Ukraine has warned its conflict with Russia has entered a “military stage” and authorised its troops to open fire in self-defence after suffering the first casualty since pro-Kremlin forces seized Crimea nearly three weeks ago.
The dramatic escalation to the raging security crisis on the EU’s eastern frontier came hours after President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty claiming Crimea as Russian territory after the Black Sea region overwhelmingly voted on Sunday in favour of switching from Ukrainian to Kremlin rule.
Ukraine’s Western-backed Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told an urgent government meeting in Kiev that his ex-Soviet country’s conflict with its giant nuclear-armed neighbour was threatening to spiral out of control.
“The conflict is shifting from a political to a military stage,” Yatsenyuk said in remarks broadcast live across the culturally splintered nation of 46 million people.
“Russian soldiers have started shooting at Ukrainian military servicemen, and that is a war crime,” Yatsenyuk said.
Ukraine’s interim president Oleksandr Turchnynov later issued a statement placing responsibility for “the blood of Ukrainian soldiers (on) the leadership of the Russian Federation and specifically President Putin”.
Regional defence ministry spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov told AFP the soldier had died after being shot in the neck when a group of gunmen stormed a Ukrainian military base in the northeast of Crimea’s main city of Simferopol.
Seleznyov said another soldier was wounded but did not specify whether the base was stormed by Russian soldiers or pro-Kremlin militia who also patrol the peninsula.
But the Ukrainian defence ministry said in a statement the military base was attacked by people “dressed in the military uniforms of servicemen of the armed forces of the Russian Federation”.
“For their self defence and protection of their lives, Ukrainian servicemen … deployed in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea are allowed to use arms,” the defence ministry said.
Ukrainian authorities had previously forbidden its Crimean soldiers from opening fire – in some cases forcing them to stand guard at their bases with empty rifles – in order not to provoke a Russian offensive that could spill into an all-out war.