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Russia takes 2 Ukraine bases in Crimea

The seizure came as Russia and the West dug in for a long confrontation over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

FILE: Maidan self-defence activists stand guard outside the parliament in Kiev during a session on February 22, 2014. Picture: AFP.

SEVASTOPOL - The United States warned Moscow it was on a "dark path" to isolation on Wednesday as Russian troops seized two Ukrainian naval bases, including a headquarters in the Crimean port of Sevastopol where they raised their flag.

The dramatic seizure came as Russia and the West dug in for a long confrontation over Moscow's annexation of Crimea, with the United States and Europe groping for ways to increase pressure on a defiant Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"As long as Russia continues on this dark path, they will face increasing political and economic isolation," said US Vice President Joe Biden, referring to reports of armed attacks against Ukrainian military personnel in Crimea.

Biden was in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, as part of a quick trip to reassure Baltic allies worried about what an emboldened Russia might mean for their nations. Lithuania, along with Estonia and Latvia, are NATO members.

"There is an attempt, using brutal force, to redraw borders of the European states and to destroy the postwar architecture of Europe," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said.

The head of NATO warned that Putin may not stop with the annexation of Crimea and urged Europe to step up defence spending in response to the crisis.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon meets Putin in Moscow on Thursday and travels to Kiev on Friday. He will urge a peaceful end to a crisis that began when Ukraine's president abandoned a trade pact with the European Union and turned instead to Moscow, prompting violent street protests that led to his overthrow.

Russian lawmakers raced to ratify a treaty making Crimea part of Russia by the end of the week, despite threats of further sanctions from Washington and Brussels.

The Russian military moved swiftly to neutralise any threat of armed resistance in Crimea.

Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said the commander of the Ukrainian navy, Admiral Serhiy Haiduk, was driven away by what appeared to be Russian special forces.

Russian troops seized another Ukrainian naval facility in Crimea late on Wednesday.

In Washington, the White House condemned Russian moves to seize Ukrainian military installations, saying they were creating a dangerous situation.

MIXED FEELINGS

Russia sent thousands of soldiers to Crimea in the buildup to a referendum last weekend in which the Russian-majority region voted overwhelmingly to leave Ukraine and join Moscow, reflecting national loyalties and hopes of higher wages.

Ukrainian security Chief Andriy Parubiy said the Kiev government would urge the United Nations to declare Crimea a demilitarised zone.

Ukraine announced plans to introduce visas for Russians, and Russia said it might respond in kind.

Putin said his move to annex Crimea was justified by "fascists" in Kiev who overthrew pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich last month.

Ukraine and Western governments have dismissed the referendum as a sham, and say there is no justification for Putin's actions.

GERMANY MAKES MOVE

Germany's Cabinet approved EU plans for closer political cooperation with Ukraine, a government source said, clearing the way for Chancellor Angela Merkel to sign part of a so-called association agreement at an EU summit later this week.

The 28-member bloc is expected to sign a more far-reaching trade accord with Ukraine later.

Moscow, which has said it will retaliate for so far largely symbolic Western sanctions targeting Russian officials, announced on Wednesday it was closing its military facilities to a European security watchdog for the rest of the year.

The Russian Defence Ministry was quoted as saying the signatories of a 2011 Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe agreement had exhausted their quotas to inspect Russian military facilities and a planned inspection in the coming days would be the last.

FURTHER SANCTIONS?

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel praised the restraint of Ukraine's armed forces in a phone call on Wednesday with his Ukrainian counterpart.

Washington and Brussels said further sanctions would follow the visa bans and asset freezes imposed so far on a handful of Russian and Crimean officials, drawing derision from Moscow.

European Union leaders will consider widening the number of people targeted by personal sanctions when they meet on Thursday and Friday, diplomats said, as well as signing the political part of an association agreement with Ukraine's interim government.

EU officials say they have identified more than 100 potential targets. Some media reports say Sechin and the head of Russian gas monopoly Gazprom are on the wider list.