SIMFEROPOL – After it seemed mid-week that the Russians were pulling back part of their forces from the borders of Ukraine and the crisis in the Crimean peninsula had passed its peak, the war of words between Russia and the west intensified Wednesday as the tension in Crimea rose again. The foreign ministers of Russia, the United States, Britain and France met in Paris to discuss the situation but Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov refused to meet his Ukrainian counterpart who also arrived for the talks.
Ukraine's interim prime minister Asenyi Yatsenyuk said that he still feared Russia is planning to expand its operation and invade eastern Ukraine as well. In an interview with the Associated Press, Mr Yatsenyuk said that "a number of military forces of the Russian Federation are deployed in Crimea. We cannot figure out the reason why Russian boots are on Ukrainian ground. And it’s crystal clear that it was ordered personally by President Putin."
Violent pro-Russian demonstrations continued Wednesday in cities in eastern Russia, with the demonstrators calling for the region to secede from the Kiev government and for a referendum on joining Russia. In Donetsk they clashed with demonstrators against the Russian invasion of Crimea. Smaller protests took place in Crimea as well. A small number of protesters against the invasion were chased away.
The Russians themselves continued to deny their soldiers were operating in Crimea in a separate statement by Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu on Wednesday, despite the obvious fact that the soldiers with no insignia on their uniforms are travelling in vehicles with Russian army number plates and their weapons and equipment are all standard Russian army-issue. In some cases, soldiers even admitted to reporters they were from Russia. In places in Crimea Wednesday, there was an attempt to lower the profile of the Russian forces. In their place members of local pro-Russian militias and Cossack volunteers and Russian bikers replaced the soldiers began guarding Ukrainian military bases where hundreds of loyal soldiers still hold out.
In at least two cases, the militia members attacked international observers. In the region's capital, Simferopol, they tried to abduct Robert Serry, a special envoy sent by the United Nations Secretary General. He was forced to fly back to Kiev. In another case, they prevented a group of 35 international observers, sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at the invitation of the Ukrainian government, from entering the peninsula. Despite the non-arrival, an angry demonstration took place outside a hotel in central Simferopol where the Russian flag-carrying demonstrators cried "OSCE out" and "we were not attacked (by Russia)." A senior Ukrainian government official was reported abducted in the Crimean town of Yalta, apparently by a group of Russian pro-Kremlin bikers.
In addition to Ukraine, other countries bordering Russia are concerned about the possibility of military action. To counter any Russian moves, NATO announced Wednesday that it was sending an additional F-15 fighter jets and airborne tanker of the United States Air Force to reinforce its operations over the Baltic Sea and that it would be deploying also additional aircraft to Poland.
Another sign of the tension was the leaking, most likely by Russian intelligence, of a phone conversation between the European Union foreign policy chief, Katherine Ashton and Estonia's foreign minister Urmas Paet, in which Paet said that claims of snipers acting in the service of the pro-western opposition in Kiev two and a half weeks ago should be investigated. The hacked conversation was first published by the Kremlin-controlled Russia Today television channel and the assumption is that the source is similar to the one that recorded and leaked last month a conversation between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador in Ukraine in which she said to him "fuck the EU."
EU freezes assets of top Ukrainian officials
The foreign ministers of the European Union met on Thursday for an emergency summit on the situation in Ukraine. Despite calls in the west for economic sanctions against Russia, supported by countries such as Poland, Sweden and the Baltic states, the more influential members of the EU, Germany, Britain, Italy and France, are opposed to sanctions as they would harm also those countries' economies.
Members of the Russian parliament were already planning to counter any sanctions by drafting a law to freeze and nationalize all American and European assets in Russia. Meanwhile the main sanctions against Russia so far are being lead by NATO which has cut off all military coordination with the Russian Army.
The EU ministers decided Thursday to freeze the assets of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, former prime minister Mykola Azarov and 16 other senior Ukrainian officials suspected of misusing state funds and violating human rights.
In a legal filing published in the European Union's Official Journal, the EU said that "all funds and economic resources belonging to, owned, held or controlled" by the people listed was now frozen within the 28-nation union.
The announcement follows a decision taken last month by EU foreign ministers in response to the collapse of the Ukrainian government and Yanukovich's flight into exile following a crackdown on protesters in Kiev in which scores killed.
Ukraine's new prime minister, Arseny Yatseniuk, has said Yanukovich embezzled as much as $37 billion during three years in office.
In its filing, the EU said Yanukovych's assets were being frozen "in connection with the embezzlement of Ukrainian state funds and their illegal transfer outside Ukraine".
Among the other prominent names on the sanctions list are Viktor Pshonka, Ukraine's former prosecutor general; Oleksandr Yakymenko, the former head of the security service; and Olena Lukash, the former minister of justice.
The sons of Yanukovych and Azarov were also on the list.
Yatseniuk was due to meet EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday to discuss the next steps to help Ukraine and its struggling economy get back on its feet.
The EU has pledged around $15 billion in financial assistance to Ukraine, although that is contingent on Kiev agreeing terms with the International Monetary Fund.
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