KIEV, Ukraine – Russia’s military staged a provocative new act of aggression Saturday, occupying a gas-pumping station and village on a narrow strip of Ukrainian land near the Crimean Peninsula and prompting Kiev’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to denounce a military invasion by Russia.
The incident marks a fresh escalation in already-high tensions as well as the first face-to-face standoff between the Ukrainian and Russian militaries outside the Crimean Peninsula, suggesting that Moscow is testing the will of Kiev amid fears of further Russian incursions in eastern and southern Ukraine. The move comes on the eve of a vote in Crimea on whether the residents of the peninsula want to break away from Ukraine and join Russia.
A force of Russian troops in four helicopter gunships and three armored combat vehicles descended on a pumping station near the village of Strilkove around 1:30 p.m. local time, according to Ukrainian officials.
Oleg Slobodyan, a spokesman for the Ukrainian border guard, said Saturday evening that 120 Russian soldiers were still occupying the pumping station and had not agreed to Ukrainian demands to leave. No shots had been fired, he said, but he added that Ukrainian military forces had mobilized to just outside the city of Henichesk, putting themselves between the Russian force and the Ukrainian mainland.
The Russians said they had seized the pumping station out of fears it would be targeted by terrorists, according to a Ukrainian defense ministry official who declined to be named.
Initially, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the Russians had appeared to leave the area after a period of negotiation, but a Foreign Ministry statement suggested that the Russians remained in place.
Ukraine Foreign Ministry declares the military invasion by Russia and demands the Russian side to immediately withdraw its military forces from the territory of Ukraine, the ministry said in a statement. Ukraine reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia.
The standoff, which apparently occurred about 80 miles from Crimea, could mark a significant escalation in a conflict that shows no sign of easing a day before the Crimeans vote.
The allegations by Ukrainian authorities came as tens of thousands of anti-war demonstrators turned out in Moscow to protest Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, the largest political rally in the Russian capital in more than a year.
Earlier Saturday, Ukrainian officials reported a shootout between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators, which took place overnight Friday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
Two people were dead and dozens injured after a group of Russian separatists approached offices being used by pro-Ukrainian activists, according to Tatiana Gruzinskaya, spokeswoman for the city’s mayor.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a menacing statement Saturday in response to the violence. There have been many appeals for Russia to protect peaceful civilians, the statement said. These appeals will be considered.
That warning, which follows other, similar threats, is likely to add to fears that Russia will expand its intervention beyond Crimea and into eastern Ukraine. While Russia has blamed such clashes on right-wing Ukrainians and on the new government, Ukrainian officials placed blame squarely on Russia’s shoulders.
Speaking from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said it was Russian agents who were causing people to be murdered.
As Turchynov spoke, demonstrators in Moscow showed their solidarity with Ukraine by carrying Russian, Ukrainian and European Union flags as they walked from Pushkin Square to Sakharov Prospekt, which they filled.
Participants also protested against increasing pressure the government has been bringing to bear on Russian news organizations.
No blood. No tears. We don’t need any more, read one sign.
Russia blocked passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution Saturday that would have declared that today’s referendum can have no validity, and cannot form the basis for any alteration of the status of Crimea.
The veto was expected, but in a possible sign of Russian isolation, Moscow’s close ally China opted to abstain rather than join Moscow in vetoing the measure. The other 13 Security Council members supported the measure.