Russia's upper house of parliament approved on Saturday a request from Russian President Vladimir Putin to send armed forces to Ukraine's Crimea region, which has a majority ethnic Russian population.
The actions signaled publicly for the first time the Kremlin’s readiness to intervene militarily in Ukraine, and it served as a blunt response to President Obama, who just hours earlier pointedly warned Russia to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Unidentified soldiers block a road to a Ukrainian military airport. Photo: AFP
The approval by the Federation Council came after a debate that warned of the apocalyptic consequences of failing to stop a fascist threat from spreading to Russia’s borders. The lawmakers direct considerable fury at President Obama and others in the West they accused of fomenting the upheaval in Ukraine.
The vote was unanimous among the 90 members present for the debate, and it was clear that forces allied with Moscow were largely in control of the disputed peninsula.
The region’s two main airports were closed, with civilian flights canceled, and were guarded by heavily armed men in military uniforms. Similar forces surrounded the regional Parliament building and the rest of the government complex in downtown Simferopol, the Crimean capital, as well as numerous other strategic locations, including communication hubs and a main bus station.
At the entrance to Balaklva, site of Ukrainian customs and border post near Sevastopol, the road was blocked by a long column of military vehicles bearing Russian license plates. The column, comprising 10 troops trucks with 30 soldiers in each, two military ambulances and five armored vehicles, was not moving. Troops, wearing masks and carrying automatic rifles, stood on the road keeping people away.
Some 60 locals, all apparently ethnic Russians, were gathered in a nearby square waving Russian flags and shouting “Russia, Russia.”
Just a few hours earlier on Saturday, the newly installed, pro-Russia prime minister of Crimea had declared that he was in sole control of the military and the police in the peninsula and he appealed to Mr. Putin for help in safeguarding the region.
The prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, also said a public referendum on independence would be held on March 30.
On a day of frayed nerves and set-piece political appeals that recalled ethnic conflicts of past decades in the former Soviet bloc — from the Balkans to the Caucasus — pro-Russian forces were said to have taken control of a government building in Kharkiv, and a crowd in the center of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine and pulled down the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag and raised a Russian one.
On Friday, officials in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev had accused Russian armed forces of invading Crimea and violating Ukraine’s sovereign territory, and President Obama pointedly warned Russia against military intervention. On Saturday, officials in Kiev reiterated their objections but, for the moment, seemed otherwise powerless.
There was no immediate new comment from Washington, where officials seem to have very limited options in responding to Russian military intervention in Ukraine.
In his statement Saturday, Mr. Aksyonov, said, “Understanding my responsibility for the life and safety of citizens, I appeal to the president of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin, for assistance in providing peace and tranquillity on the territory of the autonomous Republic of Crimea.”
“As chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, I make the decision to temporarily put the armed units and groups of the Interior Ministry, the Security Service, the armed forces, the Emergency Situations Ministry, the fleet, the Tax Service, and the border guards under my direct control. All commanders shall follow only my orders and instructions.”
“I ask anyone who disagrees to leave the service," he added.
The Kremlin, in a statement released to Russian news services, said it “will not ignore” Mr. Aksyonov’s request for assistance.
And separately, in what appeared to reflect coordinated Russian responses after the Crimean appeals for help, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that unidentified gunmen “directed from Kiev” had tried to size control of the Ministry of Internal Affairs building in Simferopol.
The Foreign Ministry said that “vigilante groups” trying to seize the building had been repelled but that the attack “confirms the desire of prominent political circles in Kiev to destabilize the situation in the peninsula.” Local officials said an exchange of gunfire had occurred.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, there were signs of concern among business leaders over an effort by several European countries, including Austria and Switzerland, to freeze Mr. Yanukovych’s assets as well as those of his family members and other prominent associates.
Although American officials did not directly confirm that Russian troops were being deployed to Crimea in violation of the two countries’ agreements there, Mr Obama, in his statement on Friday, cited “reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine”.
He said: “Any violation of Ukrainian sovereignty would be deeply destabilizing.”
“There will be costs."
New York Times/Reuters