Tensions in Crimea still high despite talk of diplomacy

Russia suggests it might suspend arms inspections

A Ukrainian official said Russia was moving a convoy of unmarked military vehicles on Saturday toward an airfield near Crimea’s regional capital.
Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press
A Ukrainian official said Russia was moving a convoy of unmarked military vehicles on Saturday toward an airfield near Crimea’s regional capital.

MOSCOW — Even as Russia and Ukraine signaled a modest willingness to seek a diplomatic resolution to the widening crisis over Crimea on Saturday, there were new reports of Russian reinforcements there, and Russia raised the possibility of suspending inspections required under arms control treaties because of stepped-up operations by NATO.

“We are ready to continue a dialogue on the understanding that a dialogue should be honest and partner-like, without attempts to portray us as one of the parties in the conflict,” Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei V. Lavrov, said during an appearance with his counterpart from Tajikistan.

Hours after he spoke, however, Russia began moving new troops in unmarked uniforms in large trucks around Crimea.


A Ukrainian defense spokesman there told the Associated Press that witnesses had reported seeing amphibious military ships unloading around 200 military vehicles in eastern Crimea on Friday after apparently having crossed the Strait of Kerch, which separates Crimea from Russian territory.

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The Ukrainian spokesman said a convoy of about 60 military trucks was moving from Feodosiya toward an airfield near Simferopol, Crimea’s regional capital. A Ukrainian border patrol plane was also fired on near the boundary between Crimea and Russia, the Ukrainians said, but was not damaged.

In Moscow, an unidentified military official told Russian news agencies that Russia was considering suspending inspections of its nuclear arsenal required by the strategic arms reduction treaties, as well as other military cooperation agreements meant to build confidence and avoid international confrontations.

The official said the move was justified by “baseless threats” against Russia by the United States and NATO. A suspension of the inspections would undermine a pillar of international security and expand the confrontation beyond Ukraine itself.

Although President Obama has made it clear that the United States does not want to escalate the Crimean crisis, the Pentagon stepped up training operations in Poland and sent fighter jets to patrol the skies over Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, three former Soviet republics with sizable ethnic Russian populations.


Obama also held phone consultations about Ukraine with the French president and the British and Italian prime ministers, and then had a conference call with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are NATO members.

He pledged that the United States, as a NATO ally, had an “unwavering commitment” to their defense, according to the White House.

In Kiev, Ukraine’s new foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, said that some small progress had been made to form a “contact group” of foreign diplomats to mediate the country’s confrontation with Russia after the occupation of Crimea by Russian soldiers and local “self-defense” groups more than a week ago.

Crimea’s regional assembly voted Thursday to secede from Ukraine and apply to join the Russian Federation, and scheduled a referendum for March 16 to ratify its decision, significantly escalating the crisis between Russia and the West.

Ukraine, along with the United States and Europe, declared the referendum unconstitutional and made clear it would not recognize the Crimean vote.


“We have a certain small progress and some hope that we will manage this in a peaceful way,” Deshchytsia said in Kiev. “We need to create some negotiating mechanism” with Russia, “and we think it should be established as soon as possible.” He said Ukraine was open to talks with Russia in any setting “to stop the aggression and de-escalate the situation.”

But Lavrov did not budge from Russia’s position that the new government in Ukraine was illegitimate and under the sway of “radical nationalists” who seized power in a coup.

He insisted that any talks with Europe or the United States should begin with the agreement signed Feb. 21 between the ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, and opposition leaders to end the bloodshed in Kiev, even though that accord fell apart almost immediately.

The diplomacy is likely to be complicated, however, because Russian officials have refused to recognize Ukraine’s new political leaders, though the Russian and Ukraine prime ministers have spoken and Deshchytsia said that messages were being exchanged through intermediaries, presumably European and US diplomats.

Even as Lavrov continued to denounce those Russia considers to be the radicals behind the ouster of Yanukovych’s government, the leader of a right-wing group that figured prominently in the street protests staked a claim Saturday for a larger role in Ukraine’s political future.

The group, Right Sector, has not disbanded its quasi-military units, whose members now at times appear armed in public and have become more vocally critical of the interim government in recent days.

A day after declaring himself a candidate for president in the election now scheduled for May, the group’s leader, Dmytro Yarosh, provided the most detailed description yet of his political ambitions and goals.

“Ukraine is practically in a state of war with Russia,” Yarosh said, “and it is too early to speak of pacification and disarmament.”

Poland evacuated its consulate in Sevastopol on Saturday, citing “continuing disturbances’’ by Russian forces there.

An observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has been trying to enter Crimea for days now, but has been stopped at a checkpoint controlled by armed men in uniforms without insignia.