Ukraine Liveblog Day 34: Is Chance of War “Growing”?

March 23, 2014
A Russian harasses a the Ukrainian garrison of the Belbek airbase, March 23 | Reuters

As Russian troops seize Ukrainian bases and warships, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister warns that the prospects of war may be higher than ever.

Yesterday’s liveblog can be found here. For an overview and analysis of this developing story see our latest podcast.

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Below, we will be making regular updates throughout the day. Updates will be more sparse today, but we will return to our full coverage on Monday:

1805 GMT: The White House is warning that what Russia is doing with its military across the border is not just a series of exercises or a show of force but may be a precursor to invasion of eastern Ukraine:

Russian forces gathering on the border with eastern Ukraine may be poised to invade, the White House warned on Sunday, as the government in Kiev said that the prospect of war with Moscow was continuing to grow after the annexation of Crimea.

Speaking after Nato’s top commander in Europe voiced alarm about the size and preparedness of the Russian troop buildup, President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, said President Vladimir Putin may indeed be readying further action.

“It’s deeply concerning to see the Russian troop buildup on the border,” Blinken told CNN. “It creates the potential for incidents, for instability. It’s likely that what they’re trying to do is intimidate the Ukrainians. It’s possible that they’re preparing to move in.”

1745 GMT: Dueling rallies have been held in the port city of Odessa (map). The Russian government propaganda outlet Voice of Russia reports:

Thousands of Odessites are protesting today against the coup d’etat in Ukraine and the political repression that followed. They brought the flags of Ukraine, Russia and the Crimea, chanting “Ukraine and Russia stand together”, “Odessa is a Russian city”, “Odessa is against Nazis and oligarchs”, “Odessa, give Banderovites the bum’s rush”, “Referendum.”

The demonstrators demanded the release of Anton Davidchenko, the leader of the Coordinating Board of the Odessa region NGOs “People’s Alternative”, arrested by the Ukrainian special services, and to cease harassment of other activists accused of separatism. Davidchenko’s mother spoke at a rally and urged Ukrainian mothers not to let their sons “join the criminal war, that the nationalists and the oligarchs who seized the power in Kiev, are trying to unleash upon the fraternal Slavic peoples in the interests of their Western backers.”

It’s not clear how large the crowds were, but at least several hundred seem to have taken to the streets. Shelton Bumgarner has collected several videos of the march:

But in Odessa, pro-EU protesters used the power of music to lift spirits:

1718 GMT: Are things really deescalating, or are we closer to a war than ever? Yesterday, Russian troops captured the Belbek airbase and the Novofedorivka naval base, along with more Ukrainian warships. Today, the BBC reports that Russian troops and Crimean “self-defence” forces captured another Ukrainian warship, the Slavutych.

The command vessel was seized by Crimean “self-defence” units and Russian troops after a two-hour assault in Sevastopol, a Ukrainian defence spokesman said.

The BBC’s Ian Pannell in Belbek says the Ukrainian troops on the peninsula feel beleaguered and abandoned by their commanders.

And this morning, , Ukraine Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya says that chances of war are growing:

Speaking on ABC-TV’s “This Week” program on March 23, Deshchytsya said: “We don’t know what Putin has in his mind… That’s why this situation is becoming even more explosive than it used to be a week ago.”

In Washington, a top White House aide said it’s possible that Russia could invade eastern Ukraine.

Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken told CNN’s “State of the Union” program that Russia seems to be trying to intimidate Ukraine by massing thousands of troops along the border.

Blinken said the United States is looking at providing military assistance to Ukraine.

However, he said “it’s very unlikely to change Russia’s calculus and prevent an invasion.”

Pro-Russian activists threw smoke bombs before storming the base in Novofedorivka | AFP

Pro-Russian activists threw smoke bombs before storming the base in Novofedorivka | AFP