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Ukraine grapples with despair in Crimea takeover

Wednesday - 3/19/2014, 5:10am  ET

An armed man clears a roof of an Ukrainian military unit in Simferopol, Crimea, on Tuesday, March 18, 2014. A Ukrainian military spokesman says a serviceman has been killed and another injured when a base in Crimea was stormed by armed men. Vladislav Seleznev, a spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces in Crimea, said on his Facebook page that the base in the Crimean capital Simferopol was stormed by unknown armed men on Tuesday. He said a truck bearing a Russian flag was used in the operation. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Ukraine's leadership simmered with a mix of hopelessness and anger at losing Crimea, tempering an influx of eager young men signing up as reservists with the growing certainty that no savior would deliver them from the Russian takeover.

For Ukraine's government in Kiev, it is a crime -- one the inexperienced leaders can do little to address in the face of an overwhelmingly superior military force. But for at least one of the group of people in the new leadership, it is a reality that must be dealt with on practical terms.

"This is theft on an international scale, when under the cover of troops, one country has just come and robbed a part of an independent state," Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.

Yatsenyuk's government now has to contend with the immediate complications of an armed confrontation that flared up Tuesday. A Ukrainian military spokesman said a serviceman was killed and another injured when a military facility in Crimea was stormed by armed men. The official said a truck bearing a Russian flag was used in the operation.

Yatsenyuk said the storming showed the dispute "has gone from the political stage to the military through the fault of the Russians."

But if his rhetoric was combative, there was little to back it up. That is in part down to Ukraine's relative helplessness and its stated desire to refrain from aggression, but is also a reflection of what authorities see as Moscow's inflated demands. Rejecting international condemnation, Russian President Vladimir Putin cast his government's actions as the righting of historic injustices.

"They are demanding to change the constitution, to change the system, to give up Crimea. This is the language of an aggressor ... this is the language of Josef Stalin," said Oleksiy Haran, a politics professor at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. "Ukraine has done everything which it can. We resisted from violence, which again the West demanded from us. We didn't kill any Russian soldiers."

While not recognizing the referendum, Ukrainian authorities' preparations for the practicalities of the situation hint at a mood of resignation.

The justice minister offered emergency accommodation in vacation centers for any Ukrainian citizens who want to leave Crimea, where the ethnic Russian population is a majority.

"My advice to compatriots who live in Crimea is not to give up your Ukrainian passports. You are citizens of Ukraine and you are in effect hostages of the occupiers," Justice Minister Pavel Petrenko told Channel 5 television. "People should make their own decision about revoking citizenship and nobody has the right to force them."

Ukraine's one major lever of power -- the electricity and water that comes from the mainland -- is complicated by the new Kiev government's reluctance to alienate the residents, a majority of them ethnic Russians, but with large Ukrainian and Tatar communities.

With the outcome of the Crimean predicament still nominally in the balance, the government is confronting a growing clamor in eastern Ukraine, another heavily Russian-speaking part of the country, for secession or greater federalization. The claims of the ethnic Russian population ignited soon after the parliament that took center stage after last month's ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych provoked outrage -- from the Kremlin most notably -- by moving to downgrade the role of the Russian language.

That plan has since been dropped and Yatsenyuk on Tuesday insisted that Russian would retain its official status in areas where it is spoken by the majority.

"Nobody is encroaching on your right to freely use the Russian language. My wife Tereziya speaks primarily in Russian. And she, like millions of other Russian speakers, does not require protection from the Kremlin," he said.

To deal with Moscow, Ukraine will need to restore channels of dialogue, which Russia is reluctant to do with a post-revolutionary government that it describes in the most disparaging terms.

Sergei Taruta, a billionaire businessman appointed by interim authorities to govern the heavily industrial Donetsk region, told The Associated Press that he has proposed the creation of a "national unity forum" as a possible solution to that problem.

"We should choose delegates that could lead diplomatic dialogue with Russia. Because as I understand it, there is no negotiator now that has a legitimate mandate," he said. "It is only through a negotiation that we can solve the fraught problems that affect both Crimea and eastern Ukraine. And I think that this negotiating group should also work with a group of Western guarantors that could vouch for the territorial integrity of our country."

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