Defiant Yanukovych Urges Russia Restraint in Crimea

Ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych said he’s still the nation’s rightful president and urged Russia to refrain from military intervention in the southern Crimea region as tensions there flared.

Speaking publicly for the first time since leaving Ukraine, Yanukovych said the country should abide by a peace accord sealed a week ago with European Union diplomats under which he’d remain leader through December. His temporary replacement, Oleksandr Turchynov, said Russian troops were “directly involved” in the growing crisis in Crimea.

“The whole Ukrainian people were cheated -- I’d like to get an answer from those who signed this agreement,” Yanukovych said today in the city of Rostov-on-Don in Russia’s south. He said he’s “categorically against intervention in Ukraine, against the violation of its integrity as a sovereign state.”

Since Yanukovych was overthrown in the nation’s bloodiest week since World War II, ethnic strife has erupted in Crimea, where Russia keeps its Black Sea fleet and Russian speakers dominate. Unidentified gunmen seized Crimea’s parliament yesterday and raised the Russian flag. Today, armed men occupied two regional airports as Russia holds military drills nearby.

A creeping Kremlin takeover of Crimea by ostensibly local ethnic Russian forces is more likely than a military assault on all or parts of Ukraine, U.S. and European intelligence officials and analysts said.

‘Below Waterline’

The officials, who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said Russian intelligence services have maintained assets and sympathizers in Crimea, especially in the port city of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

“Moscow knows an army invasion would cause too many problems, so they’re operating just below the waterline to make it look like a bottom-up movement led by ethnic Russians,” Joerg Forbrig, a senior program officer at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said in a phone interview. “They’re avoiding the impression of an open military intervention, but that’s what it is.”

Ukraine yesterday confirmed an interim cabinet headed by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a leader in the three months of anti-government street protests that toppled Yanukovych. As well as battling the conflict in Crimea, Yatsenyuk is trying to stave off a default by agreeing on international aid.

Armed Men

After a plea from lawmakers in Kiev, the United Nations Security Council agreed to meet at 3 p.m. today in New York to discuss Crimea. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said servicemen from Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol blocked Belbek airport and the Zerkalo Nedeli newspaper reported that eight Russian helicopters had landed on the peninsula.

While local media reported that armed masked troops occupied the main airport overnight in Simferopol, the region’s capital, a government official said said today that Ukraine controls Crimea’s airports.

The events there are a natural reaction to the “gangsters’ coup” in Kiev, according to Yanukovych. While he said Crimea should remain a part of Ukraine and urged restraint there, he called on Russia to do all it can to end the “chaos” and “lawlessness” in the country.

Naval Base

“The lack of a direct appeal to Russia with regards to military intervention is significant, in terms of attenuating war risks to some extent,” Alisa Lockwood, head of Europe/CIS analysis at IHS Country Risk, said in an e-mailed note.

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 the situation in Ukraine.

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.”

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron called Russian President Vladimir Putin today to discuss the tensions in Crimea.

“The prime minister emphasized that all countries should respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine,” he said in a statement. “President Putin agreed, stressing that Russian military exercises in the area had been planned.”

Yanukovych said yesterday that he’d asked Russia for safe haven. Today, he said he’d spoken by phone with Putin, though the pair haven’t met yet.

Putin Meeting

“We agreed that as soon as the Russian president gets a chance, he’ll meet with me,” Yanukovych said. “When that’s going to happen, I don’t know.

Putin ordered his government to consider humanitarian aid to Crimea and to hold talks with the International Monetary Fund and governments on a Ukrainian bailout, state-run RIA Novosti cited spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying. An IMF team will arrive in Kiev next week for talks over as much as $35 billion in aid.

Yanukovych said he’d been betrayed after signing the EU-brokered pact and blamed the West for it not being implemented.

‘‘I’m the real president,” he said. “If the president hasn’t resigned, according to the constitution, if he’s alive -- and you can see that I’m alive -- and if this president hasn’t been impeached by parliament, he’s still the president.”

Legitimate Leader

The U.S. and EU recognize the new administration. The newly appointed prime minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, said yesterday that Yanukovych remains Ukraine’s legitimately elected leader and that the territory is hoping to get Russian financial help, Interfax-Ukraine reported.

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.

Ukraine’s new administration has called early presidential elections for May 25. While Yanukovych said he’d planned to run in the scheduled ballot next year, he said he won’t participate in the snap vote as he considers it illegal.

Wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a blue tie and sitting in front of Ukrainian flags, Yanukovych denied claims of corruption and excessive force in dealing with street clashes in Kiev in which more than 80 people died. He said wouldn’t have left Ukraine had his life not been in danger and vowed to return when it’s safe.

Yanukovych’s remarks today appeared positive and contained no aggressive announcements, such as a declaration he’d fight to regain his power, Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Vladimir Osakovskiy in Moscow said by phone. “The address was in the line of a further stabilization scenario in Ukraine.”

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