians of “piracy,” Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said the captains and crews were “ready to defend their ships.”
“They are defending Ukraine,” Turchynov said.
“Total nonsense,” said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Vladimir Anikin, who insisted no such ultimatum has been delivered to Ukraine’s government in Kiev.
“We’re interested in keeping friendly relations with the people of Ukraine and in preserving stability.”
Russian forces have also been holding military exercises near Ukraine's borders, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered them back to base, the BBC reported the Kremlin as saying.
Ukraine said Russia had set a deadline for its forces in Crimea to surrender by 3:00 GMT, according to the BBC.
So far there have been no reports of any incidents.
The Obama administration said it is taking the threat seriously and warned that seizing the ships would be a “dangerous escalation.”
The Pentagon said late Monday it suspended all military relations with Russia effective immediately, including a joint naval exercise planned for May.
All trade and investment talks between the countries were also halted.
The White House is also preparing to punish the Russians with a series of economic and diplomatic steps “that will isolate Russia,” like kicking them out of the G-8 forum of industrialized nations.
“Over time, this will be a costly proposition for Russia,” Obama said, after dispatching Secretary of State Kerry to the Ukrainian capital Kiev.
“I think the world is largely united in recognizing that the steps Russia has taken are a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
But the European Union wasn’t as eager to take on the Russians, largely because it gets a quarter of its oil and gas from them.
“There’s the condemnation of Russian intervention and then there’s the need for mediation, for dialogue,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
And the British government was left red-faced after The Guardian newspaper published a photograph of a secret government document that urged against closing “London’s financial centre to Russians.”
The document also said that Britain should “not support, for now, trade sanctions.”
Foreign ministers of the EU still condemned Russia, called for it to withdraw its troops and threatened to “revise its relations” with the country if it won’t.
So far nobody in Washington or Europe is talking about calling in the U.S. military — not even hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who pushed for the Iraq War.
The one arena where Russia did take a beating was financial markets.
Moscow’s Micex index plummeted by almost 11% and the ruble fell to its lowest value against the dollar.
But the crisis also jolted stock exchanges in Europe and the U.S., resulting in selloffs Monday.
Moscow continued to tighten its grip on Crimea, a strategic peninsula populated mostly by ethnic Russians.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov kept up the pretext that his country was simply trying to protect its people following the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych.
“We are talking here about protection of our citizens and compatriots,” Lavrov insisted.
At the United Nations, Ukraine Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev accused the Russians of sending 16,000 troops into the peninsula to “seize, block and control crucial governmental and military objects of Ukraine in Crimea.”
In New York, the former chief rabbi of Ukraine said he fears Jews will become pawns in the power struggle between Moscow and Kiev.
Already, Moscow is claiming it invaded to protect Ukraine’s 360,000 Jews from anti-Semitic attacks.
“The Russians are going to look for justifications for what they are doing,” said Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, who is originally from Brooklyn.
“The Jews want to be with Ukraine. They want the Ukraine whole.”
Yanukovych hightailed it to Moscow last month after the Ukrainians rose up against his rule — and after he signed an agreement to surrender most of his powers and hold early elections.
Source: News Wire Services