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Russia sets Ukraine agenda with diplomacy, threats

By David McHugh

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 3 2014 2:16 p.m. MST

Ukrainian seamen stand guard on the Ukrainian navy ship Slavutich at harbor of Sevastopol, Ukraine, Monday, March 3, 2014. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said that Russian forces that have overtaken Ukraine's strategic region of Crimea are demanding that the ship's crew surrender.

Andrew Lubimov, Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine — Russia called for the adoption of a national unity deal in Ukraine even as it tightened its stranglehold over Crimea, an audacious combination of diplomacy and escalating military pressure. The U.S. and European Union floundered for solutions — while global markets panicked over the prospect of violent upheaval in the heart of Europe.

Fears grew that the Kremlin might carry out more land grabs in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine, adding urgency to Western efforts to defuse the crisis. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was heading to Kiev in an expression of support for Ukraine's sovereignty, and the EU threatened a raft of punitive measures as it called an emergency summit on Ukraine for Thursday.

But it was Russia that appeared to be driving the agenda.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in Geneva at the beginning of a U.N. Human Rights Council session that Ukraine should return to the Feb. 21 agreement signed by pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych — but not Moscow — aimed at ending Ukraine's crisis. Yanukovych fled the country after sealing the pact with the opposition and foreign ministers of France, German and Poland to hold early elections and surrender many powers.

"Instead of a promised national unity government," Lavrov said, "a 'government of the victors' has been created."

Then came dramatic claims from Ukraine that Russian troops had issued an ultimatum for two Ukrainian warships to surrender or be seized — prompting Ukraine's acting president to accuse Russia of "piracy."

Four Russian navy ships in Sevastopol's harbor were blocking Ukraine's corvette Ternopil and the command ship Slavutych, Ukrainian authorities said. Acting president Oleksandr Turchynov said commanders and crew were "ready to defend their ships ... They are defending Ukraine."

Vladimir Anikin, a Russian defense ministry spokesman in Moscow, dismissed the report of a Russian ultimatum as nonsense but refused to elaborate.

It was not clear what the West could do to make Russia back down. The clearest weapon at the disposal of the EU and U.S. appeared to be economic sanctions that would freeze Russian assets and pull the plug on multi-billion dollar deals with Russia. Late Monday, the EU threatened to freeze visa liberalization and economic cooperation talks and boycott the G8 summit in Russia if Moscow does not climb down on Crimean peninsula by the Thursday summit.

Already the economic fallout for Russia over its Crimea takeover was being intensely felt: Russia's stock market dropped about 10 percent on Monday and its currency fell to its lowest point ever against the dollar. But the economic consequences of antagonizing Russia were also acute for Western Europe: The EU relies heavily on Russian natural gas flowing through a network of Ukrainian and other pipelines.

By Monday it was clear that Russia had effectively turned Crimea into a protectorate.

Russian soldiers controlled all Crimean border posts Monday, as well as all military facilities in the territory. Troops also controlled a ferry terminal in the Ukrainian city of Kerch, just 20 kilometers (12 miles) across the water from Russia. That intensified fears in Kiev that Moscow will send even more troops into the peninsula via that route.

Border guard spokesman Sergei Astakhov said the Russians were demanding that Ukrainian soldiers and guards transfer their allegiance to Crimea's new pro-Russian local government.

"The Russians are behaving very aggressively," he said. "They came in by breaking down doors, knocking out windows, cutting off every communication."

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