Interim leader Oleksandr Turchynov told lawmakers, “We must hold a vote on Thursday on a coalition government of national trust. We have no more time.” Photo: AFP
Ukraine’s acting president accused Russia of invading his country’s southern Crimea region, where unidentified gunmen seized airports and other facilities, fueling tension as the interim Ukrainian government took office.
Russia has “started a naked aggression against our country,” Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s acting president, said yesterday in a speech aired by the parliament’s television channel. “I demand that President Putin halt the provocation immediately and call military forces back from Crimea.”
Western leaders urged Russian President Vladimir Putin not to fuel further turmoil in Crimea by intervening, while Russia offered no public information on its actions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron called Putin yesterday, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with his Russian counterpart for the second time in two days.
In a brief White House appearance, U.S. President Barack Obama said yesterday he’s “deeply concerned” by reports of Russian military movements in Crimea and said any Russian violation of Ukrainian sovereignty would be “deeply destabilizing.” In New York, the United Nations Security Council met for about 90 minutes in an emergency closed-door meeting at Ukraine’s request.
While Obama warned Russia that “there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine,” he didn’t specify any potential American actions, underscoring the West’s limited leverage over Putin in the crisis.
Obama decided to speak publicly after U.S. intelligence confirmed that a number of Russian troops had entered Ukraine in vehicles, transport planes and helicopters without the permission of the country’s new interim government, said two U.S. officials briefed on the matter. Both requested anonymity to discuss classified reports.
The officials said the Russian forces’ mission, at least initially, appeared to be securing airfields near the region’s capital of Simferopol and reinforcing a small contingent of Russian marines stationed at the home base of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol.
While they declined to discuss the nature, number or weaponry of the Russian forces, they said two concerns are that the airfields might be used to bring additional Russian forces into Crimea and that resistance from Ukrainian forces or civilian protesters could cause the crisis to escalate.
“Right now the situation remains very fluid,” Obama said, adding that Vice President Joe Biden spoke yesterday with new Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to lend support to the new government.
The U.S. and its allies may find it difficult to attend the Group of Eight meeting in Sochi, Russia, in June if Russia violates its commitments to a sovereign Ukraine, said an Obama administration official who requested anonymity to describe the discussions. Russia’s desire for improved trade and commercial ties also may be put at risk, the official said.
The U.S. State Department late yesterday warned American citizens to defer all non-essential travel to Ukraine, particularly the Crimean peninsula.
“Even though, so far, the events have unfolded peacefully, the situation isn’t guaranteed to remain that way,” Andrew Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said in a phone interview.
Russia has alarmed Western leaders with moves in Crimea to thwart any move by Ukraine’s democratic movement to draw the nation toward the European Union and out of Moscow’s orbit. It wasn’t clear, though, 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 Russian invasion of Ukraine would 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.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power called for urgent international mediation to defuse the situation. Her U.K. counterpart, Mark Lyall Grant, said no Security Council approval or action is needed for such a mission and said UN envoy Robert Serry, who’s already in Ukraine, may be tapped to lead or participate in such an effort.
Meanwhile, tensions continue to mount in Crimea after an uprising in Kiev last week against ousted President Viktor Yanukovych called into question Russia’s sway over the country of 45 million people.
“It appears that the Russian military now controls the Crimean peninsula,” U.S. Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said in an e-mailed statement. Russia’s actions are “yet another indicator that Vladimir Putin’s hegemonic ambitions threaten U.S. interests and allies around the world.”
Thirteen planes carrying about 2,000 paratroopers have landed in the region, Serhiy Kunitsyn, a representative in Crimea of Ukrainian leader Turchynov, said yesterday on the ATR television station.
In New York, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, Yuriy Sergeyev, said Russia illegally flew military transport aircraft and helicopters across Ukraine’s borders. While he didn’t have information on “heavily weaponed people” at Crimea’s two airports and parliament area, he said it’s already clear that Russia has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment when reached by mobile phone. Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman at the defense ministry in Moscow, wasn’t immediately available.
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said he had no specific information on extra Russian forces having been deployed to Crimea or elsewhere in Ukraine.
“I recall from history books that when World War I started, some newspapers in the United Kingdom reported that they saw Russian cossacks in the railway station. So those reports -- they’re not always true,” Churkin said.
“We have an agreement with Ukraine on the presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet on the base near Sevastopol, and we are acting within the framework of that agreement,” he said.
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. Of the entire country’s population, 78 percent are Ukrainian and 17 percent are Russian.
At the UN, Churkin said the establishment of the new interim Ukrainian government was “questionable” and said Russia wants to return to an internationally mediated Feb. 21 accord between ousted president Yanukovych and his opponents.
Speaking publicly for the first time since leaving Ukraine, Yanukovych said yesterday that he’s still the nation’s rightful president and urged Russia to refrain from military intervention. Ukraine should abide by a peace accord sealed a week ago with European Union diplomats, under which he’d remain leader through December, Yanukovych said in the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia.
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.