U.S. warns Russia on Ukraine ultimatum

People protesting against Russian troops in Ukraine gather outside an European Union emergency foreign ministers meeting in Brussels March 3, 2014. (Reuters)

Any Russian ultimatum to Ukraine threatening a possible attack would be a “dangerous escalation” of the tensions in Crimea, a U.S. official said Monday after source in the Ukrainian defense ministry said Moscow did give his country a warning.

Washington was working to find out if Moscow has demanded Ukrainian leaders surrender or face an all-out assault.

“If true” it would be “a dangerous escalation of the situation and we would hold Russia directly responsible,” Agence France-Presse quoted a State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki as saying.

Russian Black Sea Fleets denied that it gave an ultimatum to Ukrainian forces in the strategic Crimea to surrender by 5 a.m. on Tuesday or face an assault.

The news came after Interfax quoted an unnamed source in the Ukrainian Defense Ministry earlier on Monday as saying a deadline to surrender at 0300 GMT had been set by the Black Sea Fleet’s commander.

However, a Ukrainian defense ministry spokesman told Agence France-Presse that Russian forces have given Ukrainian soldiers an ultimatum to surrender their positions in Crimea or face an assault.

“The ultimatum is to recognize the new Crimean authorities, lay down our weapons and leave, or be ready for an assault,” said Vladyslav Seleznyov, the regional ministry spokesman for the Crimea.

He said base commanders had informed the ministry of “different times” for the ultimatum to expire.

The ultimatum, Interfax said earlier, was issued by Alexander Vitko, the fleets commander, Reuters reported.

Russian parliament

There the Russian parliament speaker said Monday that is no need yet to use Russia’s “right” to launch military action in Ukraine, after President Vladimir Putin won legislative approval to send Russian forces,

“The decision by the Federation Council (upper house) just gives the right and this right can be used in case it is necessary. But currently is not necessary,” State Duma lower house speaker Sergei Naryshkin told state television, adding he did not even want to utter the word “war.”

Meanwhile, pro-Russian soldiers have already further cemented their control over the Ukrainian strategic region of Crimea by seizing a ferry terminal in the city of Kerch about 20 kilometers (12 miles) by boat to Russia, the Associated Press reported.

The move intensifies fears that Moscow will send even more troops in Crimea which also houses the Russian Black Sea Fleet. However, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed on Monday accusations that Moscow is invading the strategic peninsula, and justified the use of Russian troops streaming in the former soviet neighbor as a necessary protection for his country’s citizens living there.

The move comes as the U.S. and European governments are trying to figure out ways to halt and reverse the Russian incursion

Some 300 pro-Russian demonstrators have also occupied on Monday the regional government building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, stronghold of former president Viktor Yanukovych, an Agence France-Presse reporter witnessed.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 protesters had gathered earlier in front of the building brandishing Russian flags and chanting “Russia, Russia!,” before a smaller group broke into it, smashing windows and occupying several floors.

Lavrov criticizes threats

Lavrov, meanwhile, criticized threats of “sanctions and boycotts” over his country’s role in Ukraine.

He said the use of Russian troops is necessary “until the normalization of the political situation” in Ukraine, the Associated Press quoted him as saying at an opening of a month-long session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Lavrov added: “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.”

Ukrainian border guards said on Monday that 10 Russian combat helicopters and eight military cargo planes started flowing into the country’s Crimea, in violation of accords between the two countries.

Four Russian warships have been in the port of Sevastopol since Saturday.

Lavrov 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, which is 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,” he added.

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 the opposition “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.”

OSCE to start deploying

A top U.S. diplomat to Europe said that “advance teams” from the OSCE will start deploying in Ukraine late Monday but Russian objections mean the body has yet to agree on a full-scale mission.

“Today there was an announcement that the OSCE will begin deploying tonight monitors to Ukraine who can provide neutral facts and provide a true assessment of facts on the ground,” AFP quoted Victoria Nuland as telling in Vienna.

Talking on the sidelines of a special meeting of the OSCE, Nuland said she hoped these “advance teams” will “be permitted to travel to Crimea where they are needed most, as well as to key cities in eastern Ukraine.”

Lamberto Zannier, secretary general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said there were currently three additional personnel travelling to the crisis-wracked former Soviet country.

Representatives from the 57 member states of the OSCE were yet to agree on whether to send a large-scale monitoring mission, as favored by Washington and others, Nuland and other officials said.

Meanwhile, Britain’s foreign secretary said the U.K. is not discussing military options in its attempts to reverse the Russian incursion into Ukraine but insisted that Moscow must face “significant costs” over its moves in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula that its troops now control.

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.

EU to meet on Ukraine

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she would hold talks in Madrid on Tuesday with Lavrov, as the bloc announced an emergency summit on the crisis.

“Extraordinary summit of EU presidents & prime ministers called for Thursday to help de-escalate situation in Ukraine,” EU President Herman Van Rompuy wrote on Twitter, after EU foreign ministers warned Russia that ties could suffer if it does not change course after its military intervention in Crimea.

Ashton said after chairing the Ukraine crisis talks gathering the EU’s 28 foreign ministers that she would travel on to Kiev on Wednesday.

(With Associated Press, Reuters and AFP)

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