Ukraine gets new defense minister as its troops pull out of Crimea

Ukraine’s acting defense minister was dismissed Tuesday over his handling of the crisis in Crimea.

MOSCOW — Ukraine’s parliament accepted the resignation of the country’s defense minister on Tuesday as Ukrainian troops were carrying out a painful withdrawal from Crimea, the peninsula now in Russian hands.

In parliament, outgoing Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh was criticized by some lawmakers for giving up Crimea without battling back against Russian forces.

“We are talking about Russia grabbing Crimea from us but I would put it differently: We gave Crimea away to Russia.” independent lawmaker Ihor Palitsa said in televised remarks during a parliament session Tuesday. “We handed Crimea over to Russia with our unprofessional and indecisive actions.

“When [the Russian aggression] began, we had more troops in Crimea than Russia,” he said. “Why didn’t the defense minister at that moment give an order to open fire and protect the organs of state power? How did it happen that our troops are leaving Crimea today without weapons and with their hands bound?”

The first Ukrainian troops to be pulled out Tuesday actually were leaving in their armored vehicles, with their unit flag and weapons, former Defense Minister Anatoly Gritsenko wrote on his Facebook account.


He identified them as 80 airborne soldiers stationed at the town of Perevalne, who had been holding out since Russian troops began occupying the peninsula late last month.

“Since the beginning of the war, they have been holding on waiting for the order which never came,” Gritsenko wrote. “And then they made their own decision to break through to [Ukraine’s] mainland with their hardware and weapons.”

Russian commandos accompanied the paratroopers along their route, Gritsenko wrote.

The outgoing defense minister said in televised remarks before the parliament that about 4,300 soldiers out of the more than 18,000 initially stationed in Crimea had requested that they be evacuated off the peninsula to continue their service with the Ukrainian military. About 2,200 of their family members also want to leave, he said.

Col. Gen. Mykhailo Koval, who was appointed acting defense minister in Tenyukh’s place, told parliament that those Ukrainian troops who wished to withdraw from Crimea would be pulled out in a dignified manner.

“They will be returning to us with proudly raised flags and with their weapons,” Koval said in televised remarks. “Everything will be normal.”

But a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that this might not be the case.

“Ukraine’s military who want to leave Crimea for Ukraine can freely leave the territory of Crimea, but it will be up to Russia’s Defense Ministry whether they will do it with or without their arms,” Dmitry Peskov said to reporters Tuesday.

At least 140 Ukrainian marines out of 600 stationed in the resort city of Feodosiya, whose base was seized by Russian forces Monday, would be leaving for Ukraine on Russian buses and without arms, the unit’s deputy commander, Volodymyr Boronyuk, said in televised remarks Tuesday.

The Russian commandos who attacked his unit used tear gas and stun grenades, said Boronyuk, who had bruises on his face. “It is an excess of the profession,” Boronyuk said with a grim smile when asked about reports that his soldiers engaged Russian invaders in a hand-to-hand combat.

Two commanding officers of his unit were still held by the Russians, Boronyuk said.

The reshuffle in the Defense Ministry suggested that a scapegoat was being sought for the fall of Crimea, political scientist Vadim Karasyov said, labeling Tenyukh’s resignation as it was widely perceived: a firing.

“The dramatic loss of Crimea coincided with the actual beginning of the presidential campaign in Ukraine, and the firing of the acting defense minister was a blow against presidential candidate Julia Tymoshenko, whose party people now occupy all the leading positions in the interim government of Ukraine,” Karasyov, the head of Kiev-based Institute of Global Strategies, said in a phone interview with The Times.

The new defense minister, Koval, is a former chief of border troops, he noted, and “can be very important now that Ukraine badly needs to fortify its border with Russia.”

“Crimea is effectively lost to Russia, but not for good,” Karasyov said. “When Putin’s authoritarian rule in Russia collapses, Ukraine, with the help of world community, can always reclaim the peninsula.”

Karasyov said the large number of apparent defections among Ukrainian troops in Crimea to the Russian side reflected the fact that many servicemen had their homes in Crimea and didn’t want their families to leave the seaside peninsula.

“We expect about 20% of our servicemen in Crimea to return to Ukraine,” Karasyov said.