Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov last night accused Russia of deploying troops to Crimea and trying to provoke Kiev into “armed conflict”.
In a televised address, he claimed Moscow wanted the new interim government to react so it could annexe Crimea.
The claim came amid unconfirmed reports that Russian planes had flown up to 2,000 troops into the region.
Mr Turchynov appealed to Russian president Vladimir Putin to “stop provocations and start negotiations”, saying Moscow was behaving the same way it did before sending troops into Georgia in 2008 “when having initiated a military conflict, they started to annexe the territory”.
His remarks came a few hours after the Kremlin said Mr Putin had spoken of the “extreme importance of not allowing a further escalation of violence” during telephone conversations with western leaders.
Early yesterday, men in camouflage uniforms, some wearing masks, were seen patrolling outside Sevastopol airport – a military base – in Crimea, while gunmen were also present at an airfield in Simferopol on the south-west of the peninsula, a stronghold for Russian sympathisers.
Ukraine’s acting national security chief, Andriy Parubiy, last night said the airports were back under the control of the Ukrainian authorities, while Foreign Secretary William Hague announced his intention to travel to Ukraine tomorrow to take part in talks with the new government in Kiev.
Ukraine’s border guard service said about 30 Russian paratroopers had taken up position outside the Ukrainian coastguard base in Sevastopol, claiming the soldiers had said they were there to prevent any weapons there being seized by extremists.
The Russian foreign ministry admitted armoured units from the Black Sea fleet base near Sevastopol had entered Crimea in order to protect fleet positions.
It said: “The Ukrainian side was also passed a note regarding the movement of armoured vehicles of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Crimea, which is happening in full accordance with the foundation Russian-Ukrainian agreements on the Black Sea fleet.”
But newly elected Ukrainian interior minister Arsen Avakov said the sitiation had now escalated to “a military intervention”. He made it clear he believed the manoeuvres to be a breach of international law. Describing them as a provocation, he said: “I consider what has happened to be an armed invasion and occupation in violation of all international agreements and norms.”
Mr Parubiy also accused Moscow of commanding the armed groups. In a televised briefing in Kiev, he said: “These are separate groups … commanded by the Kremlin.”
Outside Sevastopol yesterday, Maxim Lovinetsky, a 23-year-old volunteer who manned a roadblock, told reporters: “Of course they are Russian. They came last night.”
In Simferopol, a man calling himself Vladimir said he was a volunteer helping the armed group, although he said he did not know where they came from.
“I’m with the People’s Militia of Crimea. We’re simple people, volunteers,” he said. “We’re here at the airport to maintain order. We’ll meet the planes with a nice smile – the airport is working as normal.”
Yesterday’s developments prompted David Cameron to telephone Mr Putin. A Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister emphasised that all countries should respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. President Putin agreed, stressing that Russian military exercises in the area had been planned before the current situation in Ukraine.
“They agreed that the free and fair elections that the interim government has pledged to hold are the best way to secure a positive future for Ukraine.”
The spokesman added Mr Cameron and Mr Putin also agreed the international community should consider how to help Ukraine tackle its economic challenges.
France, Germany and Poland said they were “very worried” by events in Crimea and urged all parties to refrain from any action endangering Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In a joint statement, the three countries said Ukraine’s crisis could only be solved in a lasting manner if all political forces subscribed to that goal.
“We are very worried by the unstable situation in Crimea,” they said. “Everything must be done to reduce tension in the eastern region and encourage all parties concerned to talk.
“We reaffirm our support for the territorial integrity of the country and we urge all parties in Ukraine to refrain from any action that could endanger it.”
Meanwhile, the Russian foreign ministry said it had authorised the issue of passports to members of the Ukrainian paramilitary force that acted in support of Mr Yanukovich during the Independence Square protests.
The airport blockades came a day after masked gunmen with rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles seized the parliament and government offices in Simferopol and raised the Russian flag. Ukrainian police cordoned off the area but did not confront the gunmen.
In moves reminiscent of Cold War brinksmanship, Moscow scrambled fighter jets on Thursday and put most of its troops in western and southern Russia on combat readiness exercises that it said were unrelated to the Ukraine conflict.
Matthew Day: ‘Moscow still has strings to pull without getting troops shot at’
The sight of armed men seizing airports in Crimea increased the tension surrounding the situation in an area now burdened with the unfortunate tag of “tinderbox” given it is there that conflict could break out.
At the moment, just who the uniformed men with assault rifles are remains something of a mystery, although Ukraine’s new government has already spoken of Russian military interference. Moscow has remained quiet, preferring, it seems, to support the theory the soldiers are just a local militia upholding law and order.
But no matter who they are, their presence has heightened concerns over possible Russian military intervention in an area that for centuries was part of Russia and still has a large Russian-speaking population. Crimea also plays host to the Black Sea fleet and so is of vital strategic importance to Moscow.
There has been talk of Russia moving troops to the border and that assault ships from the Baltic fleet, capable of mounting a seaborne attack, have already passed through the Bosporus.
It is possible Russia might use the pretext of “protecting Russian citizens” to intervene, as it did in the Russo-Georgian war of 2008. But any military intervention by Moscow would involve tremendous – and, hopefully, off-putting – risk.
While Russians make up 58 per cent of Crimea’s population, the rest are Ukrainians and Tatars who harbour no love for Moscow and would pose a significant military and political problem to any armed force.
Moscow also has to ask itself the thorny question that should be posed before anybody starts shooting: just what will it achieve? Will it “liberate” Crimea, or will Moscow’s armed forces act as a temporary “policing” force aimed at imposing Russia’s dominant role in region while not threatening the long-term integrity of Ukraine, if that is at all possible.
But perhaps the biggest factor prohibiting a Russian intervention is that it doesn’t have to. Moscow still has enough strings to pull for it to exert plenty of influence without getting troops shot at, and it having to contend with the massive political fall-out.
Russia’s ultimate goal now is probably to somehow get Ukraine’s new government “on side” and for that it will need to pull on the shady web of political, business and criminal contacts it has cultivated in Ukraine for decades. A war would only sever them.