KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s fledgling government ordered troops to retreat from Crimea on Monday, ending days of wavering as Western leaders tried to present a unified response to Russia’s increasingly firm control of the peninsula.
Russian forces have been systematically seizing Ukrainian ships and military installations in Crimea, including a naval base near the eastern Crimean port of Feodosia, where two injured servicemen were taken captive on Monday and as many as 80 were detained on-site, Ukrainian officials said.
With the storming of at least three military facilities over the past three days alone — and the decision by some to switch to the Russian side — it wasn’t clear how many Ukrainian troops remained on the peninsula. The former chief of Ukraine’s navy, who was charged with treason after he swore allegiance to the Crimean authorities and urged others to defect, was named a deputy chief of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Ukrainian Acting President Oleksandr Turchnynov, whose new government has struggled to maintain control and cohesion, said the Defense Ministry was ordered to withdraw all servicemen in Crimea to Ukraine’s mainland.
The situation in Ukraine is set to dominate U.S. President Barack Obama’s agenda as he begins a week of international travel in the Netherlands, where he was set to attend a nuclear security summit. The event has been overshadowed by hurriedly scheduled talks on Ukraine among the Group of Seven industrialized economies — the U.S., Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.
“We’re united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far,” Obama said.
Speaking to leading lawmakers in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, Turchnynov said Ukrainian troops would be evacuated with their families in response to unspecified threats from what he termed occupying Russian forces.
The interim government in Kiev has been criticized for its indecision over Ukrainian troops in Crimea, where Russian forces have steadily gained control of bases and ships. Over the weekend, Russian troops stormed the Belbek air force base near Sevastopol and detained the commander.
Tired of weeks of tensions and uncertainty and Kiev’s indecision, some Ukrainian troops were leaving their bases. In the bay of Donuzlav in western Crimea, the crew of the Ukrainian navy ship Konstantin Olshanskiy were packing up and leaving Monday.
“We aren’t rats, we aren’t running,” said one sailor, who only gave his first name of Yevgeny to discuss a sensitive subject. “Why should we have stayed, what we would have accomplished?”
The ship’s crew was using a small boat that made several roundtrips to carry them to the shore.
Russia completed its annexation of Crimea last week, after its troops took control over the Ukrainian region following the ouster of a Kremlin-friendly government in Kiev.
Moscow says its absorption of Crimea has been rendered legitimate by a referendum held earlier this month in which the bulk of voters in the peninsula approved the move, but the process has come under sustained criticism from the international community.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Crimea on Monday to inspect the Black Sea Fleet, which has been stationed in Crimea under an agreement with Ukraine that allowed Moscow to have up to 25,000 troops in the peninsula. The Russian officials have remained coy about their precise number.
Shoigu named the former head of Ukraine’s navy, Denis Berezovsky, as deputy commander of the Black Sea Fleet. Berezovsky was appointed commander of Ukraine’s navy on March 1, only to surrender the country’s base in the port of Sevastopol to pro-Russian forces a day later. Authorities in Kiev have charged him with treason.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev chaired a meeting on providing economic aid to Crimea, promising that Crimeans will continue receiving pensions and subsidies even after the region switches to the Russian ruble.
The West has leveled a raft of sanctions against Russia for its moves in Crimea that have been hailed by some, but criticized as not going far enough by others.