Ukraine accuses Russia of sending thousands of extra troops to Crimea, puts military on high alert.
The Kremlin on Saturday said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has asked parliament for permission to use the country’s military in Ukraine.
Putin said the move is needed to protect ethnic Russians and the personnel of a Russian military base in Ukraine’s strategic region of Crimea.
Ukraine earlier on Saturday accused Russia of sending thousands of extra troops to Crimea and placed its military in the area on high alert as the Black Sea peninsula appeared to slip beyond Kiev’s control.
Russia’s RIA news agency said pro-Russian authorities in the region, which has an ethnic Russian majority, and the Russian Black Sea fleet based there had agreed to guard important buildings. Regional premier Sergei Aksyonov said that that Fleet personnel had already been deployed.
The peninsula’s main civil airport at the fleet town of Simferopol announced it had closed its airspace. Russia accused Kiev-backed gunmen of attacking the Interior Ministry building and wounding personnel in “treacherous provocation.”
As armed men described as Russian troops took control of key airports and a communications center in Crimea on Friday, Kiev accused Russia of a “military invasion and occupation” — a claim that brought an alarming new dimension to the crisis, and raised fears that Moscow is moving to annex a strategic peninsula where Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based.
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk opened a cabinet meeting by calling on Russia not to provoke discord in Crimea.
“We call on the government and authorities of Russia to recall their forces, and to return them to their stations,” Yatsenyuk was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. “Russian partners, stop provoking civil and military resistance in Ukraine.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that Moscow is “extremely concerned” about the recent developments in the Crimean region, which it said confirm the desire of Kiev’s politicians to destabilize the situation on the peninsula.
“In Russia, we are extremely concerned about the recent developments in Crimea,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“We believe it is extremely irresponsible to further pressure the already tense situation in the Crimea,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
Russian lawmakers have urged Putin to take steps to stabilize the situation in Crimea and protect Russians there.
The head of Russia’s upper house of parliament said on Saturday she could not rule out the dispatch of a limited troop contingent to Ukraine’s Crimea region to protect the Black Sea fleet’s base there and Russian citizens.
Valentina Matviyenko gave no indication that a decision had been taken on this but said sending troops might be possible following a request for assistance from the pro-Russia authorities in Crimea.
“It is possible, in this situation … even to send a limited contingent to guarantee the security of the Black Sea fleet and Russian citizens living on the territory of Crimea,” Matviyenko said.
Meanwhile, the pro-Russian prime minister of Ukraine’s restive Crimea claimed control of all military, police and other security services in this strategic peninsula Saturday and appealed to Russia’s president for help in keeping peace there.
In a statement reported by local and Russian news agencies, Sergei Aksenov declared that the armed forces, the police, the national security service and border guards will answer only to his orders. He said any commanders who don’t agree should leave their posts.
Ukraine’s population is divided in loyalties between Russia and the West, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the European Union while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support.
Crimea, a southeastern peninsula of Ukraine that has semi-autonomous status, was seized by Russian forces in the 18th century under Catherine the Great. It became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia, a move that was a mere formality until the 1991 Soviet collapse meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.
Alarm in Europe
France, Germany and Britain expressed alarm on Saturday over fast-moving developments in Ukraine’s Crimea, urging all sides to avoid further escalation and calling on Russia to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“France is extremely concerned by the reports from Crimea, which describe significant troop movements,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement. “We call on the parties to abstain from acts that could raise tensions and affect Ukraine’s territorial unity.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he had spoken to his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, to call for a de-escalation of the situation.
Hague said on Friday he would travel to Ukraine on Sunday to hold talks with Ukraine’s new leadership, a week after Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in Kiev.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that developments in Ukraine over the past few hours were dangerous and urged Russia to explain its intentions regarding the troop movements.
“The situation in Crimea in particular has become considerably more acute. Whoever pours more oil onto the flames now, with words or actions, is consciously aiming for further escalation of the situation,” he said.
Obama warns Russia against military involvement
President Barack Obama warned Moscow on Friday “there will be costs” if it intervenes militarily. Russia has taken a confrontational stance toward its southern neighbor after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. Yanukovych was voted out of office by parliament after weeks of protests ended in violence that left over 80 people dead.
Demonstrators sought his resignation after he backed out of signing an agreement to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union instead of Russia. Yanukovych took refuge in Russi and stills ays he’s president.
Aksenov, the head of the main pro-Russia party on the peninsula, said in his statement that he appealed to Putin “for assistance in guaranteeing peace and calmness on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea.”
Aksenov was appointed by the Crimean parliament on Thursday after pro-Russia gunmen seized the building and as tensions soared over Crimea’s resistance to the new authorities in Kiev, who took power last week.
Obama called on Russia to respect the independence and territory of Ukraine and not try to take advantage of its neighbor, which is undergoing political upheaval.
“Any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing,” Obama said.
Such action by Russia would not serve the interests of the Ukrainian people, Russia or Europe, Obama said, and would represent a “profound interference” in matters he said must be decided by the Ukrainian people.
“Just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic Games, that would invite the condemnation of nations around the world,” Obama said. “The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
He did not say what those costs might be.
At the United Nations, the Ukrainian ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, said Friday that 10 Russian transport aircraft and 11 attack helicopters had arrived in Crimea illegally, and that Russian troops had taken control of two airports in Crimea.
He described the gunmen posted outside the two airports as Russian armed forces as well as “unspecified” units.
Russia kept silent on claims of military intervention, even as it maintained its hard-line stance on protecting ethnic Russians in Crimea, a territory that was once the crown jewel in Russian and then Soviet empires and has played a symbolic role in Russia’s national identity.
Meanwhile, flights remained halted from Simferopol’s airport. Dozens of armed men in military uniforms without markings patrolled the area. They didn’t stop or search people leaving or entering the airport, and refused to talk to journalists.
One man who identified himself only as Vladimir said the men were part of the Crimean People’s Brigade, which he described as a self-defense unit ensuring that no “radicals and fascists” arrive from other parts of Ukraine. There was no way to verify his account.