Putin Calls U.S. Bluff As Pro-Russian Forces Seize Crimean Bases

Putin Calls U.S. Bluff As Pro-Russian Forces Seize Crimean Bases

Masked Russian-speaking troops continued to seize Ukrainian facilities in the country’s Crimean peninsula Wednesday in the face of repeated calls by the United States and European Union to de-escalate the crisis.

The bold troop offensives came two days after President Barack Obama vowed to "impose further sanctions" on Russia if it continues to interfere with Ukraine — a threat that has yet to be fulfilled. (Before Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the U.S. slapped asset freezes on seven Russian officials and suspended preparations for the G-8 Summit in Sochi this summer.)

The latest blow to Ukrainian sovereignty was the seizure of its naval headquarters in Sevastopol by militiamen on Wednesday. According to reports on the ground, the Russian-speaking militiamen wore helmets and uniforms with no identifying insignia. After several hundred of them stormed the naval base without resistance from Ukrainian soldiers, Crimean authorities arrested the Ukrainian navy commander, Rear Adm. Sergei Haiduk, and took control of the base.

According to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, the raid caused no injuries and was carried out by pro-Russian militiamen and Cossacks. Russian state media said Haiduk is currently being questioned by Crimean prosecutors.

The seizure occurred 24 hours after a gunfight between Ukrainian troops and a local militia at another military facility in Crimea resulted in the deaths of two men. In an effort to de-escalate the crisis and end future hostilities, Ukraine’s acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk requested that his Vice Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema and Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh travel to Crimea. However, Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov refused to allow them entry.

"They are not welcome in Crimea," he said Wednesday. "They will not be allowed to enter in Crimea. They will be sent back."

Russia’s brazen seizure of Crimea in the region has rattled U.S. allies in Eastern Europe, a cohort Vice President Biden is trying to soothe with two consecutive days of meetings with the leaders of Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

"As long as Russia proceeds along this dark path, they will receive increasing political and economic isolation," Biden said in Vilnius, Lithuania on Wednesday, before his flight back to Washington that evening. "Russia cannot escape that the world is changing and rejecting outright their behavior … And that there is a price to pay for naked aggression."

What that price may be remains uncertain. The U.S. promised further sanctions of Russian officials on Monday after it imposed asset freezes on seven Russian officials, including Vladislav Surkov, Sergey Glazyev, Leonid Slutsky and Dmitry Rogozin. But Biden’s trip to eastern Europe has only brought modest promises of "steadfast" support for allies such as Poland. Observers are skeptical that U.S. sanctions could ultimately do much to influence Russia given the paltry amount of annual trade between the two nations. European Union sanctions could deal a serious blow to the Russian economy, but it could destabilize Europe’s as well. 

On Monday, the EU unveiled a list of 21 Ukrainian and Russian officials targeted by sanctions, but has yet to impose further penalties on Russia. Germany’s cabinet paved the way for signing the EU’s trade deal with Ukraine on Wednesday by approving closer political relations with the country. 

In Washington, where both houses of Congress are in recess, lawmakers have urged the administration to impose further sanctions on Russia and curb its stranglehold of Europe’s energy market. "Putin is making the most of his energy grip over Ukraine," Rep. Ed Royce of California, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday.  "If we are serious about challenging Putin’s aggression, the U.S. and our European allies should make an all out effort to break that grip."

Royce and other lawmakers, have suggested boosting exports of U.S. natural gas. But as Foreign Policy reported last week, that’s easier said than done, as much of U.S. gas has already been snapped up by customers with long-term contracts.