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Russian officials' statements hint at further expansion into Ukraine

Anti-war demonstrators hold signs that read 'Crimea is not Russia' during a protest in Simferopol, Ukraine, on Friday, March 14, 2014.

KIEV, Ukraine — Russia appeared on the brink Friday of intensifying and expanding its invasion of Ukraine, a move Ukrainian officials all but admit they would be powerless to stop.

Russian officials made statements about eastern Ukraine that were eerily similar to those they made in February about Crimea, shortly before invading and occupying the Black Sea peninsula.

Ukrainians spoke of a “Plan B” to deal with the Russians, but Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk cautioned that while there have been discussions with NATO on a technical level, “We must clearly understand that now it is the sole responsibility of Ukraine.”

Coming during a week when the Ukrainian Parliament admitted the nation can call on only 6,000 battle-ready troops to defend its borders against a far better-equipped Russian force near the eastern border that is thought to number more than 200,000, Ukrainians appear not to be holding out much hope.

A Ukrainian officer reached Friday at one of a handful of Ukrainian military bases in Crimea still in Ukrainian hands said he and his fellow officers have asked officials in Kiev repeatedly for instructions on what to do but have yet to receive a response. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because his family lives nearby and he fears for their safety.

The heightening of tensions comes just two days before a referendum in Crimea in which residents are expected to vote to secede from Ukraine and ask Russia to take them in.

Ukrainian television reported that Russian troops in Crimea, known widely here as “little green army men” because their uniforms do not carry identifying insignia, said Friday that their real job begins after the referendum, when any remaining Ukrainian troops will be classified as bandits and dealt with.

Signs that Russia was considering an expansion of its presence in Ukraine came after a stabbing death during a riot between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators in Donetsk, the industrial capital of eastern Ukraine.

In a mocking statement that referred to the government in Kiev as “those who call themselves the Ukrainian authorities,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said that “the Kiev authorities are not in control of the situation in the country.”

“Russia recognizes its responsibility for the lives of countrymen and fellow citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take people under its protection,” the statement said in wording similar to that of Russian officials before their troops moved into Crimea.

Russia repeatedly has denied that the troops now almost completely occupying Crimea are Russian, saying that they are instead Crimean militiamen seeking to defend their homeland. But the troops have acknowledged to their Ukrainian counterparts that they are Russian troops. And while Russian license plates have vanished from most of their vehicles, as recently as Wednesday a long convoy of green military vehicles included one with Russian plates.

Russian forces appear to have captured most Ukrainian military bases in Crimea. The few bases that remain under Ukrainian control are surrounded. At one surrounded base, the home of an elite Ukrainian unit that fought in both Kosovo and Iraq, a captain reported Friday that an officer from the camp was beaten by unknown assailants when he stepped outside the gates.

Ukrainian television reported that Russian troops had said that after Sunday’s vote, Ukrainian troops will be offered two options: Leave or accept Russian citizenship. “Those who resist, we will fight,” the report quoted a Russian soldier as saying.

In the same report, the Russian troops noted that they had orders not to harm civilians, but to “simply change their passports to Russian.”

Friday’s events come at a time when Ukraine is clearly reeling, and on all fronts. Economics Minister Pavlo Sheremeta told a news conference that as the government faces crises in Crimea and Donetsk, it also is beset by an economic crisis brought about by no money in the treasury and no foreign investment.

“You don’t attempt a military solution unless you have an advantage, and we have none,” he said. “A military assault is the worst strategy we could use.”

Oleg Ustenko, director of the Center for World Economies and International Relations in Kiev, said that years of corruption in Ukraine had led to a woefully inadequate military, to the extent that the country doesn’t really have any military options at this time.

He suggested that despite the likelihood of a Russian occupation of Crimea and perhaps other parts of Ukraine, the government first must deal with its economic issues. “The budget has to be Job One,” he said. “And it will require a generation of politicians willing to sacrifice their political futures for what Ukraine needs right now. None of this will be easy.”

Viktor Sokolov, first vice president of the Gorshenin Institute, a political research group in Kiev, agreed. Half of Ukraine’s economy is “black,” or illegal, and half of the federal budget each year vanishes in kickbacks and other forms of corruption. Of the remaining piece of the economy, exports to Russia account for 17 percent of the country’s economic output.

The result is Russia is looking at invading a very vulnerable nation, and one that a trade war — much less a shooting war — can cripple. Given Russian actions in Crimea, Sokolov said, there should be little surprise if Russia moves into other areas. Crimea, a peninsula, relies on a land connection to the Ukraine for gas, power and water. To effectively administer Crimea, Russia would need a land bridge.

“We’ve been doing surveys in the east for some time asking the question the Russians are now asking, would you prefer a united Ukraine, or for parts to join the Russian Federation,” he said. “Outside of Crimea, where the numbers used to be 40 percent in favor of joining Russia, the answer was overwhelmingly in favor of a unified Ukraine. But while the oblasts that would make up that land bridge offer too little support for the Russians to count on a referendum working, there are enough pro-Russia people in that region that an invasion force would find many friendly faces.”

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