UK & World News

  • 3 March 2014, 7:01

Ukraine Defection Reflects Escalating Rift

The head of Ukraine's navy is a traitor or a patriot, depending which side you believe.

Kiev says Rear Admiral Denis Berezovsky has been fired and is suspected of treason - "for refusing to fight Russians and surrendering the Sevastopol HQ".

Russian TV showed him swearing an oath of allegiance to the new pro-Russian leader of Crimea, and promising to protect citizens' lives.

Mr Berezovsky pledged to "strictly obey the orders of the supreme commander of the autonomous republic of Crimea" and "defend the lives and freedom" of Crimea's people.

He was only appointed 24 hours ago.

New Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyanov appeared alongside him, announcing that he had given orders to Ukrainian naval forces on the peninsula to ignore orders from the "self-proclaimed" government in Kiev.

He said they would now be known as the "Navy of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea".

The immediate question is how this filters down through the ranks - whether other units, ships and officers will follow suit.

The national government claimed earlier that 10 Ukrainian navy ships were in Sevastopol bay, and were still loyal to Kiev and armed.

They might not be so sure of this now.

Ukraine's navy is less than a tenth of the size of Russia's. It was never going to be the decisive factor, but what happened on Sunday was symbolic - and a propaganda coup for the Kremlin.

Parallel to the troop movements and the strategic positioning, there is an ongoing battle for the moral high ground.

There are two competing narratives about what is happening here - and both sides claim passionately they are right.

The national unity government and protesters in Independence Square in Kiev say there has been a revolution, that a corrupt, autocratic regime has been overthrown, in short that 'the people' have won.

Russia and its supporters in Crimea insist fascists have seized power, that the country has descended into lawlessness and chaos, and the Kremlin is only acting to protect citizens' lives.

Both sides are equally entrenched.

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