Pro-Russia activists storm a government building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Saturday during a clash with supporters of the new government in Kiev. (AFP)
Simferopol (Ukraine), March 1: The Russian Parliament granted President Vladimir V. Putin the authority he sought to use military force in response to the deepening instability in Ukraine as Russian armed forces effectively seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula today.
The authorisation cited a threat to the lives of Russian citizens and soldiers stationed in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, and provided a blunt answer to President Obama, who yesterday pointedly warned Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.
Even before Putin’s statement in Moscow, scores of heavily armed soldiers had tightened their grip on the Crimean capital, Simferopol, surrounding government buildings, shuttering the airport, and blocking streets, where they deployed early yesterday.
Large pro-Russia crowds rallied in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv, where there were reports of violence. In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, fears grew within the new provisional government that separatist upheaval would fracture the country just days after civil unrest ended in the ouster of President Viktor F. Yanukovich, a Kremlin ally who fled to Russia.
In Crimea, in the south, scores of heavily armed men fanned out across the centre of the regional capital, Simferopol. They wore green camouflage uniforms with no identifying insignia, but they spoke Russian and were clearly part of a Russian military mobilisation. In Balaklava, a long column of military vehicles blocking the road to a border post bore Russian plates.
The Russian mobilisation was cited by American military and intelligence analysts as the basis for Obama’s warning that “there will be costs” if Russia violated Ukrainian sovereignty.
This morning, there was no immediate response from the White House; officials had acknowledged yesterday that Washington’s options were limited.
There was also limited response from Europe. Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, issued a statement saying that Russia’s actions in Crimea were “contrary to international law and the principles of European security”.
Yanukovich’s refusal, under Russian pressure, to sign new political and free trade agreements with the EU last autumn set off the civil unrest that last month led to the deaths of more than 80 people, and ultimately unraveled his presidency.
While western leaders grappled for a response today, a Ukrainian military official in Crimea said Ukrainian soldiers had been told to “open fire” if they came under attack by Russia troops or others.
In addition to the risk of open war, it was a day of frayed nerves and set-piece political appeals that recalled ethnic conflicts of past decades in the former Soviet bloc, from the Balkans to the Caucasus.
This morning, the pro-Russia Prime Minister of Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, declared that he had sole control over the military and the police in the disputed peninsula and appealed to Putin for Russian help in safeguarding the region. He also said a public referendum on independence would be held on March 30.
The Kremlin has denied any attempt to seize Crimea, where it maintains important military installations, including the headquarters of its Black Sea Fleet. But the Kremlin quickly issued a statement saying that Aksyonov’s plea “would not be ignored” and within hours the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Parliament, had authorised military action.
The authorisation, while citing Crimea, covered the use of Russian forces in the entire “territory of Ukraine” and its time frame extended indefinitely “until the normalisation of the socio-political environment in the country”. Parliament also asked Putin to withdraw Russia’s ambassador to the US.
Officials in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, reacted angrily and reiterated their demands that Russia pull back its forces, and confine them to the military installations in Crimea that Russia has long leased from Ukraine.
“The presence of Russian troops in Crimea now is unacceptable,” said acting Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk. Decrying the Russian deployment as a “provocation,” he added, “We call on the government of the Russian Federation to immediately withdraw its troops, return to the place of deployment and stop provoking civil and military confrontation in Ukraine.”
For the new government, the tensions in Crimea created an even more dire and immediate emergency than the looming financial disaster that they had intended to focus on in their first days in office.
A $15 billion bailout that Yanukovich secured from Russia has been suspended as a result of the political upheaval and Ukraine is in desperate need of an assistance package. Yatsenyuk had said that the government’s first responsibility was to begin negotiations with the IMF.
In Crimea, however, officials said they did not recognise the new government, and declared that they had taken control. Aksyonov, the regional Prime Minister, said he was ordering the regional armed forces, the interior ministry troops, the Security Service, border guards and other ministries under his direct control.