Russia’s parliament approved the use of its military in Ukraine after Russian troops seized facilities in that country’s Crimea region, prompting the government in Kiev to say it was being invaded.
Heeding a request by President Vladimir Putin to protect ethnic Russians, lawmakers in Moscow voted unanimously to send troops to its neighbor, according to a vote today broadcast by Rossiya 24. The upper chamber was also preparing a request for Putin to recall Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Speaker Valentina Matviyenko said. In Kiev, governing politician Vitali Klitschko called for Ukraine to mobilize its army and consider ousting Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from its Crimean base.
“Parliament should order the commander-in-chief to call for general mobilization because of the aggression against Ukraine,” Klitschko, a former world heavyweight-boxing champion who is preparing to run for president, said in a statement on his website today. “Parliament should also consider scrapping the agreement on the Black Sea Fleet lease.”
Putin is trying to assert his power over parts of Ukraine with large ethnic Russian populations after last week’s overthrow of former President Viktor Yanukovych. The military movements risk destabilizing the country as its new government looks to the U.S. and Europe for a bailout to avoid default. U.S. President Barack Obama said yesterday he’s “deeply concerned” by reports of Russian troops in Crimea.
Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, accused Russia of “naked aggression.” Ukraine’s defense minister said today that Russia has sent 6,000 more soldiers into Crimea in the past 24 hours, while Crimean Premier Sergey Aksenov, who asked Russia for help, said Russian troops were guarding key buildings there, Interfax news service reported.
“The situation is under control,” Aksenov, who had asked for aid from Russia and was voted as leader in a closed-door session after gunmen took control of the legislature this week, was quoted as saying by Interfax. “Cooperation has been established with the Black Sea Fleet on guarding crucial facilities.”
A U.S. official described events over the past days as an orchestrated series of steps that are intended to make Russian military intervention in Crimea appear legitimate. The official requested anonymity to discuss classified intelligence matters.
The United Nations Security Council will meet today at 2 p.m. New York time, U.K. Ambassador to the UN Mark Lyall Grant said on Twitter. Russia must respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also posted. U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague, who was scheduled to go to Kiev tomorrow, condemned “any act of aggression” against Ukraine and called Russia’s approval of military force “a potentially grave threat.”
Putin has not yet made a decision on when to send troops, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying by RIA Novosti news service. Ukraine’s government said efforts to speak with Russia’s Foreign Ministry were ignored.
“This is no longer defense of military bases but territorial occupation,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, whose NATO-member country borders Russia, said by phone. “The minimum we could do at this point when Russia declines to talk to Ukraine directly -- and it’s difficult to find means to end the crisis when there’s no such dialog -- is to help manage the situation with international mediation.”
The vote by Russian lawmakers followed a request by Putin for permission to use the military to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine and an appeal by the council of Russia’s State Duma to protect Russians in Crimea from “tyranny and violence,” RIA Novosti reported, citing Speaker Sergei Naryshkin.
Lawmakers also said Russia should no longer abide by a 1994 agreement under which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee from the U.S., U.K. and Russia to protect its independence and territorial integrity.
Crimea was given to Ukraine by Russia in 1954 by then-Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev. Ethnic Russians comprise 59 percent of Crimea’s population of about 2 million people, with 24 percent Ukrainian and 12 percent Tatar, according to 2001 census data. Russians make up 17 percent of Ukraine’s entire population of 45 million people.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said gunmen “sent by Kiev” tried to seize Crimea’s Interior Ministry. Ukrainian authorities denied the charge, and Interfax cited a Ukrainian border service official whom it didn’t name as saying armed men tried to overcome Ukraine’s border guard unit in the port Sevastopol. An unidentified group of masked men also took over the trade union building in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol.
Gunmen surrounded Crimea’s main airport in the capital last night, while more than 10 trucks carrying Russian servicemen encircled the Kirov military airfield, Interfax reported, citing an unidentified person in the Ukrainian military. Pro-Russian protesters stormed the chamber in Kharkiv, a city in Ukraine’s northeast, and ejected government supporters in clashes where both sides threw stones and wielded sticks, news agency Unian reported today.
Russia has alarmed Western leaders with moves in Crimea to thwart any push by Ukraine’s democratic movement to draw the nation toward the European Union and out of Moscow’s orbit.
The turmoil comes as Ukraine’s new government tries to shore up an economy in need of aid. Ukraine needs $15 billion in the next 2 1/2 years from the International Monetary Fund, and securing a deal at the start of April would be the best scenario, Finance Minister Oleksandr Shlapak said in Kiev today.
It wasn’t clear what tools the U.S. and its allies have to deter Russia from escalating the situation.
“There could be trade or financial sanctions on Russia,” said Daniel Serwer, senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “The problem is no one wants to go back to a Cold War.”
A full invasion of Ukraine could risk interrupting deliveries of Russian gas to other European nations and further destabilizing a country that’s already on the brink of default and elected a new government only this week. Gazprom today reiterated that Ukraine owes $1.55 billion for supplies of Russian gas, RIA said, citing company officials.
Putin’s goal may instead be to ensure Russia’s military dominance of the region survives through its hold on the deep-water Black Sea port Sevastopol, which it received in a leasing deal with Ukraine until 2042. The threat of military force may set the stage for a referendum slated for March 30 in Crimea over whether the country should have more independence from Kiev, said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
“What the Russian army is doing now is guaranteeing the impossibility for Kiev to use force in Crimea and to ensure that the referendum will be passed,” Pukhov said by phone today. “Putin’s goal is to have Crimea with as wide rights of autonomy as possible and become de facto Russia’s unofficial protectorate. The plan is to keep the Black Sea fleet forever.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Daryna Krasnolutska in Kiev at email@example.com; Volodymyr Verbyany in Simferopol at firstname.lastname@example.org; Ekaterina Shatalova in Moscow at email@example.com