Russian troops troops have apparently already seized the
Crimea peninsula. REUTERS/Stringer
Ukraine has put its armed forces on full combat alert and
warned Russia that any military intervention in the country
would lead to war.
After a more than three-hour meeting with security and
defence chiefs, Acting President Oleksander Turchinov said
there was no justification for what he called Russian
aggression against his country.
Standing beside Turchinov, Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk
said he had urged Russia to return its troops to base in the
Crimea region during a phone call with Prime Minister Dmitry
Medvedev and called for talks.
"Military intervention would be the beginning of war and the
end of any relations between Ukraine and Russia," Yatseniuk
Putin wins approval
Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded and won his
parliament's approval to invade Ukraine, where his troops
have apparently already seized the Crimea peninsula, spurning
Western pleas for restraint.
Talk of confrontation or outright war spread rapidly across
Ukraine, with pro-Moscow demonstrators raising the Russian
flag above government buildings in several cities and
anti-Russian politicians calling for mobilisation.
Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk said Russian
military intervention would lead to war and any relations
with Moscow. He called for a political solution.
Putin's open assertion of the right to deploy troops in a
country of 46 million people on the ramparts of central
Europe creates the biggest confrontation between Russia and
the West since the Cold War.
It also rebuffs Western leaders who had repeatedly urged
Russia not to intervene, including U.S. President Barack
Obama, who just a day before had held a televised address to
warn Moscow of "costs" if it acted.
Troops with no uniform insignia but clearly Russian - some in
vehicles with Russian number plates - have already seized
Crimea, an isolated peninsula in the Black Sea where Moscow
has a large military presence in the headquarters of its
Black Sea Fleet. Kiev's new authorities have been powerless
Western capitals scrambled for a response, but so far this
has been limited to angry words from Washington and its
European allies. A U.S. official said Defense Secretary Chuck
Hagel had spoken to his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu.
The official said there had been no change in U.S. military
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said Russia's
authorisation of force was an unwarranted escalation and
called on Moscow not to send troops. Sweden's Foreign
Minister Carl Bildt said it was "clearly against
international law". Czech President Milos Zeman recalled the
Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
"Urgent need for de-escalation in Crimea," tweeted NATO
Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "NATO allies
continue to coordinate closely."
Putin asked parliament to approve force "in connection with
the extraordinary situation in Ukraine, the threat to the
lives of citizens of the Russian Federation, our compatriots"
and to protect the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea.
The upper house swiftly delivered a unanimous yes vote, shown
on live television.
The authorisation to use force in Ukraine would last "until
the normalisation of the socio-political situation in that
country", Putin said in his request. His justification - the
need to protect Russian citizens - was the same as he used to
launch a 2008 invasion of Georgia, where Russian forces
seized two breakaway regions and recognised them as
So far there has been no sign of Russian military action in
Ukraine outside Crimea, the only part of the country with a
Russian ethnic majority, which has often voiced separatist
A potentially bigger risk would be conflict spreading to the
rest of Ukraine, where the sides could not be easily kept
As tension built on Saturday, demonstrations occasionally
turned violent in eastern cities, where most people, though
ethnically Ukrainian, are Russian speakers, and many support
deposed President Viktor Yanukovich and Moscow.
Demonstrators flew Russian flags at government buildings in
the cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk, Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk.
In Kharkiv, scores of people were wounded in clashes when
thousands of pro-Russian activists stormed the regional
government headquarters, and fought pitched battles with a
smaller number of supporters of Ukraine's new authorities.
Pro-Russian demonstrators wielded axe handles and chains
against those defending the building with plastic shields.
In Donetsk, Yanukovich's home region, lawmakers declared they
were seeking a referendum on the region's status.
"We do not recognise the authorities in Kiev, they are not
legitimate," protest leader Pavel Guberev thundered from a
podium in Donetsk.
Thousands of followers, holding a giant Russian flag and
chanting "Russia, Russia" marched to the government
headquarters and replaced the Ukrainian flag with Russia's.
Coal miner Gennady Pavlov said Putin's declaration of the
right to intervene was "right".
"It is time to put an end to this lawlessness. Russians are
out brothers. I support the forces."
Although there was little doubt that the troops without
insignia that have already seized Crimea are Russian, the
Kremlin has not yet openly confirmed it. It described
Saturday's authorisation as a threat for future action rather
than confirmation that its soldiers are already involved.
A Kremlin spokesman said Putin had not yet decided to use
force, and still hoped to avoid further escalation.
The rapid pace of events has rattled the new leaders of
Ukraine, who took power in a nation on the verge of
bankruptcy when Yanukovich fled Kiev last week after his
police killed scores of anti-Russian protesters in Kiev.
Ukraine's crisis began in November when Yanukovich, at
Moscow's behest, abandoned a free trade pact with the EU for
closer ties with Russia.
After Putin's announcement of his call to intervene,
Ukraine's acting president, Oleksander Turchynov, called a
meeting of his security chiefs. Vitaly Klitschko, another
anti-Yanukovich leader, called for general mobilisation.
On Kiev's central Independence Square, where protesters
camped out for months against Yanukovich, a World War Two
film about Crimea was being shown on a giant screen, when
Yuri Lutsenko, a former interior minister, interrupted it to
announce: "War has arrived."
Hundreds of Ukrainians descended on the square chanting
"Glory to the heroes. Death to the occupiers."
In Crimea itself, the arrival of troops was cheered by the
Russian majority. In the coastal town of Balaclava, where
Russian-speaking troops in armoured vehicles with black
Russian number plates had encircled a small garrison of
Ukrainian border guards, families posed for pictures with the
soldiers. A wedding party honked its car horns.
"I want to live with Russia. I want to join Russia," said
Alla Batura, a petite 71-year-old pensioner who has lived in
Sevastopol for 50 years. "They are good lads...They are
protecting us, so we feel safe."
But not everyone was reassured. Inna, 21, a clerk in a nearby
shop who came out to stare at the APCs, said: "I am in shock.
I don't understand what the hell this is... People say they
came here to protect us. Who knows? ... All of our
(Ukrainian) military are probably out at sea by now."
For many in Ukraine, the prospect of a military conflict
chilled the blood.
"When a Slav fights another Slav, the result is devastating,"
said Natalia Kuharchuk, a Kiev accountant.
"God save us."