Fears rise of Russian invasion extending into eastern Ukraine; gunmen seize two journalists in Crimea

n13-iconThe Los Angeles Times reports: As Ukrainian officials prepared to campaign in the United States this week for more international support ahead of a Russian-backed referendum on secession in Crimea, Moscow complained Monday of “lawlessness” in eastern Ukraine, raising fear it might widen its military intervention to include that region.

The Kremlin said in a statement that Ukrainian right-wing extremists, taking advantage of the “complete neglect” of the new Western-oriented government in Kiev, were threatening order in eastern Ukraine. In addition, the statement said, Russian citizens trying to cross the border into Ukraine were being turned back by Ukrainian border agents.

The allegations added to the increasingly heated rhetoric flying between Kiev and Moscow, and sparked concern that the Kremlin was setting up a pretext for a new military incursion. President Vladimir Putin has justified aggressive moves by pro-Russian forces in Crimea, in southern Ukraine, on the grounds of needing to protect ethnic Russians on the strategically valuable peninsula, though no independent group has identified any instances of danger or abuse. [Continue reading...]

Reuters adds: Unidentified gunmen have seized two Ukrainian journalists in Crimea, Reporters Without Borders said on Monday, warning that those behind attacks on the media were trying to turn the region into a “black hole for news”.

“The forces controlling the Crimea are responsible for the fate of these journalists,” Christophe Deloire, secretary general for the press freedom watchdog, said in a statement.

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Watch: The deportation, exile and return of the Crimean Tartars

f13-iconAurélie Campana writes: In April 1944, after two and half years of German occupation, the Soviet forces regained control of Crimea. The reconquest was hardly completed when the Crimean Tatars were deported en masse on the false accusation of having collectively collaborated with the Nazis. This Muslim Turkic-speaking minority then represented 19.4% of the population of the peninsula, where Russians represented over 50%.

On May 18, 1944, in the early morning, soldiers of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD, the former KGB) entered Tatars’ houses by force and announced to their astonished and incredulous occupants their immediate deportation because of acts of “massive collaboration”. They were given only twenty to thirty minutes to gather some personal belongings. Without further delay, they were then conveyed to several stations, where they were loaded into cattle trains. In the matter of three days, nearly 180,014 Crimean Tatars were deported from the peninsula. At the same moment, most of the Crimean Tatar men who were fighting in the ranks of the Red Army were demobilized and sent into labor camps in Siberia and in the Ural mountain region. The demobilized soldiers were released after Stalin’s death in 1953 and allowed to return to their families in their place of exile.

Over 151,000 Crimean Tatar deportees were sent to Uzbekistan; the rest of the population was conveyed to regions of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), mostly in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, the Ural region, the Mari Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, and for some, to the region of Moscow (Broŝevan and Tygliânc, 1994: 85). The conditions of the transfer by train were particularly difficult; they were fatal for many of them, especially as the majority of the deportees were women, children and old people. The weakest ones were carried off by malnutrition, thirst, cold, overcrowding and diseases that spread rapidly in packed train carriages. [Continue reading...]

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Putin’s Western army of whataboutists

o13-iconMichael Moynihan writes: Readers of a certain vintage will likely recall the oleaginous, Brooklyn-accented Vladimir Pozner, an American citizen domiciled in Moscow who regularly popped up on television in the waning days of the Cold War, propagandizing on behalf of the Kremlin. Pozner was a rather impressive practitioner of whataboutism, the debate tactic demanding that questions about morally indefensible acts committed by your side be deflected with pettifogging discussion of unrelated sins committed by your opponent’s side. Soviet tanks lumbering through the streets of Prague? Yes, but what about the mistreatment of the Native Americans? East Germany’s reluctant citizens penned in by an imposing cement wall, ringed by trigger-happy border guards? A necessary “anti-fascist protection barrier,” sure, but…what about Hiroshima?

Even after the collapse of the Soviet dictatorship, Pozner found it difficult to shake the whataboutist habit and rote moral equivalence. “Yes, there are dissidents and maybe they consist of one percent or two percent of the population,” he told PBS in 1999. “But you’ve had your dissidents and you don’t treat them all that well.”

And there he was last week on CNN, where he is now a contributor, at the start of what distressingly looks to be a new Cold War, discussing the results of Crimea’s referendum on splitting from Ukraine and rejoining Russia. And he sounded surprisingly reasonable. “I don’t know whether President Putin will accept [the referendum results],” Pozner told Jake Tapper. “I don’t know whether he’ll say okay, let’s take them into our federation, but if he does, let’s not forget that Crimea is part of Ukraine.”

Pozner might have softened in his dotage, but there is a Spetsnaz division of Westerners ready to take the place he once occupied, arguing on Moscow’s behalf, employing the familiar whataboutism and blame shifting away from Vladimir Putin and towards the Obama administration. [Continue reading...]

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Watch: Assange sees Ukraine as a bridge between Western Europe and Russia

o13-iconEchoing Henry Kissinger, while speaking via Skype at the South By Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas, Julian Assange described Ukraine as “a bridge” between Western Europe and Russia.

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Crimea secession referendum does not have a ‘No’ option

n13-iconTime reports: Crimea, which voted to put the question of secession from Ukraine to a referendum, has released a ballot with severely limited choices, and all of the options come with strings attached

“No” is not an option in the upcoming referendum in Crimea on whether to split from Ukraine.

The Crimean parliament — which voted to put the question to a referendum Thursday, despite opposition from the new Ukrainian government and from the United States — has released the ballot for the March 16 on its website. The referendum gives voters in the autonomous region the option to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, or to return to policies that give Crimea even greater autonomy from Kiev — opening the door to join Russia down the line, the regional English-language news source KyivPost reports. But the status quo is not an option. [Continue reading...]

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Ukraine’s East: ‘The people have nowhere to work — it’s like Detroit’

n13-iconBloomberg reports: Along the road that stretches east from the regional capital of Donetsk toward Ukraine’s border with Russia, crumbling Soviet apartment complexes quickly give way to shabby villages of squat houses with aluminum-sheet roofs and shuttered windows. Settlements clustered around the remnants of coal mines that fed the former Soviet Union and minted the eastern province now stand mostly in disrepair.

In Snizhne, 50 miles east of Donetsk and roughly a dozen miles from the Russian border, privatization and restructuring have closed all but two of the 17 government-run coal mines that fed the town in the 1990s. “The people have nowhere to work—it’s like Detroit in America,” says Sergey Vasilivich, who used to own a business transporting and sorting coal from small local mines to private buyers. “There’s a real depression in this city.” Today, small, semilegal mine shafts operate on the fringes of the economy with a blatant lack of regard for safety and workers’ rights. Many miners have lost their jobs, and young people have left for greener pastures. Many in Snizhne see themselves as ethnic Russians and would have no problem joining with Russia, especially because they think it would help the stunted local economy.

As pro-Russian tensions continue to simmer in the east, the interim government in Kiev is trying to keep a lid on separatist rhetoric in the industrial heartland, where small but vocal protests in Donetsk against the new government continue to rage. In an effort to pacify the local population, the central authorities on March 2 appointed Sergei Taruta, an oligarch with roots in the east, governor of the Donetsk region. With about 5 million people, it’s Ukraine’s most densely populated province.

Taruta faces not only the loud chants of pro-Russian protesters in front of government headquarters, but also a depressed economy, a legacy of corruption, lack of popularity, and the institutional stasis of a local government authority composed of members from ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which could thwart Taruta’s attempts at reform at any turn.

“His decision [to accept the position] is a risky one,” says Oleksandr Kliuzhev, a political analyst and program coordinator of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, a nongovernmental organization in Donetsk. “There are real pro-Russian tendencies here—they don’t hide them. These emotions were held in check before by the Party of Regions. … Our politicians played the Russia card, but the new risk is that there are politicians promising union with Russia and we haven’t had this risk before.” [Continue reading...]

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This is what occupation looks like: Russian provocation and Serbian Chetniks in Crimea

e13-icon“We are often told our actions are illegitimate, but when I ask, ‘Do you think everything you do is legitimate?,’ they say ‘yes’,” President Vladimir Putin said at a press conference on Tuesday. “Then I have to recall the actions of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, where they either acted without any U.N. sanction or completely distorted the content of such resolutions, as was the case with Libya.”

For many critics of U.S. military action over the last thirteen years, Putin’s words resonate deeply.

There’s no question that when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text,” the hypocrisy in a top U.S. government official saying this, is glaring.

But here’s the problem: it’s starting to sound like for many of the people now chanting “Hypocrisy!”, they see hypocrisy as worse than occupation. Indeed, this insistence on focusing on the lack of integrity of Western political leaders is becoming an excuse to ignore or legitimize the Russian invasion of Crimea.

In his latest report from Crimea, Simon Ostrovsky offers a close-up view of the Russian occupation.

A Serb commander belonging to the Chetnik movement, controlling a checkpoint between Sevastopol and Simferpol and supporting the occupation, says — without a hint of irony — “it would be better to resolve this issue internally.” He sees himself and the Russians as part of this “internal” solution. (It should be noted that the Chetniks have a history of involvement in ethnic cleansing, mass murder and other war crimes.)

If a Serb, having traveled hundreds of miles to Crimea, identifies himself as part of an internal solution, this begs the question: how would he define external?

I guess an example would be OSCE observers invited by Ukraine’s interim government — that’s why they got shot at when they attempted to enter Crimea.

But here’s a final thought: if you think occupation is only a problem when it’s conducted by Americans or Israelis, then maybe it’s time to ask yourself whether you really understand the meaning of the word hypocrisy.

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Threats from Moscow, ignored by Kiev: what next for the Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea?

n13-iconThe Observer reports: The two Ural trucks, full of troops, arrived under cover of darkness and a pea-souper fog at the Ukrainian missile defence base outside Sevastopol late on Friday night, and rammed their way through the gates. Once inside, the Russian troops fanned out and screamed that they would shoot to kill if the Ukrainians did not surrender.

After some brief tussles the situation was calmed and the Russians eventually left, their trucks racing out of the base.

Outside, members of a local “self-defence” volunteer unit harassed journalists, and the deputy commander of the base briefly appeared to give comments. “We ignored their orders and eventually they left,” he said, as one of the masked volunteers shone a light in his face and tried to stop him speaking. “I guess they will be back soon.”

There are several thousand Ukrainian military personnel on more than a dozen bases across the Crimea, creating what could be the most explosive problem facing the Russians in their operation to annex the peninsula.

Uncertain of their status since the Crimean parliament announced that it wants the territory to join with Russia, the soldiers feel threatened by Moscow and abandoned by Kiev. Having sworn an oath to Ukraine, they could now, within a week, find themselves in one country and their homes and families in another. [Continue reading...]

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Ukraine facing loss of its navy as Russian forces in Crimea dig in

n13-iconReuters reports: Lashed by the wind as it whips across Crimea’s biggest lake, a third of Ukraine’s warships have nowhere to go and nothing to do but rise and fall on its choppy waves.

Russian forces have blocked their only exit point to the Black Sea by sinking two ageing vessels there, and Russia’s well-armed Moskva missile cruiser can be seen treading water a short distance off the coast, with menace.

With six more of Ukraine’s two dozen warships similarly blockaded and Russian forces building up their strength ahead of a referendum that seems likely to result in Crimea becoming part of Russia, Ukraine is facing the humiliating loss of its navy.

Pacing up and down a spartan room in an outbuilding overlooking a row of warships, support vessels, and tugboats, Brigade Commander Vitaly Zvyagintsev says he can’t believe the Russian Black Sea Fleet – with whom the Ukrainian navy regularly held exercises in the past – has turned hostile.

“I have two theories,” he told Reuters in an interview. “The first is that they want to prevent Ukrainian ships leaving their base and blockading them as they are us now. The second is that they want to make sure that if and when Crimea joins Russia, Ukraine can’t get its ships back.”

“Georgia doesn’t have a fleet any more and the same thing could now happen with Ukraine,” he said gloomily, referring to the 2008 Russia-Georgia war which ended with Russian forces taking control of a fifth of Georgia’s territory.

The Ukrainian navy has around 25 warships including one submarine, 15 support vessels of different categories and around 15,000 men under arms, 10,000 of whom are based on the Crimean Peninsula. [Continue reading...]

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Russia, Ukraine feud over sniper carnage

n13-iconThe Associated Press reports: One of the biggest mysteries hanging over the protest mayhem that drove Ukraine’s president from power: Who was behind the snipers who sowed death and terror in Kiev?

That riddle has become the latest flashpoint of feuding over Ukraine — with the nation’s fledgling government and the Kremlin giving starkly different interpretations of events that could either undermine or bolster the legitimacy of the new rulers.

Ukrainian authorities are investigating the Feb. 18-20 bloodbath, and they have shifted their focus from ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s government to Vladimir Putin’s Russia — pursuing the theory that the Kremlin was intent on sowing mayhem as a pretext for military incursion. Russia suggests that the snipers were organized by opposition leaders trying to whip up local and international outrage against the government.

The government’s new health minister — a doctor who helped oversee medical treatment for casualties during the protests — told The Associated Press that the similarity of bullet wounds suffered by opposition victims and police indicates the shooters were trying to stoke tensions on both sides and spark even greater violence, with the goal of toppling Yanukovych.

“I think it wasn’t just a part of the old regime that (plotted the provocation), but it was also the work of Russian special forces who served and maintained the ideology of the (old) regime,” Health Minister Oleh Musiy said.

Putin has pushed the idea that the sniper shootings were ordered by opposition leaders, while Kremlin officials have pointed to a recording of a leaked phone call between Estonia’s foreign minister and the European Union’s foreign policy chief as evidence to back up that version.

This much is known: Snipers firing powerful rifles from rooftops and windows shot scores of people in the heart of Kiev. Some victims were opposition protesters, but many were civilian bystanders clearly not involved in the clashes. Among the dead were medics, as well as police officers. A majority of the more than 100 people who died in the violence were shot by snipers; hundreds were also injured by the gunfire and other street fighting. [Continue reading...]

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Is this Russia’s Stuxnet? Experts analyze Snake, Uroburos, Turla malware samples dating back to 2005

n13-iconTechworld reports: The mysterious ‘Uroburos’ cyberweapon named last week in Germany has been stalking its victims since as far back as 2005 and large enterprises and governments need to pay urgent attention to the threat it poses, UK security firm BAE Systems has urged.

German firm G Data’s recent analysis dubbed it ‘Uroburos’ while it is also known to some security firms as ‘Turla’. BAE Systems’ Applied Intelligence division, which today published its own research, prefers the catchier ‘Snake’ but under any name the picture is alarming.

According to BAE Systems, It now transpires that Snake has been slithering silently around networks in the US and its NATO allies and former Soviet states for almost a decade, stealing data, getting ever more complex and modular and remaining almost invisible.

To be clear, this isn’t any old malware. Snake is just too long-lived, too targeted, too sophisticated, too evasive, too innovative. It appears to be on par with any of the complex cyberweapons attributed to the US such as Flame, first analysed by Kaspersky Lab in 2012.

After several months of research, the UK firm takes what we know a lot further, offering for the first time some objective data on targets. Culling data from malware research sites (i.e. those to which suspected malware samples are submitted for inspection), it has been spotted 32 times in the Ukraine since 2010, 11 times in Lithuania, 4 times in the UK, and a handful of times altogether from the US, Belgium, Georgia, Romania, Hungary and Italy.

These are very small numbers but BAE Systems believes that on past experience they are highly indicative. While they represent a tiny fraction of the number of infections that will have occurred in these countries and beyond, they can be used to reliably infer that Snake has been aimed at Western and Western-aligned countries pretty much exclusively.

In a week Russia planted boots on the ground in the Crimean region of the Ukraine, this is an unfortunate coincidence because while BAE Systems refused to name the state as the culprit, G Data and others are convinced that the links are suspicious.

Hints of the malware’s provenance have surfaced from time to time. In 2008, the US Department of Defense (DoD) reported that something called, Agent.btz had attacked its systems, an incident later attributed on more than one occasion to the Russian state without further elaboration. [Continue reading...]

The 2008 attack targeted U.S. Central Command. A few days ago, threats coming from the Syrian Electronic Army via Twitter were also directed at #CENTCOM, an indication perhaps that this group, linked to the Assad regime, has its roots in Russia.

Softpedia reports: “SEA advises the terrorist Obama to think very hard before attempting ‘cyberattacks’ on Syria,” the hackers wrote on Twitter. “We know what Obama is planning and we will soon make him understand that we can respond.”

So far, the Syrian hacktivists have mainly targeted media organizations whose reporting they don’t like. Social media accounts have been compromised, and websites have been defaced. However, they claim that their attacks against the US government will not be of “the same kind.”

“The next attack will prove that the entire US command structure was a house of cards from the start. #SEA #CENTCOM,” reads the last tweet they posted.

The #CENTCOM hashtag suggests that the hackers’ next target is the US Central Command (centcom.mil).

The Syrian Electronic Army’s announcement comes shortly after the New York Times published an article about the United States’ intention to develop a battle plan against Syria. The use of cyber weapons is being taken into consideration.

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Obama has bungled his negotiations with Putin

a13-iconFred Kaplan writes: The most startling thing about the crisis in Ukraine is how horribly all the actors have played their hands.

First, the Ukrainian parliament, after stepping up to power, drastically overstepped its bounds, dissolving the courts and ousting President Viktor Yanukovich by fiat rather than through legal processes of impeachment—thus giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the sliver of an excuse to declare the new leaders “illegitimate” and to intervene under the pretense of restoring “order.”

Then, Putin went overboard, not merely bolstering the security of Russia’s naval base on the coast of Crimea (an autonomous republic of Ukraine that once belonged to Russia) but mobilizing 30,000 troops to occupy the entire enclave. This was unnecessary, since Putin already, in effect, controlled Crimea. It may also prove stupid, as the move’s violence has further alienated Ukrainians, raised suspicions among Russia’s other ex-Soviet neighbors, and roused resistance from otherwise indifferent Western nations.

Which leads to President Obama, who has responded to the aggression by imposing sanctions—a cliché of foreign policy that usually has no effect, but in this case will almost certainly make things worse.

Sanctions only work (and, even then, rarely) when they are universal, when they truly hurt the regime being targeted, and when they coincide with—or prompt—political change. Russia fits none of these categories. Too many European nations are too dependent on Russian gas supplies or bank deposits to make sanctions bite or endure. None of the sanctions under discussion are knockout blows; no conceivable sanctions would compel Putin (or any Russian leader) to surrender Ukraine. And regime change in Moscow is hardly on the horizon.

This crisis will be settled by making things somehow right with Ukraine—keeping it secure from further encroachments and ensuring that its government reflects the will of its people. The path toward both goals runs through the upcoming elections in May. And neither goal can be accomplished—no free and fair election can take place—without Russian involvement. [Continue reading...]

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Assad taking advantage of U.S.-Russia split over Ukraine, observers say

a13-iconThe Washington Post reports: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is taking advantage of the rift between Russia and the United States over Ukraine to press ahead with plans to crush the rebellion against his rule and secure his reelection for another seven-year term, unencumbered by pressure to compromise with his opponents.

The collapse last month of peace talks in Geneva, jointly sponsored by Russia and the United States, had already eroded the slim prospects that a negotiated settlement to the Syrian war might be possible. With backers of the peace process now at odds over the outcome of the popular uprising in Ukraine, Assad feels newly confident that his efforts to restore his government’s authority won’t be met soon with any significant challenge from the international community, according to analysts and people familiar with the thinking of the regime.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s defiant response to the toppling of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has further reinforced Assad’s conviction that he can continue to count on Russia’s unwavering support against the armed rebellion challenging his rule, said Salem Zahran, a Damascus-based journalist and analyst with close ties to the Syrian regime.

“The regime believes the Russians now have a new and stronger reason to keep Assad in power and support him, especially after the experience of Libya, and now Ukraine,” he said. “In addition, the regime believes that any conflict in the world which distracts the attention of the Americans is a factor which eases pressure on Syria.” [Continue reading...]

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Russian fleet at heart of Ukraine crisis is central to Putin

a13-iconReuters reports: Gently bobbing up and down in the sheltered waters of the Bay of Sevastopol in Crimea, Russia’s storied Black Sea Fleet has an air of decay about it.

Paint peels from low-slung dockside buildings, a solitary submarine sits dolefully alongside a pontoon, and the fleet’s boxy grey ships date back to the Soviet-era with many soon destined for the scrap heap.

But appearances can be deceptive. The fleet, its base, and the sprawling military infrastructure that go with it, are vital to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military and geopolitical ambitions and one of the main reasons the Kremlin is now eyeing complete control of Crimea.

Nor will the fleet be outdated for much longer. It is soon to be restocked with billions of dollars worth of hardware. Lee Willett, editor of Jane’s Navy International, said six new submarines and six new frigates were scheduled for delivery in the next few years.

It is also expected to take delivery of other vessels such as the giant Mistral helicopter carrier, currently being built in France, as well as new attack aircraft.

For Russia, the fleet and its Sevastopol base are a guarantor of its southern borders and a platform for projecting power into the Black Sea and from there into the Mediterranean. Its base is also a docking point for Russian oil tankers bound for the Bosporus and the fleet will be tasked with protecting Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline once it is finished.

Russian analysts say Putin’s decision to intervene in Ukraine was in large part driven by his desire to safeguard the Sevastopol base as he feared the country’s new government would cancel a lease deal allowing the fleet to stay until 2042.

“Putin had every reason to think that would happen,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Moscow-based Russia in Global Affairs journal. “The new government in Ukraine wants to move closer to the European Union and NATO. Their agenda would have meant the fleet would have to leave.”

Such a withdrawal, from a base that carries huge emotional and symbolic significance for Russians because of Sevastopol’s role in the Crimean War and World War Two, would have been a serious geopolitical defeat for Putin, said Lukyanov.

It would also have left Moscow without a viable Black Sea naval base. [Continue reading...]

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Pentagon says 20,000 Russian troops may be in Crimea

n13-iconReuters reports: The Pentagon on Friday estimated as many as 20,000 Russian troops may be in Crimea but acknowledged its information was imperfect, as U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel praised the restraint of Ukrainian forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denies that the forces with no national insignia that are surrounding Ukrainian troops in their bases are under Moscow’s command. The West has ridiculed his assertion.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, asked about the number of Russian forces in Crimea, cited estimates of up to around 20,000 of them. Pressed on the 20,000 figure, Kirby said: “That’s a good estimate right now.”

“But it’s just an estimate. And as I said, we don’t have perfect visibility on the numbers,” Kirby said at a Pentagon news conference.

Ukraine’s border guards have put the figure far higher.

Serhiy Astakhov, an aide to the border guards’ commander, said 30,000 Russian soldiers were now in Crimea, compared with the 11,000 permanently based with the Russian Black Sea fleet in the port of Sevastopol before the crisis. [Continue reading...]

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Russia sinks ship to block Ukrainian navy entry to Black Sea

The Los Angeles Times reports: An anti-submarine ship may have been the first casualty of the Russian incursion into Crimea, but it was hardly an act of violence, much less war: the Russian navy sank one of its own, junked vessels to create an obstacle, a Ukrainian official said on Wednesday.

Ukraine Defence Ministry spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Alexei Mazepa said Russian sailors pulled the anti-submarine vessel Ochakov out of a naval junkyard and sank it in the straits that connect the Black Sea with a body of water known as Donuzlav lake. He said the act was intended to prevent Ukrainian navy ships from leaving a nearby base and going to sea.

The sinking was the latest in a series of moves by Russian naval forces in the area that were jangling the nerves of Ukrainian officers. [Continue reading...]

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