YEVPATORIA, Ukraine — An anti-submarine boat may have been the first casualty of the Russian incursion into Crimea, but it was hardly an act of violence, much less war: The Russian navy sank one of its own, junked vessels to create an obstacle, a Ukrainian official said Wednesday.
Ukraine Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Col. Alexei Mazepa said Russian sailors pulled the anti-submarine vessel Ochakov out of a naval junkyard and sank it in the straits that connect the Black Sea with a body of water known as Donuzlav Lake. He said the act was intended to prevent Ukrainian navy ships from leaving a nearby base and going to sea.
The sinking was the latest in a series of moves by Russian naval forces in the area that were jangling the nerves of Ukrainian officers.
Earlier in the week, the commander of the Russian Black Sea fleet, Adm. Alexander Vitko, visited Ukraine's South Base, according to the deputy base commander, Capt. Viktor Shmiganovsky.
"He asked me to invite all the officers and suggested that we collectively take up the Russian military allegiance oath and become part of the Black Sea fleet … promising good pay and a bright future," Shmiganovsky said in an interview. "He insisted we do that to help protect Ukraine from extremist gangs."
The officer said his boss, the base commander, retorted: "Comrade admiral, we didn't see any extremist gangs here until you came with your men." He said the admiral left "in a rage."
On Wednesday, the mouth of the bay was blocked by 10 Russian vessels including the formidable guided missile cruiser Moskva.
"The Black Sea fleet can sail in the Black Sea, but it has no right to block our navy harbor like this!" Mazepa said.
Russia leases the port of Sevastopol and other bases in Crimea, which serves as the headquarters of its Black Sea fleet. Russian troops have seized or blockaded a number of strategic facilities in Crimea, including Ukrainian military bases, leading to uneasy standoffs with Ukrainian troops.
While the Russians have mostly worn unmarked uniforms and the Kremlin has denied that they are, in fact, Russian military units, some were seen Wednesday wearing regulation uniforms, with Russian epaulets and insignia, a Ukrainian army officer said.
Ukrainian Col. Andriy Matviyenko said about 200 Russian officers and soldiers arrived late Tuesday night at the gate of a Ukrainian anti-aircraft brigade stationed in the resort city of Yevpatoria, about 60 miles northwest of Sevastopol. They made no attempt to hide their Russian military identity.
"Their commander introduced himself as Col. Dyatlov, commander of a Russian anti-aircraft unit, who demanded that we open up the gates, let him and his men in and allow them to put our anti-aircraft missiles back on duty under the control and guidance of the Russian armed forces," Matviyanko said in an interview. "I flatly said no, and they turned and left. They had no business being here, on Ukrainian soil."