SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — The Russian military set an ultimatum Sunday for Ukrainian army and navy units “to surrender weapons and leave their bases” in the Crimean peninsula, Ukraine’s acting president, Olexandr Turchinov, said in televised remarks.
According to Turchinov, the ultimatum demanded that the troops abandon their bases by 5 a.m. Sunday. But as of late afternoon, the Ukrainian military was still occupying the bases, although they were kept effectively confined to them by Russian troops blocking access.
Turchinev said the ultimatum came from the Russian military’s North Caucasus division. He said his efforts to speak about it with leaders in Moscow had been futile.
The reported ultimatum came as world attention focused on the crisis in Crimea and acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk called the Russian troop movements and call to arms of Crimea’s predominantly ethnic Russian population “a declaration of war.”
Crimea is a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine that is populated mostly by Russian speakers and has symbolic and strategic value to Russia, which leases the Crimean port of Sevastopol for the headquarters of its Black Sea fleet.
In the Crimean capital of Simferopol, Russian troops mostly kept a low profile Sunday, continuing to patrol the area around the city’s airport, which resumed flights after a day of closed airspace.
When asked what they were doing, one soldier carrying a heavy machine gun told the Times that he was “protecting the airport from fascists.”
Last week, the local parliament, dominated by a Russian majority, held an urgent session -- in a parliament building that had been captured by dozens of heavily armed people believed to be Russian commandos. The session led to the appointment of a Russian nationalist, Sergei Aksenov, as Crimea's new premier.
The parliament also approved a measure to hold a referendum on the future status of Crimea on May 25, later moved to March 30.
Aksenov, whose Russian Unity party captured only 3% of the vote in the last regional elections, also tried to take command of the regional police and Ukraine's army and navy stationed in the peninsula, but was rebuffed by the interim Ukrainian government in Kiev.
Ukraine's army and navy units in the Crimea remained loyal to Ukraine's new leadership and reportedly repelled several attempts by Russian troops to disarm them.
In one incident Sunday, unidentified armed commandos cut off power lines to the Ukrainian navy headquarters in Sevastopol. Later in the day, unidentified commandos broke into several Ukraine navy communication stations and sabotaged communication lines, Ukraine’s UNIAN news agency reported.
Months of protests in Kiev led to the departure last month of Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, who had angered pro-Western regions of the country with his decision to reject ties with the European Union in favor of closer cooperation with Moscow.
The streets of Simferopol were unusually quiet Sunday, except for the square in front of the parliament building, where a gathering of a couple dozen Russian men and women listened to Russian war songs played through a loud speaker.
“We welcome Russian troops here because they can guarantee that we elect our own authorities instead of the regime bought with the West's money,” said Dmitry Alexandrov, a 33-year-old construction worker, munching a free sandwich distributed by the organizer of the small rally.
One reason for the unnatural quiet was that some families with small children were leaving Crimea, fearing war.
A 30-year-old lawyer, Vladimir Chubai, was taking his wife and infant daughter to Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine, abandoning their house in Feodosia, a popular Crimean sea resort.
“Russian troops surrounded a Ukrainian navy base near Feodosia yesterday,” Chubai said. “Today we just packed and went without waiting for shooting to begin next to our home.”
Apart from its military response, Russia was expected to render economic assistance, Crimean parliament speaker Vladimir Konstantinov said Sunday, adding that the newly elected regional government was in full control of the situation.
“As for Russian Federation assistance, we asked them to ensure law and order here and to extend to us financial assistance during this complicated period,” Konstantinov said. “We got such an agreement. Now our working group is in Moscow resolving technical details of the problem.”
When asked about Russian flags flying over the parliament building in Simferopol, Konsantinov said: “Yes, there is a flag there which people raised. It is not bothering anyone.”
At least one Ukrainian flag could also be seen in the city, a mile away in front of a monument to a 19th century Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko. A small gathering of young men and women stood near the monument, protesting Russian occupation of the peninsula.
One of the posters the protesters held was in English and read: “Crimea belongs to us, residents of Ukraine. Russian troops scare us.”
“We don't need invaders in our streets,” said Ruslan Kavpak, 42, an ethnic Russian engineer. “We haven't invited them. There is no violence here. By deploying Russian soldiers in the Crimea, they sow mutual suspicion and set people of different nationalities against one another.”