Russian Militias Release Ukrainian Naval Commander

Viktor Drachev—AFP/Getty Images Russian soldiers and pro-Russian self-defence activists patrol at the Ukrainian navy headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol on March 19, 2014.

As Ukraine prepares to withdraw all forces from Crimea, Russian troops continue to close in on Ukrainian naval and military strongholds, seizing three warships

Russian militias released a Ukrainian naval commander from captivity on Thursday, ending a tense, one-day standoff at a naval base in the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol.

Pro-Russian militants, many in unmarked uniforms, had swarmed into Ukraine’s naval headquarters one day earlier, seizing control of a key outpost nominally in control of Ukraine’s armed forces. In reality, those forces have been trapped inside of their bases for two weeks, encircled by a loose alliance of Russian troops and Crimean “self-defense” militias calling for their defection.

Ukraine’s fledgeling government announced that it would stage a complete military withdrawal from the region, evacuating an estimated 25,000 servicemen and family members, but tensions continued to flare on the ground. Shots rang out at a Ukrainian shipyard on Thursday as Russian forces seized control of three Ukrainian warships, according to Reuters.

Western leaders promised a sustained campaign to “ratchet up” pressure on Moscow. E.U. leaders emerged from a summit in Brussels Thursday evening with a new set of sanctions against 12 individuals in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, adding to a list of 21 individuals who face asset freezes and travel bans. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that further escalations by Russia could be met with “broad-based” economic sanctions, according to the BBC. The threat of sanctions caused Fitch Ratings to downgrade Russia’s credit outlook from stable to negative, Bloomberg reports.

Meanwhile, Russia’s treaty of annexation sailed through Russia’s lower house of Parliament on Thursday. The upper house is expected to ratify the treaty on Friday, thereby bringing the legal transition of power to a close, even as Russian forces continue to wrest control of Ukrainian military installations. In a sign of how unsteadily the transition has proceeded on the ground, Russian forces appear to have removed Ukrainian flags from the sterns of two seized warships, Reuters reports, but have yet to raise the Russian tricolor in their places.

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