International monitors are being finally deployed in crisis-hit Ukraine after their mandate was modified to meet Russian objections.
The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe approved a 100-strong mission for Ukraine on Friday in a consensus decision by its 57 members. Russia had demanded that the mission be deployed, not only in Russian-speaking south-eastern regions as proposed by Ukraine, but also in the country’s west, where far right groups have been asserting their authority. Russia had also objected to the mission’s mandate to cover Crimea, which on Friday was formally absorbed into Russia.
In the final version the OSCE document says that the Kiev-based mission will be initially deployed for six months in nine places in eastern and western Ukraine. Its stated aim is to contribute to “reducing tensions and fostering peace, stability and security.” The OSCE Standing Committee may increase the mission strength to 500 monitors, deploy it to other places and extend its duration.
Crimea is not mentioned in the mandate, but the United States insisted it had the right to go to the peninsula. However, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Saturday that the mission mandate “reflects the new political and legal realities and does not cover Crimea and Sevastopol, which have become part of Russia.”
The Russian Defence Ministry announced on Saturday that fewer that 2,000 of the more than 18,000 Ukrainian troops stationed in Crimea said they wanted to return to Ukraine and will be assisted in relocation. Russian flags have been raised on 54 out of 67 Ukrainian naval vessels, including eight combat ships and Ukraine’s only submarine. This would mean that Ukraine has lost almost its entire Navy.
In a strong show of solidarity with the new government in Ukraine two more Western leaders are visiting Ukraine over the weekend, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Meanwhile, the continuing standoff in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian residents and Kiev-appointed administrations is threatening to escalate into military confrontation. In a video posted online a group of armed activists read out an address on behalf of a “United people’s militia of the Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkiv regions” rejecting the “illegitimate” government in Kiev, demanding the withdrawal of Ukrainian armed forces from the three provinces hardware and vowing to offer armed resistance to any “invasion” by government troops.
Thousands of pro-Russian residents in Donetsk again rallied on Saturday to press their demand for a referendum on greater autonomy from Kiev. Similar rallies have been taking place in other cities in Ukraine’s south and east.