'Shoot to kill' Kiev order to its soldiers
Published 19/03/2014 | 02:30
The crisis in Crimea shifted "to a military stage" last night as the Ukrainian government responded to the killing of one of its soldiers by authorising its troops to open fire to defend themselves from Russian forces.
As tensions rapidly escalated on the ground, the US warned Mr Putin he was on "the wrong side of history" and Britain announced the suspension of all military cooperation with Moscow.
The Ukrainian soldier's death, the first military fatality since Russian forces moved into Crimea last month, was immediately denounced as "a war crime" by the government in Kiev. "The blood of Ukrainian soldiers is on the leadership of the Russian Federation and specifically President Putin," said Oleksandr Turchnynov, the country's interim president.
The Ukrainian military had previously forbidden its troops from opening fire in an effort to prevent the outbreak of violence. Last night that order was withdrawn, and Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea were authorised "to use weapons to defend and protect the lives of Ukrainian servicemen".
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the Ukrainian prime minister, addressed the nation in a live television broadcast, warning his countrymen: "The conflict is shifting from a political to a military stage."
"Russian soldiers have started shooting at Ukrainian military servicemen, and that is a war crime," he added.
It was not clear whether Russian troops or pro-Moscow militias were responsible for attacking the army base outside of Simferopol, Crimea's main city. The unidentified gunmen were reportedly wearing Russian-style uniforms and had their faces covered as they attacked.
The Ukrainian government said the warrant officer had died from a gunshot wound to the neck and another soldier had been injured. Their comrades were arrested at gunpoint.
The first shooting death came hours after Mr Putin delivered a victorious speech in the Kremlin's St George's Hall, interrupted by applause at least 30 times in 47 minutes.
"Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of people," he said as he signed a treaty to make Crimea part of Russia.
Sneering at the decision by the Soviet leadership to transfer Crimea in 1954, Mr Putin said it had been handed over like a "pack of potatoes" and that his actions were correcting a historic mistake.
Mr Putin suggested that the push to reclaim Crimea was rooted in a fear that post-revolutionary Ukraine would join NATO. "Kiev has already announced its intention to join NATO. What would that mean for Crimea and Sevastopol? That in the city of Russia's military glory would appear a NATO fleet, threatening to Russia's south regions?" he asked. The treaty now heads to the Russian parliament for approval, a process expected to take less than a month.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said Mr Putin's narrative of the Crimea crisis, especially his insistence that ethnic Russians were threatened by the new government in Kiev, "didn't jive with reality or with what's happening on the ground".
"The president may have his version of history, but I believe that he and Russia, for what they have done, are on the wrong side of history," Mr Kerry said.
A day after the US and Europe announced sanctions on Ukrainian and Russian officials involved in the incursion, the White House said that more sanctions were on the way unless the Kremlin withdrew forces from Crimea.
Dmitry Rogozin, a Putin ally, hinted that the Kremlin was not yet finished and could look to absorb the renegade Moldovan territory Transnistria. Mr Rogozin said Transnistria and the Russian government would hold a "big meeting" tomorrow to discuss closer alignment.
With Islamist websites announcing the death of Doku Umarov, the leader of Chechen rebels and the Kremlin's most hated foe, the Russian leader rounded off a banner day by addressing a rally of supporters in Red Square.