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Obama says US, Europe do not want a confrontation with Russia over Ukraine (LIVE BLOG)

The Ukraine crisis moved on to diplomatic halls, while people in Kyiv began to rebuild.

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Meeting of the G7 leaders on March 24, 2014 in The Hague, Netherlands. (Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

GLOBALPOST LIVE BLOG: CRISIS IN UKRAINE

UPDATE: 3/26/14 4:00 PM ET

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UPDATE: 3/26/14 2:25 PM ET

Russia is still amassing troops on Ukraine's border: Hagel

Agence France-Presse — Russia has moved more troops near Ukraine's border in recent days despite assurances it would not attack the country's east, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday.

Although Russia's defense minister had told Hagel last week that Moscow would not send troops into eastern Ukraine, "the reality is that they continue to build up their forces, so they need to make sure they stay committed to what Minister (Sergei) Shoigu told me," the Pentagon chief said after meeting his British counterpart, Philip Hammond.

There are now more than 20,000 Russian troops, including airborne units, fighter aircraft and armored vehicles, deployed near the Ukrainian border, providing ample firepower to seize the eastern region if Moscow chose to, according to US defense officials.

Read the full story at AFP.

UPDATE: 3/26/14 2:10 PM ET

Why does eastern Ukraine not want to turn to Europe?

GlobalPost's Greg Brosnan reports:

DONETSK, Ukraine — While the world’s attention focused on Crimea, pro-Russian protests have rocked cities in eastern Ukraine, home to a Russian-speaking population with strong economic and cultural links to its former motherland. If Putin were to invade another part of Ukraine, it would likely be here. Many people would not mind, and a substantial number would welcome it.

We asked an economist in Donetsk, a major city at the heart of the Donbass coalfield — Ukraine’s industrial heartland, what people’s main beef was with the new government in Kyiv.

It’s the economy, stupid, said Eduard Pavlysh, an associate professor with the Department of Foreign Economic Activity at Donetsk National Technical University. In particular, the new government’s keenness to join the EU, from which eastern Ukraine likely had far more to lose than gain.

An economist explains why industrial eastern Ukraine doesn't want to turn toward Europe from GlobalPost on Vimeo.

UPDATE: 3/26/14 12:10 PM ET

Russia seized Ukraine's last Crimean ship

Reuters — Russian forces have taken over the Ukrainian minesweeper Cherkasy, the last military ship controlled by Ukraine in Crimea, in an operation in which they used stun grenades and fired in the air, Ukrainian naval sources said on Wednesday.

During the operation there was an explosion on board the ship, which was in an inlet called Donuslav Lake, which apparently damaged its engines.

"The Cherkasy has been taken over and as the engine was damaged during the raid it had to be towed away by a tug boat to the anchorage," Ukrainian navy spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said.

There were no injuries and the crew remained on board until the morning when they went ashore.

During the take-over, which began on Tuesday evening, the minesweeper used water cannon in an effort to repel the Russian forces who had approached the Cherkasy in speedboats. "Russians threw stun grenades and fired small arms, apparently in the air," a navy source said.

Russian forces have used similar tactics to seize ships and military bases from the last remaining Ukrainian troops in Crimea in recent days as part of Russia's largely bloodless annexation of the region.

UPDATE: 3/26/14 11:30 AM ET

The next sanctions, if they come, could target Russia's energy sector

US President Barack Obama said on Wednesday the United States and Europe were in discussions over possible sanctions against Russia's energy sector, should Moscow move deeper into Ukraine.

"What we are now doing is coordinating around the potential for additional, deeper sanctions should Russia move forward and engage in further incursions into Ukraine," Obama told a news conference after meeting top European Union officials in Brussels.

"I think energy is obviously a central focus of our efforts and we have to consider it very strongly."

Obama also urged the EU to work towards diversifying its energy sources, in addition to asking Washington for help to offset any shortfalls from Russia.

"I think it is useful for Europe to look at its own energy assets as well as how the United States can supply additional energy assets."

UPDATE: 3/26/14 10:55 AM ET

Kyiv begins the slow, painful process of recovery

More from GlobalPost's Greg Brosnan in Kyiv this morning:

Once an urban war zone, Kyiv's central square, called Maidan, has become a kind of memorial park. Parents and kids snap photos in front of shrines to those killed during protests and leave flowers. Repairs are slowly moving forward, but people seem reluctant to touch any the rubble, as if the wounds are too fresh.

Repairs move forward slowly in Kyiv's Maidan from GlobalPost on Vimeo.

UPDATE: 3/26/14 10:40 AM ET

Obama says Europe and US are united in their determination to isolate Russia

Senior Correspondent Paul Ames followed Obama's speech at the EU summit:

After talks at European Union headquarters, Obama said the US and Europe were united in seeking to isolate Russia for its annexation of Crimea and agreed that they would impose strong economic sanctions should Moscow make further incursions into Ukraine.

“The United States and Europe stand united on this issue,” he told a news conference after the talks. “We’re united in our support for Ukraine … we’re united in our commitment to Europe’s security, we’re united in our determination to isolate Russia and impose costs for Russia’s actions.”

He called on European countries in NATO to step up defense spending to ensure the alliance can defend all its members, including those in central and eastern Europe. “The situation in Ukraine reminds us our freedom isn’t free,” he said.

On both issues, however diplomats in Brussels said the United States will need to keep up pressure on allies — several of whom are wary of the harm to their own economies that could spring from further sanctions on Russia. Others are reluctant to increase military spending at a time when their economies are struggling to come out of recession.

Obama said US and European energy ministers will meet next week, stressing the “urgency” of efforts to reduce Europe’s dependence on imports of Russian oil and gas. He said the US was looking at relaxing restrictions on energy exports so more American gas can be sent to Europe, but added that the Europeans should do more to develop their own energy resources.

US gas sales could be made easier by the conclusion of the sweeping trans-Atlantic free trade deal which is currently under negotiation, he said.

UPDATE: 3/26/14 10:25 AM ET

The flashpoint in eastern Ukraine is quiet for now

GlobalPost's Greg Brosnan reports:

Childrens' tricycles have returned to Lenin Square, in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. The square was the scene of recent violent protests, where a young pro-Ukrainian demonstrator was killed.

A pro-Russian protest camp remains a permanent feature of the square, though, a reminder of the underlying tensions here in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking industrial heartland.

eastern front from GlobalPost on Vimeo.

UPDATE: 3/26/14 10:10 AM ET

Polish PM thinks they may have stalled Russia

Reuters — Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on Wednesday it seems that measures adopted by the European Union and the United States will succeed in preventing further Russian interference in Ukraine.

"It looks like the measured stance of the EU, the United States and probably Poland is starting to yield positive results," Tusk said at news conference.

"It seems that it will be possible to stop Russia from undertaking other acts of aggression and interference on the territory of Ukraine," he said.

UPDATE: 3/25/14 5:00 PM ET

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UPDATE: 3/25/14 3:40 PM ET

Russia begins military exercises near breakaway region of Moldova

Reuters — Russia's military staged training exercises on Tuesday in Transdniestria, a breakaway sliver of Moldova that is a focus of tension following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

NATO's top military commander said on Sunday he was worried that Russia might have its eye on Transdniestria, a largely Russian-speaking region that borders western Ukraine, after seizing Crimea, which has a narrow ethnic Russian majority.

The Interfax news agency quoted a spokesman for Russia's Western Military District, Colonel Oleg Kochetkov, as saying that Russian forces stationed in Transdniestria had "conducted an anti-terrorism drill and practiced operations to rebuff an attack on their military base."

Transdniestria, with a population of half a million, has run its own affairs since 1992 after fighting a brief war against the Moldovan government over fears that it might join Romania after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia has a permanent garrison of peacekeepers there.

UPDATE: 3/25/14 3:25 PM ET

Russians close in on last Ukrainian vessel near Crimea

More (and slightly contradictory) information from Reuters on that Ukrainian vessel:

"Around 1900 (1600 GMT) there were several explosions from the direction of the minesweeper Cherkasy in the Donuzlav bay," Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov told Reuters.

"Some Mi-35 helicopter gunships were observed hovering in the area. Speedboats and a tug were seen approaching Cherkasy," he said.

On Monday Cherkasy attempted without success to break to the open sea through a blockade at the entrance to the inlet. The Russian navy blocked the route earlier this month by scuttling three hulks in the channel.

Seleznyov said he was unable to confirm whether Russian troops had boarded the ship.

UPDATE: 3/25/14 3:20 PM ET

Ukraine loses the last Crimean naval vessel still flying its flag

Agence France-Prese cited a Ukrainian defense official saying that Russian troops had taken the last naval vessel still flying Ukraine's flag in the Black Sea.

"The raid on the Cherkasy trawler occurred one day after Russian forces took control of the Kostyantyn Olshanskiy, which, like the Cherkasy, had been blocked by Russian ships in western Crimea's Donuzlav Lake," AFP reported, citing Vladyslav Seleznyov's statement from his Facebook account.

"The assault team is on board the Cherkasy. The crew has been barricaded inside the trawler. The assault is on," he wrote.

Ukraine has officially called on its troops to withdraw from Crimea, which voted in a referendum earlier this month to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. A majority of the international community said it would not recognize the results of the referendum.

UPDATE: 3/25/14 1:45 PM ET

Crimean Tatars consider holding their own referendum

Reuters — Crimea's indigenous Tatars are considering their own referendum on whether to be part of Ukraine or Russia, the leader of the Muslim minority said on Tuesday, in a challenge to Moscow that could further destabilize the region.

Refat Chubarov, the head of the Crimean Tatars' main assembly, told Reuters that the body's 250 members would meet on Saturday to debate the future of the 300,000-strong community in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea.

"In the space of three weeks we've found ourselves in a completely different de facto situation," Chubarov said in an interview. "The Crimean Tatars should determine their fate themselves."

"Nobody asked us, the Crimean Tatars... in what conditions we want to live," he said. "Should the question feature prominently during the meeting, we will seek options of holding our own referendum."

Crimean Tatars are deeply suspicious of Russian rule following the mass deportation of their ancestors to Central Asia by Soviet authorities in 1944.

Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk spoke with the Crimean Tatar community when he was in Bakhchysarai, Crimea

“We are Muslims, and I know how they treat us there,” Useyn, a 57-year-old construction worker, told Peleschuk. “They’ll find the smallest pretext and all of sudden, I’m a terrorist.”

Read "Crimean Tatars fear a future under Russia"

UPDATE: 3/24/14 11:50 AM ET

Obama: Russia isn't our biggest threat

President Obama, at the Hague for the Nuclear Security Summit with G7 leaders, gave a joint press conference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. He addressed Ukraine and the current problem with dealing with Russia:

UPDATE: 3/25/14 8:00 AM ET

Ukrainian defense minister is shown the door

Reuters — Ukraine's acting defense minister was dismissed on Tuesday over his handling of Russia's annexation of Crimea, after it emerged that less than a quarter of soldiers on the peninsula planned to stay in the Ukrainian military.

Ihor Tenyukh, appointed a month ago under an interim government that took power after the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, offered his resignation in a speech to parliament following criticism of the way Ukraine pulled its military out of Crimea.

Lawmakers initially rejected the offer but, after consultations between party faction leaders and parliament speaker and acting Ukrainian president Oleksander Turchynov, voted to remove him.

Critics said Tenyukh should have been quicker to order the pullout from Crimea, which began on Monday, to better safeguard Ukrainian servicemen, many of whom were trapped in their bases surrounded by Russian soldiers and local militiamen.

"Given that some may not like the actions I take... I will not cling to my post," Tenyukh told parliament.

"If the leadership has a different view of developing events and other candidates, I, Acting Defense Minister General Tenyukh, offer my resignation."

Tenyukh said only 4,300 of Ukraine's 18,800 servicemen in the Black Sea peninsula — where a narrow majority of 2 million people are ethnic Russians — planned to remain in the Ukrainian armed forces.

Lawmakers elected Mykhailo Koval, head of the Ukrainian border guard, to replace Tenyukh.

"Tenyukh simply discredited himself with his unprofessional and inadequate actions in Crimea," said Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst at the Penta think tank in Kiev.

He said Tenyukh had "left the military to its fate" by not withdrawing forces sooner.

UPDATE: 3/25/14 7:00 AM ET

Russia's presence at the border worries NATO

Reuters — NATO is very concerned about a Russian military build-up on Ukraine's borders and has all plans in place to defend members of the alliance, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Tuesday.

"We are very much concerned about the Russian military build-up along the borders of Ukraine," Rasmussen told a news conference after talks with Montenegro Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.

"All NATO allies can be assured of our determination to provide effective defense ... We have all plans in place to provide effective defense of our allies," he said, adding that the Western military alliance was discussing with Kyiv how it could enhance its support for non-NATO member Ukraine.

UPDATE: 3/25/14 6:30 AM ET

Russia's out in the cold with G8, but still wants to talk

Reuters — Russia wants to continue contacts with G8 member states, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman was quoted as saying on Tuesday, after the other seven members suspended their participation in the group.

Leaders of the Group of Seven nations, which does not include Russia, also agreed on Monday to hold their own summit instead of attending a G8 meeting in Russia in June because of Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

It will be the first time since Russia joined the Group of Eight in 1998 that it will have been shut out of the annual summit of industrialized democracies.

Asked about contacts with the other G8 nations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency: "The Russian side continues to be ready to have such contacts at all levels, including the top level. We are interested in such contacts."

Itar-Tass news agency quoted Peskov as saying the signs from other countries that they were unwilling to continue dialogue was "counterproductive."

UPDATE: 3/24/14 5:00 PM ET

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UPDATE: 3/24/14 4:20 PM ET

G7 ready to intensify sanctions on Russia

Reuters — Leaders of the G7 said in a statement on Monday they were ready to intensify sanctions on Russia in case of further destabilization of Ukraine.

After a meeting in The Hague, the group said that in response to Russia's violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity it had imposed a variety of sanctions against Russia and those individuals and entities responsible.

"We remain ready to intensify actions including coordinated sectoral sanctions that will have an increasingly significant impact on the Russian economy, if Russia continues to escalate this situation," the G7 said.

It also said it plans to hold a G7 summit in Brussels in June instead of a scheduled G8 meeting with Russia in Sochi.

UPDATE: 3/24/14 2:45 PM ET

Russia sniffs indignantly at being disinvited from G8

Reuters — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that it was no problem for his country if the G8 does not meet.

"If our Western partners believe the format has exhausted itself, we don't cling to this format. We don't believe it will be a big problem if it doesn't convene," Lavrov told reporters in The Hague, where G7 leaders are meeting without Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Following Russia's annexation of Crimea, the G7 has already suspended preparations for a G8 summit that had been scheduled to be held in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi in June.

Britain has also warned that Russia could face permanent exclusion from the G8 if the Kremlin took further steps against Ukraine.

UPDATE: 3/24/14 1:20 PM ET

Russia getting the cold shoulder from G7

Reuters — The Group of Seven big economies should cancel a meeting with Russia in June, British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday, as Western leaders prepared to discuss their response to Russia's annexation of Crimea.

"We should be clear there's not going to be a G8 summit this year in Russia. That's absolutely clear," Cameron told reporters during the nuclear security summit in The Hague.

Cameron was speaking ahead of a hastily-convened meeting with other leaders of the G7 — a group of industrialized nations that excludes Russia, which joined in 1998 to form the G8.

Meanwhile, in Washington, White House adviser Ben Rhodes said that as long as Russia flagrantly violated international law in Ukraine "there is no need for the G7 to engage with Russia."

"What we're looking at is how we engage with Russia in the coming months and years," Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, told reporters.

"If there came a point where Russia would de-escalate the situation and abide by international law, we would not want to foreclose the potential that the G7 would engage with them."

UPDATE: 3/24/14 12:30 PM ET

Meanwhile, in Donetsk...

From Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk who is in Ukraine:

All appears calm in Donetsk, one of eastern Ukraine’s bastions of pro-Russian sentiment, following a weekend rally in support of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych and closer ties with Russia.

On Monday morning, several dozen people – mostly pensioners – milled around the city’s Lenin Square, debating politics and collecting handouts from several civic groups camped out near a hulking statue of the Soviet leader.

On its mantle, pro-Russian activists have posted crude banners denouncing the Kyiv authorities as usurpers, as well as photos of the police officers killed last month during violent clashes with protesters ahead of Yanukovych’s ouster.

One poster calls for the government to release Pavel Gubarev, a self-declared “people’s governor” in Donetsk who was arrested by authorities earlier this month over his calls for separatism.

Elsewhere downtown, there were few signs of tension, as families strolled along a pleasant pedestrian boulevard and teenagers mingled on street corners.

UPDATE: 3/24/14 12:05 PM ET

Europe and America united on Russia?

"Europe and America are united in our support of the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people," US President Barack Obama said on Monday as the G7 leaders met for a nuclear security summit at the Hague.

"We're united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far," he added.

However, here are some members of the EU that might be reluctant to support wide-ranging sanctions, mainly due to their own economic dependence on Russia.

UPDATE: 3/24/14 11:53 AM ET

The Group of Eight no more?

NBC News' Bill Neely tweets:

UPDATE: 3/24/14 11:47 AM ET

Ukraine's soldiers feel sting of humiliation: 'This is all Kyiv's fault'

Reuters — Ukrainian troops and their families began evacuating from Crimea on Monday, as Kyiv effectively acknowledged defeat by Russian forces who stormed one of the last of their remaining bases on the peninsula.

On Monday, bowing to the reality on the ground, Kyiv's leadership announced Ukrainian forces were being pulled out to spare them and their families further Russian threats. A few hours later many were already on their way out.

Scores of troops from a marine base seized earlier in the morning gathered, some with their families, at an assembly point about 1000 yards away. Most were in combat uniform, wearing trademark black berets with Ukrainian cockades depicting a winged anchor and sword. Some were in civilian clothes.

"Yesterday we had an agreement: we would lower our flag and the Russians would raise theirs. And this morning the Russians attacked, firing live ammunition. We had no weapons. We did not fire a round," said one marine, Ruslan, who was with his wife Katya and 9-month-old son.

Troops hugged each other in farewell. Some chanted "Hurra! Hurra!" in defiance. One marine in full uniform who declined to identify himself wept and blamed the government in Kyiv for the chaotic end to the standoff.

"This is all Kyiv's fault. We are defeated. We suffered and ministers in Kyiv did not bother to issue us a proper order," he said. "They smeared our flag and honor."

As two military trucks, a bus and 10 civilian cars pulled out of the gates, servicemen shouted through the open windows of the bus: "Long live the marines."

UPDATE: 3/24/14 11:30 AM ET

Russia retaliates with sanctions on Canada

Reuters — Russia announced on Monday that it was barring 13 Canadian officials, lawmakers and public figures from the country in retaliation for sanctions imposed by Canada over Russia's annexation of Crimea.

The Canadians prohibited from entering Russia include aides to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of parliament and the head of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, Paul Grod, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

UPDATE: 3/24/14 10:40 AM ET

Is it too late for Russia to make a play for eastern Ukraine?

Reuters writes:

A week after violence involving pro-Moscow separatists left three people dead in border cities, the outlines of a consensus have emerged between the new leaders in Kyiv and the eastern business oligarchs allied to ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.

Cooperation between Kyiv and the magnates in Yanukovych's native Donetsk and the wider Donbass coalfield would make it harder for Moscow to present any military intervention as humanitarian help and less likely it would be widely welcomed.

It follows a vow by Ukraine's new prime minister to decentralize power to the regions, safeguard Russian language rights and protect industries, a compromise Western diplomats have been pressing for to stop Ukraine breaking up.

Read more here.

UPDATE: 3/24/14 10:20 AM ET

Putin's Pyrrhic victory?

Foreign Affairs writes:

There is a bitter irony at the heart of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Putin’s short-term victory is already coming at the expense of his most cherished long-term strategy — the creation of a Eurasian Union, a trade union linking Russia and its closest neighbors. In other words, as the invasion expands Russian territory, it will diminish Russian influence in the very places he’d like to increase it. One need only look to Belarus, which is already beginning to hedge against its alliance with Moscow, to see why.

Read the full story: "Belarus wants out"

UPDATE: 3/24/14 7:30 AM ET

The G8 is dead, long live the G7?

Reuters — Leaders of the G7 nations are to hold talks on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in The Hague on Monday to consider their response to Russia annexing Crimea, amid doubts that sanctions can constrain President Vladimir Putin.

Britain has warned that Russia could face permanent exclusion from the group if it takes further steps against Ukraine.

Russia became the eighth member of the elite group of industrialized nations in 1998, after trying to gain full membership since its inception in 1975.

A French diplomatic source said the leaders will "discuss how this group can or cannot continue to function."

"There will certainly be a statement published at the end which will reflect the consensus on the evaluation of the situation and on how this group can respond to the situation created in Ukraine," the source said, on condition of anonymity.

Losing its G8 place would be embarrassing to Putin and a major departure for the West in its efforts to draw Russia into its policymaking efforts.

"The G8 is dead, though I don't think anybody wants to say that," one EU diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "The point that everybody will want to make is that we are all united."

UPDATE: 3/24/14 7:00 AM ET

Ukrainian forces withdraw from Crimea

Reuters — Ukraine is pulling its forces out of Crimea in the face of threats and pressure from the Russian military, acting President Oleksander Turchynov said on Monday.

Turchynov, speaking in parliament after Russian troops entered a key Ukrainian marine base near Feodosia crowning a gradual take-over of Ukrainian military facilities on the peninsula, said the decision had been taken in the face of "threats to the lives and health of our service personnel" and their families.

"The National Defense and Security Council has instructed the Defense Ministry to carry out a re-deployment of military units in Crimea and carry out the evacuation of their families," he said.

UPDATE: 3/24/14 6:30 AM ET

Russians take the Feodosia marine base

Reuters — Russian troops used stun grenades to force their way into a Ukrainian marine base in Crimea early on Monday, overrunning one of the last symbols of resistance left after Moscow wrestled the peninsula away from Kyiv, Ukrainian officials said.

The Russians fired weapons as they charged into the compound in the port city of Feodosia, and Ukrainian officers were taken away for questioning, a soldier inside and a Ukrainian military official told Reuters.

Ukrainian flags were taken down inside the base two days after Russian forces used similar tactics to take Ukraine's Belbek airbase in Crimea.

Russian forces had already captured part of the Feodosia base, used by the 1st Separate Marine Battalion, Ukraine's top military unit, earlier this month.

But Ukrainians had previously appeared to be in control of the armory, the barracks and other facilities in the compound.

Ukrainian army officer, First Lieutenant Anatoly Mozgovoy, told Reuters by phone from inside the compound on Monday that the Russians had fired shots and the Ukrainian soldiers were unarmed. Asked if the base had been taken over, he said: "Yes."

"The invading troops were using stun grenades and also firing automatic weapons. The interior of the compound is full of Russian troops," said Vladislav Seleznyov, a Ukrainian military spokesman in Crimea.

Seleznyov said Russian forces were taking away all Ukrainian officers from the base to another location in the city for questioning.

Russian troops used armored vehicles, automatic gunfire and stun grenades to take the Ukrainian Belbek airbase on Saturday. Ukrainian forces also abandoned a naval base after attacks by pro-Russian protesters, and had to surrender two flagship vessels to Russian forces over the recent days.

UPDATE: 3/23/14 6:50 PM ET

Power's out in Crimea

Parts of Crimea were hit by power outages late Sunday and the regional power company blamed them on technical problems in a power line from the Ukrainian mainland to the Black Sea peninsula, which has been wrestled away from Kyiv by Moscow.

UPDATE: 3/23/14 6:45 PM ET

Muslim Tatars flee Crimea, fearing they could be targeted again

AFP reports:

Russia's annexation of Crimea has sent hundreds of the region's ethnic Tatars fleeing the peninsula for western Ukraine out of fear of a backlash from Moscow.

The Tatars, a native Muslim community of about 300,000, largely boycotted a March 16 referendum on whether their historic homeland should come under Kremlin control.

Memories of the mass deportations organized under Moscow's Soviet rule in the 1940s are still fresh in the Turkic-speaking minority.

And after Russia's seizure of Ukraine's last airbase in Crimea on Saturday -- which Kiev fears could herald an imminent Russian invasion -- many fear Tatars could be targeted again.

UPDATE: 3/23/14 5:50 PM ET

Ukraine's acting foreign minister said chances of war are growing

Speaking on ABC-TV’s “This Week” program Sunday, Foreign Minister Andriy 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."

Full report at Radio Free Europe.

UPDATE: 3/23/14 1:50 PM ET

Pro-Russians in eastern Ukraine continue protesting, but peacefully

In this video by Greg Brosnan at the scene in Donetsk, pro-Russian demonstrators cheer enthusiastically as they hoist a Russian flag:

UPDATE: 3/23/14 12:45 PM ET

NATO is worried about Russian troops on the border

Russia's denying it, but NATO's top military commander voiced concern Sunday over Russia's large force on Ukraine's eastern border.

Reuters reports that NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, US Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said he was worried Moscow may be eyeing Moldova's mainly Russian-speaking separatist Transdniestria region.

"The [Russian] force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizable and very, very ready," Breedlove said.

"There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transdniestria if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome."

UPDATE: 3/23/14 12:00 PM ET

Pets can protest too

In Donetsk on the eastern Ukrainian border, pro-Russian protesters take many forms. Photo courtesy of Greg Brosnan:

UPDATE: 3/23/14 10:55 AM ET

Russia says it's not massing troops on the Ukrainian border

AFP reports:

"The Russian defense ministry is observing all the international agreements on limiting the numbers of troops in regions bordering Ukraine," said deputy defense minister Anatoly Antonov.

"Russia's armed forces are not carrying out any unannounced military activity that could threaten the security of neighboring states," he added.

Antonov's statement was in response to Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council chief Andriy Parubiy, who said Russian troops are poised to attack Ukraine at any time.

"The aim of Putin is not Crimea, but all of Ukraine... His troops massed at the border are ready to attack at any moment," Parubiy told thousands of demonstrators in Kyiv on Sunday.

UPDATE: 3/23/14 10:34 AM ET

Protests in Donetsk remained peaceful Sunday

In this video, shot by Greg Brosnan for GlobalPost, a huge crowd of pro-Russian demonstrators gathers on Sunday in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine:

Protesters move on from oligarch Sergei Taruta's office, which was a potential flashpoint.

UPDATE: 3/22/14 2:48 PM ET

Ukraine's dramatic farewell to its Crimean airbase

ABC News correspondent Alexander Marquardt today has been live tweeting the dramatic storming of Belbek in Crimea. Here are a couple of his latest tweets:

UPDATE: 3/22/14 2:37 PM ET

Germany accuses Russia of trying to break apart Europe

"The referendum in Crimea... is a violation of international law and an attempt to splinter Europe," Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's foreign minister, told reporters after meeting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Read more here

UPDATE: 3/22/14 2:10 PM ET

A tank rolls into Crimea's Belbek airbase


Armed men believed to be Russian servicemen drive an armored vehicle onto a military airbase as they attempt to take over in the Crimean town of Belbek near Sevastopol March 22. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

New York Times reporter David Herszenhorn tweeted this next photo describing a forceful entry:

Journalists also described Russian forces confiscating media memory cards.

UPDATE: 3/22/14 1:40 PM ET

Ukrainians, pack your bags


Ukrainian soldiers walk out of a Ukrainian air force base in the small city of Novofedorivka, in the Saki district of western Crimea, after it was stormed by Russian forces on March 22. (Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images)

UPDATE: 3/22/14 1:15 PM ET

Shots fired as Russian troops bust into Ukrainian base in Crimea

Reuters — Russian troops forced their way into a Ukrainian airbase in Crimea with armored vehicles, automatic fire and stun grenades on Saturday, injuring a Ukrainian serviceman and detaining the base's commander for talks.

A Reuters reporter said armored vehicles smashed through one of walls of the compound and that he heard bursts of gunfire and grenades.

Colonel Yuliy Mamchur, the commander of the base, said a Ukrainian serviceman had been injured and that he himself he was being taken away by the Russians for talks at an unspecified location.

Asked if he thought he would return safely, he said: "That remains to be seen. For now we are placing all our weapons in the base's storage."

Belbek was one of the last military facilities in Crimea still under Ukrainian control following Russia's armed takeover and subsequent annexation of the peninsula, which has a majority ethnic Russian population and is home to one of Russia's biggest naval bases.


Read more here

UPDATE: 3/22/14 11:30 AM ET

Raw video: Protesters demand release of pro-Russia activists in eastern Ukraine

Cheers for Russia in eastern Ukraine protest from GlobalPost on Vimeo.

Crowds of protesters moved on to a Donetsk police station demanding the release of pro-Russian activists.

—Greg Brosnan

UPDATE: 3/22/14 11:08 AM ET

Hold it right there, pro-Russia rally

(Greg Brosnan/GlobalPost)

Pro-Russian demonstrators in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk dispersed peacefully. Protesters briefly marched on the local administration building, but there was no trouble. They must have realized that these guys guarding the building mean business now. The Ukrainian flag was still firmly flying atop the building.

—Greg Brosnan

UPDATE: 3/22/14 10:45 AM ET

Raw video: Saturday in Donetsk

A few blocks from the pro-Russia protests in Donetsk, security forces are on alert at headquarters for the greater eastern Ukrainian region. The building has been briefly occupied by pro-Russian protesters on several occasions, with no major response from Ukrainian police, who are wary of igniting even more violent confrontations. However, Ukrainian flags were firmly flying today on the building. Local security forces have said they are now adopting a harder-line stance toward pro-Russian protesters. That could either dissuade protesters, or lead to more dangerous clashes.

—Greg Brosnan

UPDATE: 3/22/14 10:30 AM ET

Whole lotta love for Russia in Donetsk's Lenin Square

(Greg Brosnan/GlobalPost)

As many as 2,000 people gathered Saturday for a pro-Russia demonstration in Lenin Square, in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, the scene of recent violent protests in this major industrial city near the Russian border. A few blocks away at headquarters for the greater Donbass region, security forces are on alert.

—Greg Brosnan

UPDATE: 3/22/14 9:54 AM ET

Russian troops surround one of few Crimea bases still in Ukraine control


Ukrainian soldiers patrol at the Belbek airbase not far from the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 21. (Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)

Reuters — Russian troops have surrounded a Ukrainian airbase in Crimea and issued an ultimatum to forces inside to surrender, the deputy commander of the base in Belbek, near Sevastopol, said on Saturday. The base, above which the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag was flying, is one of the few military facilities on Crimea still controlled by Ukraine after the annexation of the peninsula by Russian forces.


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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/140322/crisis-crimea-russia-ukraine-live-blog