By Zac Losey
On Monday night, Ukrainian forces in the country’s southern peninsula of Crimea reported that Russian military is not only holding them hostage in various bases throughout the region, but have also issued an ultimatum: surrender or face armed assault. As of the time of this writing, Russia has so far denied any such escalation of an already tense situation.
Protests began late last year after Ukraine’s then acting president Yanukovych announced he would begin abandoning an agreement that would have kept strong trade ties with the European Union, instead opting to work more closely with Russia. The protests quickly gathered momentum, and police began launching raids that spread quickly throughout media outlets. In January, several deaths resulted from clashes with police after Ukraine’s parliament had issued draconian anti-protest laws, which it quickly annulled after protestors began to storm government offices.
Feb. 20 saw Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine’s capitol city, turn into a war zone as the death toll rises to 77 with hundreds wounded. Reports and videos show snipers firing on protestors. While President Yanukovych had brokered a deal with his opposition, protestors remained defiant to authorities and soon began to take control of government buildings, calling for elections on May 25. When it was discovered that Yanukovych had fled to Russia, parliament decided to remove him from power and set elections to take place in May.
Tensions mounted as Yanukovych appeared on television announcing that since he was legally and lawfully elected as president, he will not bow to the coup-d’état, despite the fact that opposition leader and his “arch-rival” Yulia Tymoshenko was freed from prison and travelled to the capitol. Parliament almost immediately named one of Tymoshenko’s close associates, Olexander Turchynov, as the interim president.
On Feb. 28, unidentified gunmen in military uniforms started to show up outside of Crimea’s airports, igniting fear of Russian intervention in the country. The next day, Russian parliament approved the request of President Vladimir Putin to deploy Russian troops in Ukraine. Military forces in Ukraine went on full alert, and the West began to express extreme alarm and disapproval over Russia’s act of aggression. In a telephone conversation with President Obama, Putin said that Moscow “reserves the right to protect its interests and those of Russian speakers in Ukraine”.
On Sunday, Putin and Obama held another conversation in which the U.S. president informed Mr. Putin he had violated international law by compromising Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, to which the Russian president again responded that Moscow will protect its interests in Ukraine. Then Monday Russia’s Aleksander Vitko, head of the Black Sea Fleet, set a deadline for Ukrainian forces to surrender, also threatening two warships. A spokesperson for the Black Sea Fleet denied these reports though, saying they were “utter nonsense”.
As of Monday night, NATO and UN officials were still scurrying to meetings and summits in an attempt to decide what action to take. The United States and various allies have begun to discuss imposing economic sanctions, but diplomats from France and Germany have been ardent that “strong diplomacy” must be the first line of action, and that sanctions were to be avoided unless all else had failed. The hope as of this writing is that Ukrainian and Russian officials will speak directly to one another to reach an agreement and avert violent action on the part of either country.