Russia Approves Sending Troops into Ukraine
Putin cited the “extraordinary situation in Ukraine” in making his request, adding that the lives of Russian citizens and military personnel based in the southern Crimea region had been threatened.
Ukraine’s new government condemned the move.
“We perceive Russia’s actions as direct aggression towards the sovereignty of Ukraine,” said acting President Oleksandr Turchynov on the Twitter account of his Fatherland party.
The fledgling government in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, is seeking to prevent tensions in Crimea, which has a majority-Russian population, from escalating into a full-blown bid for separation.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said Saturday in a posting on his party’s website that he planned to ask Turchynov to call for Parliament to meet in emergency session to vote to invalidate the Black Sea Fleet Naval Base agreement.
Russian troops said to attempt coast guard takeover
Amid the uncertainty, about 300 gunmen wearing Russian special forces uniforms attempted to take over the Sevastopol unit of the Ukrainian Coast Guard, a senior official with the Ukrainian Border Service said Saturday.
The gunmen were positioned outside the Ukrainian Coast Guard building, with local residents standing between the two groups, said Col. Sergii Astakhov, assistant to the chief of the Ukrainian Border Service.
The residents were reportedly trying to negotiate and asking the gunmen not to attack, Astakhov said.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Coast Guard had moved its ships to a position away from the coast where they were approached by three motorboats and a cruiser from the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Astakhov said.
The Russian upper house vote came on the day that the newly installed, pro-Russian leader of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, asked Putin for help in maintaining peace on the Black Sea peninsula — where Russia’s fleet is based at Sevastopol.
Security forces “are unable to efficiently control the situation in the republic,” he said in comments broadcast on Russian state channel Russia 24. Aksyonov was installed as the region’s premier after armed men took over the Crimean Parliament building on Thursday.
Aksyonov said Saturday that a referendum on greater Crimean autonomy, originally set for May 25, would be moved to March 30.
Ukrainian government officials suspect Moscow of fomenting separatist tensions in the autonomous region — and they accused Russia of having already sent troops into its territory.
Yatsenyuk: Russian actions are provocation
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, speaking Saturday at a Cabinet meeting, called the Russian presence in Crimea “nothing but a provocation.”
But, he said, it failed.
“Ukraine will not be provoked, we will not use force, we demand that the government of the Russian Federation immediately withdraw its troops and return to their home bases,” he said.
Acting President Turchynov insisted Friday that Ukraine would defend its sovereignty and that “any attempts of intrusion or annexation will have very serious consequences.”
Ukraine on Friday accused Russian Black Sea forces of trying to seize two airports in Crimea but said Ukrainian security forces had prevented them from taking control.
Groups of armed men, dressed in uniforms without identifying insignia, patrolled the airports in the regional capital, Simferopol, and the nearby port city of Sevastopol.
The armed men remained at the airports Saturday and Yevgey Plaksin, director of the airport in the regional capital, Simferopol, said Crimean airspace would remain closed until evening.
But by 6:30 p.m. Saturday, the airspace had reopened, and airport services were working, Plaksin said.
Unidentified, balaclava-clad armed men took up positions outside the Crimean Parliament building on Saturday, as a small pro-Russian demonstration was held, and controlled who could enter. A roadblock was also reported on the route into the city.
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaliy Churkin, said Friday that the reports of Russian troops taking charge of positions on the ground were rumors and noted that rumors “are always not true.”
“We are acting within the framework of our agreement,” he said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said that maneuvers of armored vehicles from the Russian Black Sea fleet in Crimea were needed for security and were in line with bilateral agreements.
Russia has been conducting a military exercise near its border with Ukraine — snap drills that Moscow announced Wednesday.
Obama: Warning to Russia
The United States urged Russia on Friday to pull back from the Crimea or face consequences.
“We are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside Ukraine,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in televised comments from the White House.
“It would be a clear violation of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine and of international laws.”
Obama said any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be “deeply destabilizing, and he warned “the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
His message was heard in Moscow, where the head of Russia’s upper house of Parliament said Saturday that she planned to ask Putin to recall Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Valentina Matvienko, chairwoman of the Federal Council, cited “the recent statements by the U.S. President threatening Russia.”
The message also reached Congress, where the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee called for an immediate response to Russia’s move.
“Every moment that the United States and our allies fail to respond sends the signal to President Putin that he can be even more ambitious and aggressive in his military intervention in Ukraine,” Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said in a statement.
He called on Obama to “make clear what costs Russia will face for its aggression and to impose those consequences without further delay.”
On Saturday, a U.S. official told CNN’s Barbara Starr that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had spoken with his Russian counterpart about the crisis.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said Saturday that he had asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for a de-escalation of the situation in Crimea and asked that Russia respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence.
He called the vote by Russia’s Parliament “a potentially grave threat to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine and said the British Foreign Office had summoned Russia’s ambassador to Britain.
He said he planned to visit Ukraine on Sunday to meet with government leaders there and to offer “the UK’s support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
Other world leaders joined an international outcry, with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton deploring Russia’s “unwarranted escalation of tensions.”
“Russian military intervention in Ukraine is clearly against international law and principles of European security,” tweeted Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
The U.N. Security Council met Saturday afternoon — for the second consecutive day — to discuss the situation.
A statement from the spokesperson for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he would speak “shortly” with Putin and called “for an immediate restoration of calm and direct dialogue.”
Ukrainian leaders and commentators have compared events in Crimea to what happened in Georgia in 2008. Then, cross-border tensions with Russia exploded into a five-day conflict that saw Russian tanks and troops pour into the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as Georgian cities. Russia and Georgia each blamed the other for starting the conflict.
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told CNN he had warned in 2008 that Ukraine would be next. “Putin is following his blueprint all the way through,” he said.
That comparison was noted by Yulia Tymoshenko, who opposed ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. “They want a war like the one which happened in Abkhazia and Ossetia,” she said in a statement on her Fatherland party website.
Ukraine, a nation of 45 million people sandwiched between Europe and Russia’s southwestern border, has been plunged into chaos since the ouster a week ago of Yanukovych following bloody street protests.
Yanukovych resurfaced Friday in the southwestern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where he told reporters that he had not been overthrown and vowed to fight on for Ukraine’s future, but gave little indication that he had the support to do so.
Ukraine’s new government faces challenges that go beyond Crimea — the country is an economic basket case.
A $15 billion loan offer from Russia, extended in November after Yanukovych dropped the EU deal, is on hold.
Russia also promised to slash natural gas prices. However, Russian energy giant Gazprom said Saturday that Ukraine is $1.55 billion in arrears on payments for natural gas deliveries, which may force the firm to cancel the discount it agreed to last year, Russian state-run RIA Novosti news agency said.
Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said that Russia has issued a $3 billion line of credit to Ukraine to help it cover its gas debts — but that payment obligations must be respected.
Ukrainian authorities have said they will need $35 billion in foreign funds by the end of 2015.
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