KIEV, Ukraine — In defiance of the U.S. and the European Union, Russia tightened its stranglehold over Crimea on Monday as Ukraine accused it of piracy by blocking two of the besieged country’s warships and ordering them to surrender or be seized.
The West struggled to find a way to get Moscow to back down, but with little beyond already threatened diplomatic and economic sanctions, global markets fell sharply over the prospect of violent upheaval in the heart of Europe.
For its part, Moscow reiterated its price for ending the conflict: the restoration, pending new elections, of a government in Kiev that represents pro-Russian as well as Ukrainian interests.
About 16,000 Russian troops have been deployed in the strategic Crimean region, Ukraine’s mission to the United Nations said Monday, as fears grew in the Ukrainian capital and beyond that the Kremlin might carry out more land grabs in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine, adding urgency to Western efforts to defuse the crisis.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was headed to Kiev in an expression of support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the EU threatened a raft of punitive measures as it called an emergency summit on Ukraine for Thursday.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, a member of the National Security Working Group and Co-Chair of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Caucus, joined those condemming the Russian intervention.
“President Putin’s decision to deploy Russian forces into Crimea is a blatant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and further evidence of his heavy-handed, undemocratic approach to foreign policy,” a statement from Casey read. “From its support for the Assad regime in Syria to its crackdown on protests in Sochi, the Russian government has demonstrated its disrespect for human rights and proclivity for using violence and oppression to quell dissent.
Casey defended the right of the Ukrainian to choose democracy.
But it was Russia that appeared to be driving the agenda.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a U.N. Human Rights Council session in Geneva that Ukraine should return to an agreement signed last month by pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych — but not Moscow — to hold early elections and surrender some powers. Yanukovych fled the country after sealing the pact with the opposition and foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland.
“Instead of a promised national unity government,” Lavrov said of the fledgling new administration in Kiev, “a government of the victors has been created.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities said that Russian troops had issued an ultimatum for two Ukrainian warships to surrender or be seized — prompting the country’s acting president to accuse Russia of “piracy.”
Vladimir Anikin, a Russian defense ministry spokesman, dismissed reports of an ultimatum as nonsense but refused to elaborate.
Warning of a “dangerous escalation,” the Obama administration said Washington would hold Moscow directly accountable for any threat to Ukraine’s navy.
Russia is “on the wrong side of history” in Ukraine, President Barack Obama said, adding that continued military action would be “a costly proposition for Russia.” Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Obama said the U.S. was considering economic and diplomatic options that will isolate Russia, and called on Congress to work on an aid package for Ukraine.
Still, it was not clear what the West could do to make Russia retreat. The clearest weapon at the disposal of the U.S. and the EU appeared to be economic sanctions that would freeze Russian assets and pull the plug on multibillion-dollar deals with Russia. Late Monday, the EU threatened to freeze visa liberalization and economic cooperation talks and boycott the G8 summit in Russia later this year.
Moscow has justified its military moves in Crimea as necessary to protect its country’s citizens living there. At an emergency session of the Security Council on Monday, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told council members Russian troops were deployed at the request of Yanukovych.
By Monday, it was clear that Russia had complete operational control of Crimea.
Russian soldiers controlled all Crimean border posts, as well as all military facilities in the territory. Troops also controlled a ferry terminal in the Crimean city of Kerch, just 12 miles across the water from Russia. That intensified fears in Kiev that Moscow would send even more troops into the peninsula via that route.