Ukraine says Russian forces controlling the disputed peninsula of Crimea are demanding that the crew of two Ukrainian warships must surrender – or face capture.
Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Maksim Prauta said four Russian navy ships were blocking Ukraine’s anti-submarine warship Ternopil and the command ship Slavutych in Sevastopol’s harbor.
He said the Russians ordered the crew to surrender within the hour or face Russians storming and seizing the ships and crew.
Russia’s fleet also ordered Ukraine’s forces in the region to surrender by 5 a.m. local time Tuesday or face “a real assault,” according to a statement from a Navy commander.
“If they do not surrender before 5am tomorrow, a real assault will be started against units and divisions of the armed forces across Crimea,” Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Commander Alexander Vitko told the Interfax news agency Monday, Sky News reports.
Ukraine’s defense ministry did not immediately confirm the statement, Reuters reports. The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to hold a meeting this afternoon to address the crisis.
The reported threat came hours after Ukraine’s new leaders called for Western nations to rally against Russia’s invasion of the country’s Crimean Peninsula, making a plea for economic and political support as Moscow continued to be defiant.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk insisted that Crimea remains Ukrainian territory despite the presence of thousands of Russian troops who have secured control over the region without suffering any casualties or firing a shot.
“Any attempt of Russia to grab Crimea will have no success at all. Give us some time,” he said at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is visiting Kiev.
“For today, no military options [are] on the table,” he said, adding that what they urgently need is an economic and political support.
“Real support. Tangible support. And we do believe that our Western partners will provide this support,” he said.
Hague said on the BBC that Moscow would face “significant costs” for taking control of Crimea.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday justified the use of Russian troops streaming into the neighboring Crimea region as a necessary protection for his country’s citizens living there.
The use of Russian troops is necessary “until the normalization of the political situation” in Ukraine, Lavrov said at an opening of a month-long session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“We are talking here about protection of our citizens and compatriots, about protection of the most fundamental of the human rights — the right to live, and nothing more,” Lavrov said.
Ukraine has accused Russia of a military invasion and has called on the Kremlin to withdraw its troops. Lavrov dismissed the criticism, and said that “information is coming in about preparations for new provocations that are being committed, including against the Russian Black Sea fleet,” which is based in Crimea, a strategic peninsula now effectively under Russian control.
“Those who are trying to interpret the situation as a sort of aggression and threatening us with sanctions and boycotts, these are the same partners who have been consistently and vigorously encouraging the political powers close to them to declare ultimatums and renounce dialogue,” Lavrov said. “We call upon them to show a responsibility and to set aside geopolitical calculations and put the interests of the Ukrainian people above all.”
Lavrov will meet later Monday with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the situation.
Lavrov called on Ukraine to return to the Feb. 21 agreement signed by pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych aimed at ending his country’s three-month political crisis. He fled after signing an agreement with the opposition and foreign ministers of France, German and Poland to hold early elections this fall and surrender much of his powers. But opposition supporters kept pushing for his immediate dismissal.
Lavrov said Yanukovych kept up the agreement, but criticized the opposition, saying they “did nothing.”
“The illegal arms have not been relinquished, the government buildings and streets of Kiev have not been completely freed, radicals maintain control of cities,” Lavrov said. “Instead of a promised national unity government a ‘government of the victors’ has been created.”
European Union foreign ministers are working on a joint response to Russia’s military incursion that could include economic and financial sanctions, according to Reuters.
The 28 foreign ministers are holding an emergency meeting on Ukraine Monday to discuss what Germany’s foreign minister, Frank Walter Steinmeier, called “Europe’s most dramatic crisis” since the end of the Cold War.
Reuters, which has seen a draft of the statement that the EU ministers are preparing, said countries have not yet agreed on “targeted measures” against Russia, but have discussed the possibility of imposing an arms embargo.
The uncertainty of the situation sent global stocks tumbling on Monday.
On Sunday, a senior Obama administration official told reporters that Russia had taken “complete operational control of the Crimean peninsula, some 6,000-plus airborne and naval forces, with considerable materiel [equipment].
“There is no question,” the official continued, “that they are in an occupation position in Crimea, that they are flying in reinforcements, and they are settling in.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and US Vice President Joe Biden discussed the Ukraine crisis by telephone on Monday.
Pro-Russian troops on Monday took over a ferry terminal in the city of Kerch, on the easternmost tip of the peninsula, approximately 12 miles by boat from Russian territory. The men refused to identify themselves, but they spoke Russian and the vehicles transporting them had Russian license plates.
Troops that Ukraine says are Russian soldiers have also occupied airports in Crimea, smashed equipment at an air base and besieged a Ukrainian infantry base.
On Sunday night, Ukraine’s defense ministry said two Russian fighter jets violated the country’s airspace in the Black Sea and that it scrambled an interceptor aircraft in response, according to Sky News.
Faced with the Russian threat, Ukraine’s new government moved to consolidate its authority, naming new regional governors in the pro-Russia east, enlisting the support of the country’s wealthy businessmen and dismissing the head of the country’s navy after he declared allegiance to the pro-Russian government in Crimea.
Yatsenyuk said there was no reason for Russia to invade Ukraine and warned that “we are on the brink of disaster.”
Western leaders were left scrambling for possible ways to defuse the crisis as phone calls were exchanged and threats and protests were made.
The Group of Seven nations — including the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Britain — said Sunday night that they’re suspending participation in the upcoming economic summit scheduled to be held in Sochi, the recent site of the Winter Olympics, in protest of Russia’s actions.
Earlier Sunday, President Obama spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the four leaders expressed their “grave concern” over “Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the White House said. The leaders pledged to work together on a package of financial assistance to Ukraine, which is nearly bankrupt.
Outrage over Russia’s military moves mounted in world capitals, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calling on President Vladimir Putin to pull back from “an incredible act of aggression.” Kerry also announced Sunday that he would go to Kiev Tuesday for diplomatic talks.
Following an emergency meeting of NATO in Brussels Sunday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a press conference that Russia should pull back its forces and refrain from interfering elsewhere in Ukraine, according to Reuters. NATO is urging the two countries to seek a peaceful resolution through dialogue.
Ukraine is not a NATO member, which means the United States and Europe are not obligated to come to its defense. But Ukraine has taken part in some alliance military exercises and contributed troops to its response force.
So far, however, Ukraine’s new government and the West have been powerless to counter Russia’s tactics. Russia has also said China is largely “in agreement” with its response to Ukraine, according to Sky News.
Russia has long wanted to reclaim the lush Crimean Peninsula, part of its territory until 1954. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet pays Ukraine millions annually to be stationed at the Crimean port of Sevastopol and nearly 60 percent of Crimea’s residents identify themselves as Russian.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.