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Biggest stand-off since Cold War

- Putin versus Obama as Ukraine heats up
Uniformed men block access to a Ukrainian border guards base in Crimea. (AFP)

Balaclava (Ukraine), March 2: Russia and the West were locked tonight in their biggest stand-off since the Cold War after Ukraine mobilised for “war”, President Vladimir Putin declared he had the right to invade his neighbour and Washington threatened to isolate Moscow economically.

“This is not a threat: this is actually the declaration of war to my country,” Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, head of a pro-western government that took power when Russian ally Viktor Yanukovich fled last week, said in English.

US secretary of state John Kerry condemned Russia for what he called an “incredible act of aggression” and threatened “very serious repercussions”.

“You don’t just, in the 21st century, behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext,” Kerry said.

But while saying that Russia was “in direct, overt violation of international law”, Kerry tempered his vigorous denunciation by saying that “the last thing anybody wants is a military option in this kind of a situation”.

Kerry said Moscow still had a “right set of choices” to defuse the crisis. Otherwise, G8 countries and other nations were prepared “to go to the hilt to isolate Russia”. He mentioned visa bans, asset freezes and trade isolation as possible steps. Such steps had not worked when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 on the same ground — the need to protect Russian citizens.

Russian forces have already bloodlessly seized Crimea — an isolated Black Sea peninsula where Moscow has a naval base. Putin had obtained permission from his parliament on Saturday to use military force to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine.

Russian troops stripped of identifying insignia but using military vehicles bearing the licence plates of Russia’s Black Sea force swarmed the major thoroughfares of Crimea.

Putin’s twin actions — military and parliamentary — were a direct rebuff to President Barack Obama, who had pointedly warned Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Russia insists that its intervention is only to protect its citizens and interests from chaos and disorder following the still unexplained departure of Yanukovich.

So far, the western response has been largely symbolic. Obama and others suspended preparations for a G8 summit in Sochi, where Putin has just finished staging his $50-billion winter Olympic Games. Some countries recalled ambassadors.

Of potentially even greater concern than Russia’s seizure of majority ethnic Russian Crimea are the eastern swathes of Ukraine, where most ethnic Ukrainians speak Russian as a native language.

Those areas saw more demonstrations today. For a second day, pro-Moscow demonstrators hoisted flags at government buildings and called for Russia to defend them. Kiev said Russia had sent hundreds of its citizens across the border to stage the protests.

Ukraine has ordered its defence ministry to stage a call-up of reserves — theoretically all men up to 40 in a country with universal male conscription — though it would struggle to find extra guns or uniforms for significant numbers of them.

Ukraine’s tiny armed forces would be no match for the might of its superpower neighbour. Britain’s International Institute of Strategic Studies estimates Kiev has fewer than 130,000 troops under arms, with planes barely ready to fly and few spare parts for a single submarine.

Russia, by contrast, has spent billions under Putin to upgrade and modernise the capabilities of forces that were dilapidated after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s special units are now seen as the equal of the best in the world.


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