Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said Russian troops are “directly involved” in the growing conflict in the Crimea and called for support from the UN and other international organizations.
Turchynov pleaded his case today for political help from abroad as Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia following three months of bloody protests, claimed he remains the legitimate head of state and called for Russia not to intervene. While lawmakers in Kiev approved Turchynov’s call for a session by the United Nations Security Council, tensions were raised by reports of Russian movements in the Russian-dominated peninsula.
Parliament “demands that Russia halt all steps that show signs of forced claims on Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” Turchynov said. “All civil rights of Ukrainian citizens of Russian nationality are guaranteed by the Constitution.”
Ethnic strife stemming from a bloody uprising that ousted Kremlin-backed Yanukovych and Russian military maneuvers are rattling investors, while officials are struggling to verify the extent of any Russian action.
A government official said today that Ukraine controls the region’s airports after reports last night of armed masked troops occupying the main airport in Simferopol, the region’s capital. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said servicemen from the Russian Black Sea fleet, located in Sevastopol, blocked Belbek airport, while Zerkalo Nedeli weekly cited regional lawmaker Refat Chubarov as saying eight Russian helicopters landed on the peninsula.
Ukraine’s fledgling government, which rejects a split of the former Soviet republic along Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking lines, is reaching out to foreign officials to stem the crisis in Crimea, a part of Russia until 1954.
Russia’s Black Sea fleet leases its main base from Ukraine in Sevastopol, 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Simferopol. Russia began military exercises Feb. 26 in its western central regions, though said they weren’t related to events in Ukraine.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’sgovernment, on its first day in office yesterday, invited the International Monetary Fund to Kiev for talks on a bailout of as much as $15 billion.
Yatsenyuk’s foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsya, consulted with his U.K. counterpart, William Hague, by phone on his country’s priorities, according to the government’s website.
They both agreed that good relations with Russia to the east are necessary, the website said, adding that Hague said he will visit Kiev in the near future.
Meanwhile, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said events in Crimea resemble “aggressive military action by another country and we must raise this question at utmost acuity.” He will summon the Russian ambassador to Lithuania today for an explanation of Moscow’s position on events in Crimea.
Russians account for 59 percent of Crimea’s population of about 2 million people, with 24 percent Ukrainian and 12 percent Tatar, according to 2001 census data. Of the country’s total population of about 45 million people, 78 percent are Ukrainian and 17 percent are Russian.
Speaking today in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, Yanukovych said he fled Ukraine for his safety after he was threatened and shot at. He vowed to return once he is assured it is safe, said the new government is illegitimate and called on anti-Yanukovych activists to lay down their arms.
He also rejected the validity of a planned May 25 presidential election to replace him.
“All the Ukrainian people were cheated,” Yanukovych said. “I’d like to get an answer from those who signed this agreement, those who acted as guarantors.”
Yanukovych’s exit unnerved parts of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east and south. Supporters of Russia in Crimea clashed with ethnic Tatars and seized the parliament and government buildings, raising the Russian flag.
Both countries’ major commercial ports on the Black Sea are located outside Crimea, with Ukraine’s Odessa lying to the west and Russia’s Novorossiysk to the east.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his government to consider humanitarian aid to Crimea and to hold talks with the IMF and other countries on a Ukraine bailout, state-run RIA Novosti reported, citing Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Konstantin Zatulin, the head of the Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States, was in Crimea today, saying steps have been taken to control “all approach routes” to the peninsula. Zatulin was once banned from entering Ukraine under Yanukovych’s pro-western predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko.
“This is all done because of the threat that militants” from Kiev “can come here,” he said in an interview today. “They tried to threaten that they would come. This threat is real, that’s why Crimeans have taken self-defense measures here.”
The newly appointed prime minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, said yesterday that Yanukovych remains the legitimately elected president of Ukraine and that the territory is hoping to get Russian financial help, Interfax-Ukraine reported.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he had received assurances from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity and that the military exercises Moscow is staging on Ukraine’s border have nothing to do with the political upheaval there.
The top U.S. diplomat disputed Yanukovych’s claims that he’s still Ukraine’s legitimate leader. “He left the field of engagement,” Kerry said. “I think it’s clear that events have now overtaken whatever legitimacy he claimed.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Henry Meyer in Crimea at firstname.lastname@example.org; Ekaterina Shatalova in Moscow at email@example.com; Kateryna Choursina in Kiev at firstname.lastname@example.org