Ukrainians Speculate What Russia Plans To Do Next

Ukrainians in Kiev are debating if the Russian military buildup on the border between the two countries is just saber rattling or the precursor to a second incursion.

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Ukraine's defense minister has resigned after the Ukrainian military's withdrawal from Crimea. He's been criticized by some officials for giving up the peninsula without fighting back against Russia's forces.

As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Kiev, the loss of Crimea has dealt a heavy psychological blow to many Ukrainians.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Russian troops stormed the last naval vessel still flying the Ukrainian flag Tuesday. They now occupy all 300 military facilities on the peninsula. Describing Ukrainian forces as under siege, Ukraine's defense minister formally ordered his country's troops to withdraw. He then tendered his own resignation, the first victim of the acting government's inability to handle the crisis.

An unnamed Ukrainian soldier describes by telephone what happened when Russian soldiers stormed his base in Crimea.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) The attack began about 4 AM by Russian special forces. They shot at us and destroyed much of the base, and many of our people have been injured. They broke our commanding officer's ribs.

BEARDSLEY: As Ukrainians have watched their military bases fall one by one, a deep frustration is growing, says Kievite Yuri Veremchuk.

YURI VEREMCHUK: It seems like Crimea was given up just without any bullets, any fire. Just take it. Come and take it. So, a lot of frustration. A lot of people are ready to fight and go - and ready to take machine guns and everything to protect our motherland.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

BEARDSLEY: All around the streets of Kiev are billboards for the new national guard. Friend, have you signed up yet, they ask. Many Ukrainians who spoke to NPR in Kiev said they're ready to take up arms and fight the Russians. One young woman said she was taking shooting lessons. Ukrainian political analyst Igor Khsiv believes the takeover of Crimea could have been stopped if the Ukrainian military had reacted early on against the local, pro-Russian, paramilitary forces.

IGOR KHISV: (Through translator) If we had moved at the end of February, I believe we would have had a chance to stop this. But now Russia has deployed troops and heavy weapons, and it is futile to resist them.

BEARDSLEY: Khisv says now Ukraine needs weapons and help from the West. Borys Tarasyuk, a member of parliament and former foreign minister, agrees. He says Ukraine's military forces have been gutted by years of pro-Russian defense ministers. Tarasyuk was also one of the negotiators of the 1994 Budapest Agreement, in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal for guarantees of sovereignty from Russia and the West.

BORYS TARASYUK: The United States and the United Kingdom, two countries I dare to mention them by name, they did not implement their commitments according to the Budapest memorandum on national security guarantees to Ukraine. So this is the two countries who bear special responsibility for what happened in the Crimea.

BEARDSLEY: The White House says it is very concerned about the massive buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine's border and the potential for escalation. The U.S. and Europe are struggling to come up with an effective response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggressions. They've threatened wider economic sanctions, but so far have made no military commitments.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

BEARDSLEY: On Kiev's Maidan protest square, crowds still turn out every day for rousing speeches about freedom and democracy for Ukraine. But many people say they're scared about the turn things have taken. Kiev businessman Yevgeny Kovalchu says the new government abandoned Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea, but he says it didn't have a choice.

YEVGENY KOVALCHU: They don't want a war with Russia. They want to live in peace with Russia. But Putin wants to fight with Ukrainians.

BEARDSLEY: Ukrainians say they're doing everything they can to avoid fighting Russia, but people here want the West and NATO to provide military and economic help, not just sanctions against the Russian elite.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Kiev.

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