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Russia cites ‘chaos’ in eastern Ukraine; gunmen storm bases in Crimea

A convoy of military vehicles bearing no license plates travels on the road from Sevastopol to Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine, Monday, March 10, 2014. Ukraine's foreign minister said Monday his country already feels like it's almost in a state of war after Russian forces took effective control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

A convoy of military vehicles bearing no license plates travels on the road from Sevastopol to Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine, Monday, March 10, 2014. Ukraine's foreign minister said Monday his country already feels like it's almost in a state of war after Russian forces took effective control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Russia and its sympathizers seized control of more Ukrainian military bases and facilities in Crimea yesterday while Moscow issued threatening statements about eastern Ukraine that signaled Russia’s intention to play a significant role in the country’s future.

At least four Ukrainian military bases, including one stocked with missiles, were overrun by armed men in uniforms who said they are locals in self-defense units that are typically under the command of Russian military officers. The headquarters of the Ukrainian naval fleet had its electricity cut, and the director of a military hospital was ousted and a replacement installed by the pro-Russian militia that took over.

A foreboding sense of lawlessness is spreading ahead of a referendum to align with Russia that has been scheduled for Sunday. Several activists critical of Russia’s presence in Crimea were reported missing. Residents of the regional capital of Simferopol reported being visited by committees who stole or destroyed their passports required as identification to vote.

Crimean officials already are acting as if Sunday’s referendum is a foregone conclusion. On a website the Crimean parliament started to drum up support for the referendum, an online poll showed that votes to go with Russia outnumber the votes to stick with Ukraine by a margin of almost 3 to 1. Every article on the site offered a positive spin to a union with Russia, such as one describing the thousands of Russian tourists eager to vacation in Crimea.

Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said at a news conference in Kiev that the United States will not recognize the results of the referendum.

“Any increase of the autonomy of Crimea should be done not under the barrel of a gun, but in a clear, transparent and constitutional process,” Pyatt said.

Even as Russia tightened its grip on the peninsula that is still officially part of Ukraine, it already seems to be looking beyond Crimea.

First it suggested that Ukraine’s new pro-Western government in Kiev was not protecting pro-Russian citizens in eastern Ukraine and was sowing “chaos.” That was an echo of accusations it has made to justify its intervention in Crimea and represents a possible pretext to intervene further in Ukraine.

Later in the day, Russian television showed Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov telling President Vladimir Putin that proposals from the United States over resolving the Ukrainian crisis were not acceptable because they recognized the legitimacy of the Kiev government. Russia has declared the government illegal, saying it came to power in a coup that overthrew Viktor Yanukovych.

The two met in Sochi, where Putin was attending the Winter Paralympics. Lavrov said that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had agreed to visit Sochi yesterday for consultations but decided Saturday to postpone the trip. Russia, Lavrov said, would come up with its own proposals, rooted in an agreement reached Feb. 21 that fell apart when protesters rejected it because it would keep Yanukovych in office until December.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “The United States needs to see concrete evidence that Russia is prepared to engage on the diplomatic proposals we have made” before negotiating further.

“The idea is to bring the situation back into the framework of international law with due account taken of the interests of all Ukrainians without exception,” Lavrov told Putin.

Earlier in the day Lavrov’s foreign ministry issued a statement accusing masked men of firing at peaceful protesters in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

“Russia is outraged by the chaos, which is currently ruling in eastern regions of Ukraine as a result of the actions of militants of the so-called Right Sector amid utter connivance of the new authorities as they call themselves,” the statement said.

Witnesses have described very different scenarios, accusing pro-Russian demonstrators of attacking Ukrainian loyalists. Pro-Russian sentiment runs high in eastern Ukraine, as it does in Crimea.

A student in Kharkiv who has been monitoring events there said that Saturday some cars drew up at the Vladimir Lenin monument in Freedom Square, the site of an ongoing demonstration against Kiev protesters. Several people got out waving Ukrainian and European flags and started arguing with the demonstrators, and one of the men from the cars fired a pistol in the air before driving away. No one was injured, according to the student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

In a second incident Saturday evening, masked men accosted a group of three anti-Kiev protesters and shot and wounded one of them.

Yesterday, Vitaly Klitschko, a boxer who helped lead the protests against Yanukovych and is now running for president, visited Kharkiv, addressed a pro-Kiev crowd and was pelted with eggs by pro-Russian demonstrators.

People in Kharkiv don’t want to be absorbed into Russia, the student said, but acknowledged there is resentment that the new government in Kiev has not taken east Ukraine into account.

Any ambiguity about who is in control of Crimea is lost on the ground. It is not the Ukrainian government.

Vladislav Seleznyov, a Ukrainian Defense Department spokesman in Crimea, said that 200 armed men in uniform arrived in 14 trucks about 1:30 a.m. yesterday at an army missile base in Chernomorskoye, in western Crimea, and ordered the troops on the base to give up their weapons. The Ukrainian soldiers refused, but they stored their weapons in an arsenal on the base and left, Seleznyov said.

Ukrainian authorities used to casually refer to the intruders as “green people” after their uniforms that bear no insignia. Now, Seleznyov said, they are just calling them Russians.

Similar reports of takeovers came from other Ukrainian military installations, including a navy facility for radio communications near the Black Sea port of Sevastopol, a military hospital in the regional capital of Simferopol and two bases around the Tatar village of Bakhchysaray, Seleznyov said.

“I have no link to my commanders now, even by phone,” said Lt. Col. Sergei Sadovnik, commander of a Ukrainian army logistics and transportation base in Bakhchysaray that was seized by armed and uniformed men. Several of them appeared around him as he addressed reporters gathered outside the front gate yesterday, and one came out later and said, “We are here to take control of this base.”

Several activists who oppose Crimea’s return to Russia have been reported missing.

Igor Kiryuschenko, who heads the Crimean branch of the Ukrainian Republican Party, is believed to have been abducted one day after he took part in a pro-Ukraine rally.

Colleagues reported that he was last heard from late yesterday morning, when he called his office and told the secretary, “Goodbye. They have come for me.” He has not answered his cell phone since then.

Activists from AutoMaidan, a group of car owners who drove around Ukraine when the uprising began, said a member of their group and another woman traveling with her had been detained at a checkpoint as they attempted to enter Crimea overland Sunday afternoon.

Sergey Hadzhynov, one of the activists who made it to Crimea, said witnesses reported seeing the women, identified as Katerina Butko and Olexandra Ryazanceva, at a checkpoint on the western road from mainland Ukraine, at Armyansk. That is the same checkpoint where foreign observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been repeatedly turned away, once by shots being fired into the air.

The witnesses said the women were kneeling on the ground and had their hands bound behind their back, Hadzyhnov said.

“We haven’t had any contact with them,” Hadzyhnov said after spending the day visiting jails looking for them. “We’ve visited all the jails in Sevastopol, and we know they’re not there.”

Amid the escalating tensions, NATO officials yesterday said the alliance would begin to fly reconnaissance missions over Poland and Romania in order to peer into Ukraine. While such flights are fairly routine, the announcement appeared calculated to remind Russia that its actions are being watched.

The United States has called on both Russia and Ukraine to show restraint, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsya suggested Monday that it is becoming more difficult.

“We have to admit that our life now is almost like . . . a war,” Deshchytsya said, speaking in English. “We have to cope with an aggression that we do not understand.”

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