Russia has demanded more autonomy for Ukraine’s regions as the pressured nation ordered its troops out of Crimea.
In an unexpected move Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov agreed to the highest level meeting yet between his government and a representative of the new Ukrainian government that Moscow has opposed vociferously over the past month.
The meeting took place on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in the Hague, Netherlands.
Mr Lavrov told Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Deshchytsia that Russia continued to want constitutional changes in Ukraine that would give more autonomy to all its regions.
Russia is eager to retain its influence in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern regions and prevent Ukraine from joining Nato. It has pushed for the new Ukraine to become a loose federation – demands the new Ukrainian government has rejected.
Before the meeting, Mr Deshchytsia said his government feared a Russian military build-up near Ukraine’s border. “The possibility of a military invasion is very high. We are very much worried about this concentration of troops on our eastern border,” he said.
The concerns have been deepened in by the intense military pressure Russia has applied in Crimea since Russian president Vladimir Putin formally annexed the peninsula last week. Russian forces have commandeered ships and broke into walled military installations with armoured personnel carriers.
In the bay of Donuzlav in western Crimea, dozens of Ukrainian sailors marooned on the Konstantin Olshanskiy navy landing vessel abandoned ship after weeks of tension and uncertainty. The Olshanskiy and two other warships have been trapped in the bay since Russian forces scuttled mothballed ships at the bay’s inlet.
The sailors, using a small rubber boat that needed several trips to ferry them to land, were greeted by the taunts of hecklers on the shore.
One man shouted they were deserting “rats” while another man blasted the Russian national anthem from his car.
“We aren’t rats, we aren’t running,” said one sailor, who only gave his first name of Yevgeny. “Why should we have stayed, what would we have accomplished?”
Twenty out of the estimated 60 sailors originally on board remained on the ship, which was later in the day stormed by armed men, presumed to be Russian forces.
Defence Ministry spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said the crew, which barricaded itself in the bulkhead, heard stun grenades and rifle fire.
At a naval base near the eastern Crimean port of Feodosia, two injured servicemen were taken captive earlier in the day and as many as 80 were detained at the site, Ukrainian officials said.
With the storming of at least three military facilities in Crimea over the past three days – and the decision by some Ukrainian troops to stay employed by switching to the Russian side – it wasn’t clear how many Ukrainian troops remained on the peninsula.
The former chief of Ukraine’s navy, who was charged with treason after he swore allegiance to Crimea’s pro-Russian authorities and urged others to defect, was named a deputy chief of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchnynov, whose new government in Kiev has struggled to maintain control and cohesion, signed a decree ordering the withdrawal of all servicemen in Crimea to Ukraine’s mainland.
But in remarks that seemed to underline the disarray that has characterised the Ukrainian authorities, the Defence Ministry spokesman later stated he had heard about no such order.