Monday, March 10, 2014

The Kremlin’s Social Media Takeover | Crimea Referendum Choices Offer Taste of Democracy ‘Under Guns’ | 'Shots Fired By Russian Troops' | Merkel rebukes Putin as Russia tightens grip on Crimea | Если бы не российские войска в Крыму, то 90% депутатов отказались бы от референдума

The Kremlin’s Social Media Takeover

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MOSCOW — Several weeks before pro-Russian forces intervened in Crimea, President Vladimir V. Putin won another important victory. On Jan. 24, the social network VKontakte, with its 60 million daily users, came under the control of businessmen allied with the Kremlin.
VKontakte is Russia’s Facebook and the largest independent medium in the country. The founder of VKontakte, Pavel Durov, had long resisted all pressures to step down. But he sold his 12 percent share of the company to Ivan Tavrin, a partner of the pro-Putin oligarch Alisher Usmanov, and is leaving.
The brilliant young businessman was unlucky in his timing. Before the Olympics, the state wanted to control the only independent platform where Russians could communicate with one another and organize. If the government had issued a special decree allowing for the tapping of the phones of journalists in Sochi, how could it ignore VKontakte? And not having an independent social network has also proved convenient for a Kremlin on its war footing.
VKontakte took off in 2006. While a student at St. Petersburg State University, Mr. Durov founded the largest student web forum in Russia. In 2006, the project was noticed by his friend Vyacheslav Mirilashvili. Mr. Mirilashvili had graduated from Tufts University, where he caught his first glimpse of Facebook, which had just been launched on the nearby Harvard campus. Together with another friend, Mr. Durov and Mr. Mirilashvili set about implementing Mark Zuckerberg’s ideas for the Russian user. The code was written by Mr. Durov and his brother Nikolai.
Mr. Durov incorporated into the social network his libertarian vision of the Internet as a space of total freedom for the distribution of information. Copyright laws in Russia were blurry, and VKontakte set up one of the largest hosting services in Europe, where users could upload any content they desired.
Until December 2011, Durov enjoyed the favor of the Kremlin’s internal powerbroker, Vladislav Surkov. But after the parliamentary elections that month, the Moscow middle class declared the victory of Mr. Putin’s party to be a fraud, and 150,000 people came out to protest on Bolotnaya Square. Mr. Durov’s patron resigned, and VKontakte began receiving persistent calls from the prosecutor’s office and Russia’s security service, the F.S.B., requesting that it shut down an anti-Putin online group called “United Russia — The Party of Crooks and Thieves” and other groups associated with the opposition. Mr. Durov replied to a summons to the prosecutor’s office with a picture of a husky dressed in a hoodie and sticking out its tongue.
He came to be seen by the Kremlin as an uncontrollable libertarian, prone to eccentric displays like tossing 5000-ruble notes out of the window and showing the finger to representatives of shareholders trying to bring VKontakte under the control of Group.
The investment fund United Capital Partners exploited a conflict between Mr. Durov and his partners to acquire a significant stake in the company. The deal was orchestrated by Igor Sechin, Mr. Putin’s right-hand man. Then the fund requested reams of financial documents, insisting VKontakte was earning too little profit. The state prosecutor launched a criminal investigation of Mr. Durov, claiming he had run over a policeman in his Mercedes. He left Russia.
The investigation was closed a few months later, as suddenly as it was launched, and Mr. Durov returned to St. Petersburg and decided to sell his shares, not so much because of intimidation but because he was inspired to use the profits to develop a new product: a mobile messenger called Telegram.
According to several sources, Mr. Durov received an unequivocal hint from his shareholders that the time had come to close the deal and retire before the Olympics began. Mr. Durov’s shares in VKontakte were valued at $250 million to $300 million. The VKontakte founder decided it would be simpler to leave the social network and take up the challenge of starting Telegram, which has been gaining up to 400,000 new users a day.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s control over traditional media and social media is tightening. In January, Parliament passed a law allowing it to quickly block any undesirable website. And there’s no reason to assume that the stranglehold over independent media will be relaxed now that the Olympics are over.
Media owners have also begun to restrict the activities of editors. And the Kremlin has intensified its propaganda. The state news agency RIA Novosti and the Russia Today channel merged into a single structure. The former top manager has started publishing opinion articles on sensitive topics that diverge from the official government position. Now the agency is led by Dmitry Kiselev, an odious talk show host infamous for his suggestion that “gays’ hearts should be incinerated in ovens.”
The purchase of VKontakte was a complex and delicate operation for the Kremlin. Handing media over to loyal businessmen is not a new method of controlling journalists. The Russian state tried it in 2002, when creditors leaned on the owner of NTV, Vladimir Gusinsky, forcing him to sell the company. (NTV is now owned by Gazprom-Media.)
But VKontakte’s pro-Kremlin shareholders were too unfamiliar with information technology, and feared that if they pushed too hard Mr. Durov could have caused a blackout. Understanding this, Mr. Durov sought to maintain the image of a crazy man unafraid of litigation or losses. This is why the operation to buy out his shares was conducted with such meticulous precision.
The brightest maverick in Russia’s business world gave the millennial generation a powerful instrument of organization and self-expression. But in the end Mr. Durov and his company were unable to withstand the pressure of pro-Putin businessmen made rich by the same oil-and-gas wealth that has improved Russians’ quality of life while paralyzing their political will.
But there is generational tension when it comes to media censorship. Most of Mr. Putin’s supporters are Russians over 35; the millennial generation, which grew up on VKontakte, is at best skeptical about Mr. Putin’s flights with wild cranes or his extraction of amphoras from the Black Sea floor. Their real hero was Mr. Durov — a start-up entrepreneur who built a company now worth $3.5 billion by buying a server with the money he saved as a freelancer — and that hero is now leaving Russia.
Mr. Durov tried to comply with government requests in accordance with the law. Now the state has more direct access, whenever it wants, to the personal information, correspondence, locations and movements of tens of millions of Russians — not to mention data on their emotions and intentions.
The Kremlin can now rest easy; any restive opposition activity on the Internet can easily be brought under control.
Nickolay Kononov is editor in chief of Hopes & Fears, a digital magazine about business in Russia.
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Left, right both claim win in Salvadoran presidential runoff

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The facts and the theories in the case of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet

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Ships are seen from a flying Soviet-made AN-26 of the Vietnam Air Force during a search operation for the missing Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 over the South China Sea Monday, March 10, 2014. Dozens of ships and aircraft have failed to find any piece of the missing Boeing 777 jet that vanished more than two days ago above waters south of Vietnam as investigators pursued
Ships are visible from a Soviet-made AN-26 of  the Vietnam air force during a search for a missing Malaysia Airlines airliner over the South China Sea on March 10. Dozens of ships and aircraft have failed to find any sign of the missing Boeing 777 that vanished more than two days ago. (Na Son Nguyen/AP)
The sudden disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 somewhere over the South China Sea has been called an “unprecedented missing airline mystery" by Malaysian authorities. Right now, it's hard to disagree with that description.
With very few clues and a number of odd details, right now the fate of the 239 passengers and crew on board is unknown. Here's how things stand right now:
The facts:
  • Flight MH370, a Boeing 777-200 ER, departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 00:41 MST, and was due to arrive in  Beijing Capital International Airport six hours later.
  • The plane’s transponder, which transmits its location and identification, suddenly went dark less than an hour after take-off  while the plane was cruising at a steady 35,000 feet.
  • The Malaysian military says their radar indicated that the plane may have been turning around before vanishing.
  • No distress call was received, and no debris has been found. Two oil slicks found near where the plane vanished are said to be unrelated.
  • Two passengers with stolen passports were on board the plane, bound for Beijing, Amsterdam and then on to other European cities. Malaysian authorities have said these two passengers were not of Asian appearance.
  • Five passengers checked into the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, but did not board. Malaysian authorities said their baggage was unloaded before take-off.
  • Officials say that the cockpit door on the flight would have been locked.
The theories:
  • A sudden twin-engine failure: While generally considered a safe plane, the Boeing 777-200 ER has had some problems. For example, a British Airways 777-200 ER crashed just before landing at Heathrow in 2008 due to ice crystals in the fuel lines. Rolls Royce, the engine manufacturer, later said it had fixed the problem. In any case, even if both engines iced or caught fire, the plane should have been able to glide toward  the sea, and the pilots should have had plenty of time to send a distress call.
  • A weather-related incident: Although no bad weather had been reported, pockets of clear air turbulence are not uncommon over the Pacific. Air France Flight 447 vanished in 2009 on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris after hitting an area of turbulence in bad weather; although pilots took control of the plane from the auto-pilot, they apparently did not send a distress call. Nevertheless, a pocket of turbulence in clear weather strong enough to bring down an airliner would be unprecedented. Similarly, a Boeing 777 is designed to be able to withstand a lightning strike. In any case, the failure to find any debris is puzzling – normally, the ocean's surface would be littered with seats, doors and other detritus had the plane crashed into the sea.
  • A catastrophic failure of the frame or wings of the airplane: Malaysia’s military said the plane might have started to turn around before vanishing from radar screens. Could the plane have encountered mechanical problems, lost height suddenly and started to try to return home? This could be a reason why search aircraft might not be looking in the right area for debris. But in such an event, pilots would normally have time to send a distress call. No such call was logged. Alternatively, the plane could have disintegrated in mid-air. This is very unlikely when a plane is cruising at a steady altitude, but it could explain the lack of a distress call. Even then, the absence of any debris in the area where it vanished is puzzling.
  • Pilot suicide: Pilot suicide was cited as a possible cause behind the crash of a Silk Air flight from Jakarta to Singapore in 1997 that killed 104 people;  it was also a possible reason for the crash of an Egypt Air flight from Los Angeles to Cairo in 1999, killing 218 people. But investigations into both crashes were inconclusive, and no evidence has emerged that this could have been behind the latest incident.
  • A bomb: Malaysian authorities say five men checked in for the flight but did not board, raising the possibility someone may have planted a bomb on board. But Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, head of Malaysia’s civil aviation, insisted that all the baggage loaded on the plane had been properly checked, and any bags belonging to no-show passengers had been off-loaded – apparently without significantly delaying the plane’s departure. A bomb could have caused sudden and fatal decompression, and such a sudden loss of altitude that the transponder’s signal was no longer visible to the nearest receiving station. But why would a terrorist group not issue a statement claiming that they had carried out the attack?
  • A bungled hijack: The fact that two passengers apparently boarded the plane with stolen passports prompted speculation about a possible hijack. A bungled hijack could also have explained the plane’s apparent attempt to turn before vanishing: if the plane departed from its route before crashing, that might explain why the debris has been hard to locate. Hijackers could have turned off the plane’s transponder, although the plane should in theory still have been visible on primary radar. Again, though, the lack of a statement from a would-be hijack group is puzzling. And why would a Malaysian plane bound for China be a target for hijackers? And how did they get around the locked cockpit door?
What's especially disheartening about this case is that it's not entirely clear when, or even if, we'll find out more information that could lead to a fuller picture of what happened. It took almost three years for those investigating Air France Flight 447 to come to a conclusion, and that was only possible because, after two years of looking, they found the black box. With no sign of any debris yet, that stage hasn't even begun.
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A Humiliated Putin Plans His Next Move in Ukraine

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Vladimir Putin is pondering his position after pro-Western protesters swept to power in Ukraine. The sudden overthrow of Putin’s ally, Viktor Yanukovych, has left the Kremlin leader at a loss, struggling to maintain his country’s influence in the Russian-speaking eastern and southern parts of Ukraine.
In Kharkiv in the east, the second-largest city in Ukraine and a scientific and industrial powerhouse in the Soviet era, a few dozen local residents were standing guard in front of a statue of Vladimir Lenin. Jubilant activists have been toppling monuments to the founder of the Soviet state in other Ukrainian cities. With police obeying orders from the authorities in Kiev, and the Yanukovych-appointed local governor locked out of the regional administration, pro-Russian forces are on the defensive. In Donetsk, an industrial region, local authorities have kept a low profile, and the mayor of Dnipropetrovsk has defected from the former ruling Party of Regions.
Russia, which pledged a $15 billion bailout and cut-price gas to induce Yanukovych to walk away from a free-trade agreement with the European Union, is seeing its goal of creating an economic bloc to rival the EU vanish. The Russian customs union would only work with the participation of Ukraine. That now seems unlikely. “President Putin has now arguably suffered his most significant foreign policy defeat in a decade,” since Ukraine’s Western-backed 2004 Orange Revolution, says Tim Ash, the London-based chief economist for emerging markets at Standard Bank Group (SBK:SJ).
A congress of 4,000 delegates from southeastern Ukraine held on Feb. 22 in Kharkiv—the first stop for Yanukovych when he fled the capital—refused to defy the new regime in Kiev. If they had, it would have marked a possible first step toward secession. A breakaway, pro-Russian rump state would have kept Moscow’s ability to shape events in Ukraine. Instead the “deeply passive” population of eastern Ukraine is unlikely to rise up in opposition to Kiev, according to a prominent local figure, pediatrician Evgeny Komarovsky. “It’s as quiet as a cemetery here,” he says in an interview in his children’s clinic in Kharkiv. “There are no real fighters.”
From Moscow’s perspective, the would-be separatists are seen as weak, according to Sergei Markov, a Kremlin adviser and a vice rector of the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics in Moscow. “Yanukovych was counting on some support from the Kremlin, but he didn’t get it,” Markov says. “Russia decided that these people aren’t serious and can’t be counted on.”
In Ukraine’s southern peninsula of Crimea, where Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based in the port of Sevastopol and 60 percent of the population are ethnic Russians, there is more scope for Russia to intervene.
Hundreds of protesters massed outside the regional Parliament in Simferopol on Feb. 25 to demand that the speaker of the assembly, Vladimir Konstantinov, denounce the Kiev authorities and call a referendum on joining Russia. “This is the best way to maintain peace and security in Crimea,” said one of the demonstrators, Andrei Kratko. “Russia is a strong state. Ukraine is anarchy.” The prime minister of the autonomous territory, Anatoly Mogilev, dismayed many in Crimea when he said he would obey orders from the new central government. On Feb. 26, in a pair of opposing demonstrations involving thousands, ethnic Tatars faced off against pro-Russia protesters outside the parliament in Simferopol. One person died from a heart attack and seven others were injured.
Russia may be tempted to take control of Sevastopol, where many of the residents have Russian nationality, according to Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Political Analysis Center in Kiev. “This allows Moscow to guarantee its interests, without directly intervening in Ukrainian affairs,” Fesenko says. “It’s a mild repeat of the Georgian scenario.” After U.S.-backed President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia in 2003, Russia supported two breakaway regions. Saakashvili fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008 in a failed bid to bring one of them under control.
Even a move in Sevastopol may be too risky for Putin, as this may provoke a wider conflict that could threaten Ukraine’s existence, says Margot Light, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics. “I don’t think they’d try to do what they did in Georgia because they’d be too anxious, as everybody must be, that they’d cause the disintegration of the country, that they’ll cause civil war,” Light says.
That leaves Russia’s position as a supplier of 80 percent of Ukraine’s gas and main creditor as its main bargaining tool. Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak said on Feb. 25 that his country is under “no obligation” to disburse the rest of the $15 billion in aid it pledged after paying a first installment of $3 billion in December. “Russia’s main task now is to maintain as many pressure levers as possible over Ukraine’s future government,” Jonathan Eyal, international director at the Royal United Services Institute in London, wrote in a research note.
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Crimea Referendum Choices Offer Taste of Democracy ‘Under Guns’

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Crimeans heading to the ballot box this week will get a taste of a different kind of democracy.
The referendum will offer voters the choice of joining Russia or renegotiating the autonomous region’s status within Ukraine. Keeping the current arrangement isn’t an option.
About 1.5 million voters will head to the polls on March 16 to make their choice for the peninsula in the focus of the tensest standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War. As Vladimir Putin pours troops into the region, saying he needs to protect its ethnic Russian majority, the government in Kiev and its Western allies say the referendum is illegal.
“There’s no choice there, because there is no question in it about preserving the status quo or simply expanding the powers of the Crimean republic,” Oleksiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said by phone today. “It’s wrong to ponder about what questions the referendum asks. It’s not legal. The decision to hold it was made under guns and the referendum will be held under guns.”
Russia is wresting control of Crimea, home to its Black Sea Fleet. The U.S. estimates the Kremlin now has 20,000 troops confronting a smaller Ukrainian force there. The referendum was called by a new leadership in the regional parliament, installed after the building had been seized by armed Russia supporters.
The questions on the ballot, as released by the Crimean parliament on its website, will be: “Do you support reuniting Crimea with Russia as a subject of the Russian Federation?” and “Do you support restoring the Crimean Republic’s 1992 Constitution and status within Ukraine?” The second option refers to a law that gives the region the right to determine how much authority to delegate to Kiev.

Observers Blocked

While the Ukrainian government wants international observers to monitor the situation, gunmen have blocked three attempts by a mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to enter Crimea, including with warning shots being fired on March 8.
Russia should “strongly support” getting observers on the ground in Crimea, Daniel Baer, the U.S.’s ambassador to the OSCE, a 57-country organization that includes Russia and the U.S., said in website statement dated yesterday. Russia isn’t part of the mission.
Crimea’s First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliev said observers, not “provocateurs” were welcome, the Interfax news service reported today. The OSCE mission includes mostly representatives of the NATO countries and “we don’t need military advisers here,” Temirgaliev said, according to Interfax.

Tatar Boycott

Ethnic Russians make up 59 percent of the region’s population, 24 percent are Ukrainian and 12 percent are ethnic Tatars, according to the 2001 census. The Kiev-based Ukrainian government says the country’s Russians aren’t under threat.
The Tatar community’s leaders called for a boycott of the vote, according to Leyla Muslimova, a spokesman for Refat Chubarov, who heads the minority’s executive body.
The region plans to print 2.2 million ballots for the vote, while the number of registered voters was 1.5 million as of Feb. 28, the Kiev-based weekly newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli reported, citing Mikhail Malyshev, the head of the electoral commission head.
If voters choose to join Russia, they will be able to pick between Russian and Ukrainian passports and will have two official languages, Russian and Crimean Tatar, Crimean Premier Sergey Aksenov said, the Ria Novosti news service reported today.
To some in Crimea, the outcome isn’t a question.
“There’s no comeback, and the U.S. or Europe can’t impede us,” Sergei Tsekov, the deputy speaker of Crimea’s parliament, said March 7 by phone from Moscow. “Crimea won’t be part of Ukraine anymore. There are no more options.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Kateryna Choursina in Kiev at; Andrea Dudik in Prague at <a href=""></a>
To contact the editors responsible for this story: James M. Gomez at <a href=""></a> Balazs Penz, Leon Mangasarian
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Если бы не российские войска в Крыму, то 90% депутатов отказались бы от референдума - Куницын - Политические новости Украины - Представитель президента считает, что закон о роспуске парламента Крыма может быть принят на этой неделе

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Если бы не российские войска в Крыму, то 90% депутатов отказались бы от референдума - Куницын <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a> <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a> 2014-03-10T17:06:34+02:00Политика Представитель президента считает, что закон о роспуске парламента Крыма может быть принят на этой неделе
<p>Закон о роспуске парламента Крыма может быть принят на этой неделе Фото</p>
Закон о роспуске парламента Крыма может быть принят на этой неделе Фото

Проект закона о роспуске парламента Крыма в Верховной Раде Украины уже зарегистрирован и может быть принят на этой неделе, заявил представитель президента Украины в Крыму Сергей Куницын.
Куницын считает все принятые Верховным Советом автономии решения незаконными.
"С учетом того, что они там наделали и наговорили, на сегодняшний день есть все основания распустить Верховный Совет Крыма", - сказал представитель президента.
По его мнению, если бы не было российских войск в Крыму, то 90% депутатов отказались бы от решения о референдуме.
"У них забрали телефоны, под охраной водили в туалет", - заявил Куницын.
Куницын также сообщил, что решение о референдуме принималось с грубыми нарушениями: на заседании Верховного Совета, не было кворума - физически присутствовали 43 депутата, хотя руководством Верховного Совета карточек было выдано 63.
Напомним, окружной административный суд Киева принял меры по обеспечению иска прокурора и остановил действие постановления Верховного Совета Автономной РеспубликиКрым "О проведении общекрымского референдума".
Ранее окружным административным судом Севастополя также было отменено решение о проведении референдума в Крыму.
Вы сейчас просматриваете новость "Если бы не российские войска в Крыму, то 90% депутатов отказались бы от референдума - Куницын". Другие Новости политики смотрите в блоке "Последние новости"
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Lavrov tells Putin Russia still at odds with West over Ukraine

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SOCHI, Russia Mon Mar 10, 2014 10:29am EDT

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told President Vladimir Putin on Monday that Russia's position on Ukraine was at odds with the West, and that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had declined an invitation to visit Russia for further talks.

At a meeting with Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Lavrov described being handed proposals by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry which "did not completely satisfy us".

"It is all being formulated as if there was a conflict between Russia and Ukraine ... and our partners suggested using the situation created by a coup as a starting point," he told Putin, adding that the West wanted Russia and the United States to bring their positions together.

Russia says any solution to the standoff over Ukraine should be based on an EU-brokered agreement signed by ousted President Viktor Yanukovich on February 21, which would see constitutional reform and elections by December.

"Along with the Security Council of Russian Federation, we prepared our own proposals aimed at returning the situation into the framework of international law, to honor the interests of all Ukrainians, given the deep governmental crisis in Ukraine," Lavrov said

When Putin asked his foreign minister to report on his contacts with EU and U.S. officials, Lavrov said he had invited Kerry for talks in Russia on Monday on the president's instructions. He said Kerry had called back on Saturday to say he wanted to postpone such a meeting.

(Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk, Writing by Elizabeth Piper, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Merkel rebukes Putin as Russia tightens grip on Crimea

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Germany’s Angela Merkel delivered a rebuke to President Vladimir Putin on Sunday, telling him that a planned Moscow-backed referendum on whether Crimea should join Russia was illegal and violated Ukraine’s constitution.
Putin defended breakaway moves by pro-Russian leaders in Crimea, where Russian forces tightened their grip on the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula by seizing another border post and a military airfield.

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As thousands staged rival rallies in Crimea, street violence flared in Sevastopol, when pro-Russian activists and Cossacks attacked a group of Ukrainians.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called for all parties to remain calm and urged a political solution to the crisis, during telephone calls with U.S. President Barack Obama and Merkel.
“The situation in Ukraine is extremely complex, and what is most urgent is for all sides to remain calm and exercise restraint to avoid an escalation in tensions,” China’s foreign ministry on Monday cited Xi as telling Obama. “Political and diplomatic routes must be used to resolve the crisis,” Xi added.
Russian forces’ seizure of the region has been bloodless but tensions are mounting following the decision by pro-Russian groups there to make Crimea part of Russia.
In the latest armed action, pro-Russian forces wearing military uniforms bearing no designated markings sealed off a military airport in Crimea near the village of Saki, a Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesman on the peninsula said.
The operation to seize Crimea began within days of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight from the country last month. Yanukovych was toppled after three months of demonstrations against a decision to spurn a free trade deal with the European Union for closer ties with Russia.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk will hold talks with President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday on how to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis, the White House said.
One of Obama’s top national security officials said the United States would not recognise the annexation of Crimea by Russia if residents vote to leave Ukraine in a referendum next week.
“We won’t recognize it, nor will most of the world,” deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken said.
Putin declared a week ago that Russia had the right to invade Ukraine to protect Russian citizens, and his parliament has voted to change the law to make it easier to annex territory inhabited by Russian speakers.
Speaking by telephone to Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, Putin said steps taken by authorities in Crimea were “based on international law and aimed at guaranteeing the legitimate interests of the peninsula’s population,” the Kremlin said.
A German government statement, however, said the referendum was illegal: “Holding it violates the Ukrainian constitution and international law.”
Merkel also regretted the lack of progress on forming an “international contact group” to seek a political solution to the Ukraine crisis and said this should be done urgently.
On Thursday, Merkel said if a contact group was not formed in the coming days and no progress was made in negotiations with Russia, the European Union could hit Russia with sanctions such as travel restrictions and asset freezes.
Merkel, whose country is heavily dependent on Russia oil and gas, has so far been more cautious than some other nations, urging Western partners to give Putin more time before punishing Moscow with tough economic sanctions.
This stance reflects German fears of the geopolitical consequences of an isolated Russia as much as it does concern about its business interests and energy ties.
In a round of telephone diplomacy on Sunday, the German chancellor also spoke with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, agreeing that Ukraine’s sovereignty must be preserved.
Russians took over a Ukrainian border post on the western edge of Crimea at around 6 a.m. GMT, trapping about 15 personnel inside, a border guard spokesman said.
The spokesman, Oleh Slobodyan, said Russian forces now controlled 11 border guard posts across Crimea, a former Russian territory that is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet and has an ethnic Russian majority.
At a Ukrainian military base at Yevpatoriya on the coast of western Crimea there were reports that the Russian forces had issued an ultimatum to surrender or be stormed. It passed, as has happened on other occasions at bases across Crimea.
“They are putting psychological pressure on us. It is not the first ultimatum,” Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Lomaka told Reuters by telephone, saying the Russian forces would not allow him out of the base.
“We have no fight with them, but we are not going to hand over our weapons to soldiers of the Russian Federation.”
Dimtry Bolbanchyov, 50, who works as a cook on commercial boats, bicycles 13 kilometres across town to bring the besieged Ukrainians soldiers food.
“I am doing what I can to boost their morale. Ukraine has become so weak, we can only hope for help from outside,” he said.
In Sevastopol, several hundred people held a meeting demanding that Crimea become part of Russia, chanting: “Moscow is our capital.”
Across town at a monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, violence flared at a meeting to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth, when pro-Russian activists and Cossacks attacked a small group of Ukrainians guarding the event and the police had to intervene.
Footage from the event showed a group of men violently kicking one of the Ukrainians as he lay on the ground and a Cossack repeatedly hit him with a long black leather whip.
In Simferopol, Crimea’s main city, pro- and anti-Russian groups held rival rallies.
Several hundred opponents of Russian-backed plans for Crimea to secede gathered, carrying blue and yellow balloons the colour of the Ukrainian flag. The crowd sang the national anthem, twice, and an Orthodox Priest led prayers and a hymn.
Vladimir Kirichenko, 58, an engineer, opposed the regional parliament’s plans for a vote this month on Crimea joining Russia. “I don’t call this a referendum. It asks two practically identical questions: Are you for the secession of Ukraine or are you for the secession of Ukraine? So why would I go and vote?”
Several thousand Russian supporters gathered in Lenin Square, clapping along to nostalgic Soviet era songs.
Alexander Liganov, 25 and jobless, said: “We have always been Russian, not Ukrainian. We support Putin.”
At a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk, home to many Russian speakers, presidential candidate Vitaly Klitschko, a former boxing champion, said Ukraine should not be allowed to split apart amid bloodshed.
“The main task is to preserve the stability and independence of our country,” he said.
The worst face-off with Moscow since the Cold War has left the West scrambling for a response, especially since the region’s pro-Russia leadership declared Crimea part of Russia last week and announced a March 16 referendum to confirm it.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to Russia’s foreign minister for the fourth day in a row, told Sergei Lavrov on Saturday that Russia should exercise restraint.
A spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said military monitors from the pan-Europe watchdog had on Saturday been prevented for the third time in as many days from entering Crimea.
Moscow denies that the Russian-speaking troops in Crimea are under its command, an assertion Washington dismisses as “Putin’s fiction”. Although they wear no insignia, the troops drive vehicles with Russian military plates.
A Reuters reporting team filmed a convoy of hundreds of Russian troops in about 50 trucks, accompanied by armoured vehicles and ambulances, which pulled into a military base north of Simferopol in broad daylight on Saturday.
Ukrainian troops are performing training exercises in their bases but there are no plans to send them to Crimea, Interfax news agency quoted acting Defence Minister Ihor Tenyukh as saying. Ukraine’s military, with 130,000 troops, would be no match for Russia’s. So far Kiev has held back from any action that might provoke a response.
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'Shots Fired By Russian Troops'

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Ukrainians In Their Own Words

Updated: 3:20am UK, Sunday 09 March 2014
Three citizens of Ukraine write for Sky News about the sense of dread gripping ordinary people as their country slides towards conflict with its powerful neighbour.
:: Marina's story
"The course of life is the same in the capital of Ukraine. People go to work, visit cafes, cinemas and shopping centres. Public transport operates as normal. No special precautions need to be taken while on the streets.
"But there is a growing feeling that something is going to happen. Politics has become a part of daily life in Ukraine.  People discuss the latest news everywhere - in the streets, on public transport, in cafes, at home and at work. 
"Having lived through these past months, people have hardly had any time to realise what changes had taken place in the country. Hardly any time to mourn over people who perished on streets of Kiev.   
"At present we check news hourly. Everyone shares news, reposts important messages on social platforms, and leaves comments on news sites.
"Ukrainian men of all ages in Kiev and other cities and towns of their own free will are registering at military enlistment offices. The number is more than enough.
"We are facing an information war. The amount of misinformation, misinterpretation of events and barefaced lies from the Russian mass media is staggering and detrimental as the result.
"The news is presented in the most twisted way. It is so unbelievable that it becomes a farce. Ukrainians speak to their family and friends in Russia to try to explain what is really going on in Ukraine.
"Some months ago we thought that our worst enemy on the way to better life and a more prosperous country was the corrupted and vicious president and his environment - but it turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg.
"It has been about two weeks since it became known that Russian troops stepped on Crimean soil right after the transitional Ukrainian government was formed.
"It was almost impossible to get rid of the corrupt government, but such a great unity of people, speaking both Russian and Ukrainian from different regions of Ukraine got together and did it.
"It is obvious that Russia has its own interest in Ukraine with Crimea being the pretext. The goal is to destabilise our country, bring chaos and civil unrest and eventually prove to the world that Ukraine is incapable to hold its sovereignty."
:: Nastya's story
"I come from the eastern part of Ukraine, from a city called Sumy, which is 60km from the border with Russia.
"I speak both Russian and Ukrainian, and consider them both my native languages. Never in my life was I humiliated or abused because of speaking Russian. 
"We are used to being bilingual and 99% of the people I personally know support European values, no matter which language they speak.
"The issue of languages and nationalities is just a thing to manipulate us with during the election campaign and sadly now, to draw us into a terrible war which no one needs.
"Both of my grandfathers took part in the Second World War, fighting against German fascists. 
"They are probably turning in their graves because the people they were fighting with shoulder to shoulder against fascists, are now invading our beautiful land and calling us fascists for simply loving our country.
"It's like a bad divorce, when you don't recognise the person you've been living with all you life.
"This situation seems surreal. Germany is trying to convince Russia not to attack Ukraine. It's like a bad dream.
"It's like a bug in the system which prevents it from functioning correctly. It is beyond our understanding and our system of values.
"We are all very scared, too. For our children, our families, our future. We are praying to God to save Ukraine and our people. To make the people who make horrible decisions to come to their senses.
"We are asking the world to help us, because if the evil isn't stopped now, it will be next to impossible to stop it from spreading all over the world."
:: Ivan's story
"Right now the situation in Kiev has certainly cooled off and the main focus is on Crimea.
"During Maidan protests we were advised to avoid Maidan (Independence Square) and the centre of Kiev. Particularly the areas around the centre were very dangerous.
"There were a lot of reports of people just disappearing or being beaten up by 'Berkut' special forces. Former government forces showed their true attitude towards citizens.
"Thugs hired by the former government, people dressed in sports wear that were noticeably well-trained. We call them 'titushki'. Their purpose was to frighten, bully, or simply beat up the peaceful population of the city.
"They walked through police barriers without even a single question asked, while members of the public were not permitted in and did not get any answers as to why that was even allowed.
"As to the pro-Russian mood in the east of the country, people are very proud over there and do not like to be told what to do.
"Through lies and by playing on their feelings (many have families and relatives in Russia) they were duped into believing that Maidan protestors are fascist thugs who will take away their right to speak Russian, which is complete and utter rubbish.
"True, there are people who support partnership with Russia, but what they certainly do not support is Russia's military intervention. They hate the fact that Putin decided that we aren't capable of solving our own problems.
"The majority of people have changed their mindset and want our country to embrace other values, different to the values of a post Soviet bloc country.
"And that makes Putin go mad. He lost his grip on us - his puppet is no longer our president and, believe me, no one in southeast Ukraine or in Crimea is crying crocodile tears over him.
"I can assure you that people from both sides agree that Yanukovich is corrupt, incompetent and, frankly speaking, stupid."
:: Watch Sky News live on television, on Sky channel 501, Virgin Media channel 602, Freeview channel 82 and Freesat channel 202.