MOSCOW/SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine: The U.S. warned Moscow it was on a “dark path” to isolation Wednesday as Russian troops seized two Ukrainian naval bases, including a headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol where they raised their flag.
The dramatic seizure came as Russia and the West dug in for a long confrontation over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, with the U.S. and Europe groping for ways to increase pressure on a defiant Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“As long as Russia continues on this dark path, they will face increasing political and economic isolation,” said U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, referring to reports of armed attacks against Ukrainian military personnel in Crimea.
Biden was in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, part of a quick trip to reassure Baltic allies worried about what an emboldened Russia might mean for their nations. Lithuania, along with Estonia and Latvia, are NATO members.
“There is an attempt, using brutal force, to redraw borders of the European states and to destroy the postwar architecture of Europe,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said. But President Barack Obama ruled out U.S. military involvement, emphasizing diplomacy in the standoff.
“We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine,” Obama told KNSD, San Diego’s NBC affiliate, in an interview.
“There is a better path, but I think even the Ukrainians would acknowledge that for us to engage Russia militarily would not be appropriate and would not be good for Ukraine either,” Obama said.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon meets Putin in Moscow Thursday and travels to Kiev Friday. He will urge a peaceful end to a crisis that began when Ukraine’s president abandoned a trade pact with the European Union and turned instead to Moscow, prompting violent street protests that led to his overthrow.
Russian lawmakers raced to ratify a treaty making Crimea part of Russia by the end of the week, despite threats of further sanctions from Washington and Brussels.
The Russian military moved swiftly to neutralize any threat of armed resistance in Crimea.
“This morning they stormed the compound. They cut the gates open, but I heard no shooting,” said Oleksander Balanyuk, a captain in the navy, walking out of the compound in his uniform and carrying his belongings.
“This thing should have been solved politically. Now all I can do is stand here at the gate. There is nothing else I can do,” he told Reuters, appearing ashamed and downcast.
Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said the commander of the Ukrainian navy, Admiral Serhiy Haiduk, was driven away by what appeared to be Russian special forces.
Russian troops seized another Ukrainian naval facility in Crimea late Wednesday. “Russian troops came and asked us to leave the base, which we did,” Ukrainian navy major Eduard Kusnarenko told Reuters outside the base in Bakhchisaray, about 30 km southwest of the regional capital Simferopol.
Ukrainian security chief Andriy Parubiy said the Kiev government would urge the United Nations to declare Crimea a demilitarized zone.
“The Ukrainian government will immediately appeal to the United Nations to recognize Crimea as a demilitarized zone and take necessary measures for Russian forces to leave Crimea and prepare conditions for re-deployment of Ukrainian forces,” Parubiy said.
Ukraine announced plans to introduce visas for Russians, and Russia said it might respond in kind.
Germany’s Cabinet approved EU plans for closer political cooperation with Ukraine, a government source said, clearing the way for Chancellor Angela Merkel to sign part of an association agreement at an EU summit later this week.