Ukraine orders troops to full readiness

2014-03-01 23:01
(Piero Quaranta, AFP)

(Piero Quaranta, AFP)

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Kiev - Ukraine's acting president says he has ordered the country's armed forces on full readiness because of the threat of "potential aggression".

Speaking live on Ukrainian TV, Oleksandr Turchynov said on Saturday he had also ordered stepped up security at nuclear power plants, airports and other strategic infrastructure.

His comments on Ukrainian TV came after Russia's parliament approved a military intervention in Ukraine and Russian troops and pro-Russian units took up positions across the strategic Crimea region.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought and quickly got his parliament's approval to use its military to protect Russia's interests across Ukraine.

‘Confrontation far worse than Georgia’

Ignoring President Barack Obama's warning on Friday that "there will be costs" if Russia intervenes militarily, Putin sharply raised the stakes in the conflict over Ukraine's future evoking memories of Cold War brinkmanship.

"Russia and the West find themselves on the brink of a confrontation far worse than in 2008 over Georgia," Dmitri Trenin, the director of Carnegie Moscow Centre, said in a commentary posted on its website.

In Georgia, the Russian troops quickly routed the Georgian military after they tried to regain control over the separatist province of South Ossetia that has close ties with Moscow.

The latest moves followed days of scripted, bloodless turmoil on the peninsula, the scene of centuries of wars and seen by Moscow as a crown jewel of the Russian and Soviet empires.

What began on Thursday with the early-morning takeover of the regional parliament building by mysterious troops continued on Saturday afternoon as dozens of those soldiers - almost certainly Russian - moved into the streets around the parliamentary complex and seized control of regional airports, amid street protests by pro-Russian Crimeans calling for Moscow's protection from the new government in Kiev.

No signs of ethnic Russians facing attacks

That government came to power last week in the wake of months of pro-democracy protests against the now-fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, and his decision to turn Ukraine toward Russia, its long-time patron, instead of the European Union.

Despite the calls for Moscow's help, there has been no sign of ethnic Russians facing attacks in Crimea or elsewhere in Ukraine.

The Russian parliament urged that Moscow recall its ambassador in Washington in response to Obama's warning.

On Friday, Ukraine accused Russia of a "military invasion and occupation" in the Crimea, where Russia's Black Sea fleet is based. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk called on Moscow "to recall their forces, and to return them to their stations," according to the Interfax news agency. "Russian partners, stop provoking civil and military resistance in Ukraine."

Ukraine's population of 46 million is divided in loyalties between Russia and Europe, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the European Union while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support.

Possible signs Putin might soften approach

Crimea, a semi-autonomous region that Russia gave to Ukraine in the 1950s, is mainly Russian-speaking.

In his address to parliament, Putin said the "extraordinary situation in Ukraine" was putting at risk the lives of Russian citizens and military personnel stationed at the Crimean naval base that Moscow has maintained since the Soviet collapse.

Despite Putin's sharp move, there were possible signs on Saturday that the Russian leader could soften his approach. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was freed a week ago after more than 2 ½ years in prison, was reported to be heading to Moscow for a meeting with Putin on Monday.

Putin has had good ties with Tymoshenko in the past, and he may look to her for a possible compromise.

In a statement posted on her party's web site, Tymoshenko urged the UN Security Council to meet in Kiev and asked the EU leaders to convene a meeting in Crimea.

She urged the West to help protect Ukraine's territorial integrity, asked Ukrainians to remain calm and voiced hope that diplomacy will succeed.

Pro-Russian protests

In a note of restraint, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said the motion doesn't mean the president would immediately send additional troops to Ukraine. "There is no talk about it yet," he said.

Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, also said in televised remarks that while the president "got the entire arsenal of means necessary for settling this situation", he hadn't yet decided whether to use the Russian military in Ukraine or recall the ambassador from Washington as lawmakers suggested.

Putin's motion loosely refers to the "territory of Ukraine" rather than specifically to Crimea, raising the possibility that Moscow could use military force in other Russian-speaking areas in eastern and southern Ukraine, where many detest the new authorities in Kiev.

Pro-Russian protests were reported on Saturday in the eastern cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk and the southern port of Odessa.

In Kharkiv, 97 people were injured in clashes between pro-Russia demonstrators who flushed supporters of the new Ukrainian government out of the regional government building and hoisted the Russian flag on top of it, according to the Interfax news agency.

Trenin, of Moscow's Carnegie office, said that Putin could be seeking to "include a Crimea within the Russian Federation and eastern and southern regions of Ukraine forming a separate entity integrated with Russia economically and aligned with it politically".

"It is not clear at this point whether Kiev will be left to build a rump Ukraine with the western regions or whether it will be swayed to join the eastern regions," he wrote.

Crimean Tatars, the historic hosts of the land who make up 12% of the island's population and stand strongly for Crimea remaining part of Ukraine, didn't put any visible resistance on Saturday.
- AP
Read more on:    barack obama  |  vladimir putin  |  oleksandr turchynov  |  us  |  russia  |  ukraine
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