Russia troops take small town outside of Crimea as tensions mount

 

McClatchy Foreign Staff

For the first time since the Ukraine crisis began, Russia on Saturday invaded a Ukrainian district outside the Crimean peninsula, prompting the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to demand that Russia immediately remove the troops and warn that the nation “reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion.”

The invasion of a small eastern village on the Azov Sea came on a day when Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution urging countries not to recognize the results of Sunday’s referendum on whether Crimea should leave Ukraine and join Russia.

The Security Council vote was 13 in favor, with only Russia against, and China abstaining. China said it was hoping for a “balanced” approach to ending the crisis.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power called the veto a “sad and remarkable moment.”

“Under the U.N. Charter, the Russian Federation has the power to veto a Security Council resolution, but it does not have the power to veto the truth,” she said in a statement. She went on to add: “The resolution broke no new legal or normative ground. It simply called on all parties to do what they had previously pledged, through internationally binding agreements, to do.”

In a U.N. press release, Russian Vitaly Churkin said “Moscow would respect the decision of the Crimeans but could not accept the basic assumption of the draft resolution.”

Ukrainian policy throughout a month when Crimea has been occupied has been to avoid spilling first blood, allow diplomacy to work and deny Russia an excuse to turn this into a full-scale war. But there were signs Saturday that Ukrainian patience has worn thin.

The strategic value of Russia’s seizure of the village of Strilkove in the country’s Kherson region was not clear. The village lies about midway along a slender spit of land that stretches from the Crimean town of Kamyanske to the mainland Ukraine city of Henichesk, where satellite imagery indicates a two-lane asphalt-paved bridge connects the spit to the mainland.

Some reports said Strilkove is the site of an oil and natural gas plant of some sort, though that was not immediately confirmed by Ukraine sources. If the reports are true, the location may be important to maintaining a flow of oil and natural gas to Crimea, in the event that Russia declares its annexation after Sunday’s referendum vote.

While some news outlets referred to Strilkove as on the mainland, the spit of land where the town is located, while it lies outside of Crimea, is separated from the mainland by the Velyke Herlo River. The distance from the mainland to Strilkove is about 20 miles.

The foreign ministry statement said that Russia had landed 80 troops at the town, accompanied by four helicopter gunships and three “armored combat machines.”

“Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine expresses its strong and categorical protest against the landing on March 15, 2014 near the village Strilkove, Kherson region of troops of the Russian Federation Armed Forces,” the statement said.

A Ukrainian Ministry of Defense statement claimed that Ukrainian forces “halted the penetration of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation… Russian troops returned to their previous location.”

The statement did not go into detail on what that previous position was, however, and according to news reports, the Russian forces remained in Strilkove into the night.

Ukrainian officials and political experts have said repeatedly this week that Crimea would be unsustainable for Russia without a land bridge connecting it to land Russia also controlled. That notion, and the apparent massing of Russian troops near Ukraine’s long land border with Russia, have fueled suspicions that Russia has sights on at least several more Ukrainian districts, or oblasts.

Strilkove represents the second Ukrainian district Russian troops have entered, Kherson. Experts have noted that if combined with Donetsk and Zaporizia oblasts, that would create the necessary land bridge to Russia.

Russian authorities have been talking this week about the threat that Russians living in Donetsk district are in after rioting between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian groups left one man dead. The Foreign ministry issued a statement Friday saying: “Russia recognizes its responsibility for the lives of countrymen and fellow citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take people under its protection.”

While the purpose of the Russian presence at Strilkove was unclear, tensions were high after the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying Russia had received “many appeals . . . “to protect peaceful civilians.”

“These appeals will be considered,” the ministry said.

The Russian ministry issued similar statements about Crimea before an estimated 38,000 troops bearing no identifying insignia fanned out across the peninsula at the end of February.

The moves come as Crimean residents prepare to head to the polls Sunday for what is widely considered a sham referendum on national allegiance. The vote allows Ukrainians to choose to either join the Russian Federation, or return to a 1992 constitution that provides a far greater degree of autonomy that the autonomous region currently has within Ukraine.

The ballot will not contain the options of remaining with Ukraine under the current arrangement. Residents, including Crimean Tatars, who favor the current arrangement, have said they will boycott the vote as their only viable option of expressing protest.

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