After blocking Ukrainian military bases in Crimea on March 2, Russia issued ultimatums to the Ukrainian army on March 3 to surrender by 5 a.m. on March 4 or face a “military storm”.
The deadline for surrender passed this morning, however, with no immediate reports of conflict.
The heightened tension came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Kyiv for meetings on March 4 with Ukraine's new interim government led by Oleksandr Turchinov as president and Arseniy Yatseniuk as prime minister.
The United States and much of the West are strongly critical of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and many Western leaders are promising to isolate the Kremlin with economic and other sanctions.
"The world is largely united in recognizing that the steps Russia has taken are a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty, their territorial integrity – that they're a violation of international law," Obama said at the White House on March 3.
Obama stressed that Russia is "on the wrong side of history" in Ukraine and called on the U.S. Congress to adopt an assistance package to the Ukrainian government as a "first order of business."
The diplomatic wrangling comes as Ukrainian nerves are being jangled by the Russian military presence and repeated threats of attack.
“If they (Ukrainian troops) do not give up by 5 a.m. tomorrow (March 4), there will be a real storm of subdivisions and units of Ukraine's military forces all over Crimea,” Russian Black Sea Fleet Commander Aleksandr Vitko was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the ultimatums “utter nonsense” and denied making them. The Ukrainian defense and foreign ministries insisted that the threats happened, if only as part of Russia's psychological warfare against Ukraine.
At 5:20 a.m. on March 4, EuroMaidanSOS reported "no news-good news" on its Facebook page some 20 minutes after the 5 a.m. deadline for Ukraine's surrender. EuroMaidanSOS was set up by EuroMaidan demonstrators to warn of threats.
There were also no reports this morning from any wire services of military conflict. If true, then Russia has issued yet another ultimatum -- the third one this month -- calling on Ukrainian forces to surrender while letting the deadline expire without taking action.
Turchynov said the Russians gave an ultimatum to surrender by March 2, a deadline that passed without incident. Also, the Russian commander gave the Ukrainian Navy an ultimatum to give up by 7 p.m. on March 3, or else face an attack, another deadline that passed without incident.
In Sevastopol's Korennaya Bay, troops aboard the Ukrainian warship Slavutych scurried frantically atop its deck with automatic weapons in hand on March 3, as a warship from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet circled ominously some 200 meters in front of it, blaring the ultimatum from its on-board speakers. In preparation to defend, Ukrainian troops spread mattresses across the ship’s rails and readied water hoses on its deck.
“Attention... you must surrender your weapons,” the almost inaudible message said.
Tension, nonetheless, remains high after fugitive former President Viktor Yanukovych sent a letter to Russia's Security Council, asking to use the Russian military to restore law and order in Ukraine.
Some 13,000 Russian troops had assembled in Crimea over the past week, according to a former senior Russian fleet officer based in Sevastopol. Some were flown in by airplanes and helicopters, other arrive across the Kerch straight.
Moreover, Russian military forces accumulated in Rostov and Voronezh regions, just a few kilometers away from Ukraine's border, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia said. He also said more troops were spotted across the eastern border with Luhansk Oblast.
Crimea expected its first attack after Russian troops methodically took over the peninsula since Feb. 27 without firing a shot.
“It is incredibly tense in Crimea right now, with ultimatums given to troops at almost all Ukrainian military bases here,” Oleg Chubuk, a spokesman of Ukraine’s defense ministry, told the Kyiv Post. “But our guns are under our control."
Elsewhere on the peninsula, Russian soldiers faced down their Ukrainian counterparts.
At Belbek Military Airfield near Sevastopol, Russian soldiers were said to have convinced several Ukrainian troops to defect.
The news came from pro-Russian members of a loose-knit group of men calling themselves Crimean Self-Defense, who had barricaded the entrance to the airport and did not allow journalists inside. Their report could not be independently confirmed by the Kyiv Post, and Ukrainian authorities denied that any troops had surrendered, except for Rear Admiral Denys Berezovskiy.
Berezovskiy was appointed Navy commander on March 1, and then gave oath to the self-proclaimed Crimean government a day later. He was replaced on the same day by Rear Admiral Serhiy Hayduk, and is now under investigation for treason, Ukraine's National Security Council said.
Despite few defections, the red-white-and-blue Russian flags were raised over many strategic objects in Crimea as Russian soldiers wearing military fatigues, no insignia, dried Russian armored personnel vehicles and patrolled the roads.
At a small Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, a tiny town some 33 kilometers outside the Crimean capital Simferopol, a standoff that began on March 2 continued, as dozens of Russian troops in forest green fatigues, helmets and face masks, with their automatic weapons locked and loaded, stared down their Slavic brethren through rod iron gates.
While both sides had agreed, when Russian troops stormed in with more than 30 military vehicles and surrounded the base, not to point the muzzles of their rifles at one another, neither group had laid down their arms or retreated from their position, with Ukrainian soldiers saying they would remain there as long as necessary and serve Ukraine as they swore an oath to do so.
At Perevalnoye, Russian soldiers were joined by others from the rag-tag group of self-professed Crimean Self-Defense who worked to keep journalists from approaching the hundreds of Russian troops and few Ukrainian soldiers at the gates of the military compound. Some of the men spoke on camera for several international media, saying that they were there to protect from fascists and provocateurs from Kyiv who were en route to Crimea and would try to destabilize the peninsula.
Tempers at the base flared briefly as men from the group argued with journalists and blamed them for spreading lies.
Father Ivan, a Ukrainian Orthodox Priest who has lived in Crimea for 17 years but is originally form Kyiv, attempted to intervene, but was heckled by one of the men, Vladimir, who declined to give his last name, and other men in the Crimean Self-Defense group as a provocateur for speaking in Ukrainian.
“When people come and tell you how to live your own life, this is very bad. It is very hard now to keep peace,” Father Ivan said. “I hope that in a week this situation will de-escalate.”
As he worked to keep the intensifying crowd calm and fresh Russian troops replaced those who had stood guard throughout the night, life went on as usual in the typically sleepy valley town of Perevalnoye.
Children laughed and played in the yards of nearby apartment complexes, old men ate sunflower seeds and chatted on benches, buses ran as usual and stores were open for business.
Vera Kanayeva, a Perevalnoye resident since 1953, said that not much had changed since the Russian troops had come to town.
“It was quiet here in the Soviet Union, and it’s quiet here now,” she said.
Another woman, Yulia, said that her husband was stuck inside the Ukrainian base. While he and her both align more closely politically and ideologically with Russia, she said, they decided together that he would protect the base as he had promised to do so upon joining the military.
“It’s this new government in Kyiv making Russia and Ukraine fight,” she said. “These are brother nations; they shouldn’t fight. But this is what it’s come to.”
Kanayeva agreed. “(Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr) Turchynov and (newly appointed Prime Minister Arseniy) Yatseniuk are to blame for starting a war in the country,” she told the Kyiv Post, adding that what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing, sending troops to Ukraine, is “right.”
“I am a Russian stuck in Ukrainian Crimea,” she said. “But Putin will free me and the others.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.