Russia faces further sanctions from the EU over its annexation of the Crimea Peninsula, as tensions in the region remained high despite the release of a Ukrainian naval commander.
In an address to parliament yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU was readying further sanctions and that the G8 forum of leading economies had been suspended indefinitely.
Moscow holds the presidency of the G8 and Russian President Vladimir Putin was due to host his counterparts, including US President Barack Obama, at a summit in Sochi, Russia, in June.
“So long as there aren’t the political circumstances, like now, for an important format like the G8, then there is no G8,” Merkel said. “Neither the summit, nor the format.”
Earlier this week, the EU and the US slapped sanctions on certain individuals that were involved in what they say was the unlawful referendum in Crimea over joining Russia.
Merkel said that EU leaders would increase those “Level 2” sanctions against Russia when they meet later yesterday in Brussels to widen the list of those whose assets are being frozen and who are banned from traveling.
She reiterated that if things worsen, the EU was prepared to move to “Level 3” measures, which would include economic sanctions.
Merkel’s tough approach came as the commander of Ukraine’s navy was freed after being held by Russian forces and local Crimean militia at the navy’s headquarters.
Rear Admiral Sergei Haiduk and an unspecified number of civilians were held for hours after the navy’s base in Sevastopol was stormed on Wednesday. Early reports said the storming was conducted by a self-described local defense force, but yesterday’s statement by Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov, which confirmed the release, said Russian forces were involved.
The storming came hours before Ukraine announced plans to withdraw troops from Crimea, which was formally annexed by Russia this week.
Russian forces took control of Crimea about two weeks ago in the wake of the ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych after months of protests and sporadic violence. Yanukovych fled to Russia.
Crimea, a majority ethnic-Russian region, then organized a referendum that overwhelmingly called for becoming part of Russia. The Crimean Peninsula had been part of Russia for centuries until 1954 when then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine.
Just how many retreating troops Ukraine will have to absorb in what amounts to a military surrender of Crimea was unclear. Many servicemen have already switched sides to Russia, but authorities said they were prepared to relocate as many as 25,000 soldiers and their families to the Ukrainian mainland.
With thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and sailors trapped on military bases, surrounded by heavily armed Russian forces and pro-Russia militia, the Kiev government said it was drawing up plans to evacuate its outnumbered troops from Crimea back to the mainland and would seek UN support to turn the peninsula into a demilitarized zone.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday the legal process required to make Crimea part of Russia would be completed this week. Putin signed a treaty to bring the Ukrainian region into Russia on Tuesday and the lower house of parliament was expected to ratify it later yesterday. The upper house is seen to follow suit today.