Ukraine: Putin threatens Russian invasion

Anti-Yanukovych protesters sing Ukraine's national anthem in Kiev's Independence Square. Picture: APAnti-Yanukovych protesters sing Ukraine's national anthem in Kiev's Independence Square. Picture: AP
Anti-Yanukovych protesters sing Ukraine's national anthem in Kiev's Independence Square. Picture: AP
RUSSIA’S parliament approved a motion to use the military in Ukraine after a request from president Vladimir Putin as protests in Russian-speaking cities turned violent yesterday, sparking fears of a full-scale invasion.

The motion followed US president Barack Obama’s warning on Friday that “there will be costs” if Russia intervenes militarily, raising the stakes in the conflict over Ukraine’s future and evoking memories of the Cold War.

“I’m submitting a request for using the armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine pending the normalisation of the socio-political situation in that country,” Putin said in his request to parliament. Russia’s upper house also recommended that Moscow recalls its ambassador from Washington over Obama’s comments.

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Ukraine had already accused Russia on Friday of a “military invasion and occupation” in the strategic peninsula of Crimea, where Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based. Ukraine’s new prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk demanded Moscow “recall their forces, and to return them to their stations”, the Interfax news agency reported. “Russian partners, stop provoking civil and military resistance in Ukraine,” he added.

The crisis was sparked in ­November when Ukraine’s deposed president, Viktor Yanukovich, ditched a deal for closer ties to the European Union and instead turned toward Moscow. Months of protests followed, culminating in security forces killing dozens of protesters and Yanukovich fleeing to Russia last week.

Ignoring Obama’s warning, Putin said the “extraordinary situation in Ukraine” was putting Russian lives at risk including military personnel stationed at a naval base Moscow has maintained in the Black Sea peninsula since the Soviet collapse.

Putin’s call came as pro-Russian protests broke out in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east, where Russian flags were raised and supporters of the new Ukrainian government were attacked and beaten. 
Putin’s motion loosely refers to the “territory of Ukraine” rather than Crimea, raising the possibility that Moscow could use military force in other Russian-speaking provinces in eastern and southern Ukraine, where many oppose the new authorities in Kiev. Pro-Russian protests were reported in the eastern cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk and the southern port of Odessa.

Ukraine’s population is ­divided in loyalties between Russia and Europe, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the EU while eastern and southern regions look to Russia. Crimea, a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine, is mainly Russian-speaking. In yesterday’s parliamentary session in Moscow, a deputy house speaker said Obama had insulted Russia and crossed a “red line”, and the upper house recommended the Russian ambassador in Washington be recalled. It will be up to Putin to decide what happens.

In Crimea, the pro-Russian prime minister who took office after gunmen seized the regional parliament claimed control of the military and police there and asked Putin for help in keeping peace, sharpening the discord between the two neighbouring Slavic countries.

Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said the election of Sergei Aksyonov as Crimea’s premier was not valid. Ukrainian officials and some Western diplomats agreed a Russian military intervention is already well under way after heavily armed gunmen in unmarked military uniforms seized control of ­local government buildings, airports and other strategic facilities in Crimea in recent days. Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia; the move was a mere formality when Ukraine and Russia were part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet break-up in 1991 meant ­Crimea ended up in an independent Ukraine.

Russia put extra pressure on Ukraine when a spokesman for the state gas company Gazprom said that Ukraine owed $1.59 billion (approx £1bn) in overdue bills for ­imported gas. A Russian news agency quoted Sergei Kuprianov as saying the gas arrears would endanger a recent discount granted by Russia. The payment demand and loss of the discount would accelerate the crisis in Ukraine, which is almost bankrupt and seeking emergency credit from the International Monetary Fund.

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Russia has taken a confrontational stance towards its southern neighbour after Yanukovich fled Ukraine. He was voted out of office by parliament after weeks of protests ended in violence that left more than 80 people dead.

Aksyonov, the Crimea leader, appealed to Putin “for assistance in guaranteeing peace and calmness on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea”. Aksyonov was voted in by the Crimean parliament on Thursday after pro-Russia gunmen seized the building and as tensions soared over Crimea’s resistance to the new authorities in Kiev, who took office last week.

Obama called on Russia to respect the independence and territory of Ukraine and not try to take advantage of its neighbour, which is undergoing political upheaval. He said such action by Russia would represent a “profound interference” in matters he said must be decided by the Ukrainian people.

“The US will stand with the international community in affirming there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine,” he said. He did not say what the costs might be.

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter that it was “obvious that there is Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Likely immediate aim is to set up puppet pro-Russian semi-state in Crimea.”

At the United Nations, the Ukrainian ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, said on Friday that Russian transport aircraft and 11 attack helicopters had arrived in Crimea illegally, and that Russian troops had taken control of two Crimea airports.

He described the gunmen posted outside the airports as Russian armed forces as well as “unspecified” units.

Russia has kept silent on claims of military intervention and has said any troop movements are within agreed rules, even as it maintained its hard-line stance on protecting ethnic Russians in Crimea. All flights from the airport serving regional capital Simferopol have been halted.

Analysis - Crimea: crown jewel of empire

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LOCATED on Europe’s fault-lines, Crimea was ruled by the Turks and Tartar tribes for five centuries before it was seized by Russian forces in the 18th century under Catherine the Great. The region subsequently came to be regarded as the crown jewel in Russian and then Soviet empires. Medieval chronicles claim that Vladimir the Great was baptised in Chersonesos, an ancient Greek colony in the south-west of the peninsula, thereby helping spread Christianity across Russia.

Romance, though, only partly explains Russia’s interests in Crimea. Geographically, it has also proved a vital region for hundreds of years, with the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol protecting Russia’s southern flank.

In 1944, Stalin deported Crimea’s Tartars – the original Turkic-speaking Muslim inhabitants – to central Asia, a populace that was replaced with Slavs from Russia or eastern Ukraine.

Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev, a Soviet leader and ethnic Ukrainian, transferred jurisdiction from Russia. The move was presented as a gift to Ukraine signifying the two nation’s 300-year-old unity.

In essence, however, Crimea remained under the watchful eye of Moscow and it was only in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union that it became part of a new Ukrainian state, with independence encouraging many of the Tartars banished under Stalin to return home. Alongside them were around 1.8 million Russians, who pined for the Soviet era – to them, Crimea became a state within a state.

Russia and Ukraine have what is known as a Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Partnership which allows the former to rent its naval base at Sevastopol from the authorities in Kiev, but many in Ukraine regard the arrangement as harmful to their independence. In 2008, there were doubts as to whether the lease of the strategically vital base would be renewed when it expired in 2017, with Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s then pro-western president, making moves to evict the Russian fleet. Four years ago, however, his successor, Viktor Yanukovich, struck a deal with the Kremlin for a discounted gas bill, and extended the lease to 2042.