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Europe

West scrambles to bolster Ukraine as Russia tightens grip on Crimea

© Photo: AFP

Video by Kethevane GORJESTANI

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-03-03

Warning that it was “on the brink of disaster,” Ukraine put its military on high alert on Sunday to avoid what it feared was the possibility of a wider invasion by Russia, as Western leaders rallied to support Kiev.

US President Barack Obama and his Western allies took turns admonishing Russia as Ukraine appeared on the brink of losing control of Crimea with the defection of its navy commander to pro-Kremlin forces who have tightened their grip on the Black Sea peninsula.

World leaders huddled for urgent consultations across global capitals after Russia's parliament voted Saturday to allow President Vladimir Putin to send troops into the ex-Soviet state - a decision Obama branded a "violation of Ukrainian sovereignty".

NATO held an emergency meeting in Brussels, Britain’s foreign minister flew to Kiev to support its new government and the US, France and Britain debated the possibility of boycotting the next Group of Eight economic summit, to be held in June in Sochi, the host of Russia’s successful Winter Olympics.

NATO issued a statement saying it “condemns Russia’s military escalation in Crimea” and demanded that Russia respect its obligations under the UN charter. Ukraine is not a NATO member, meaning the US and Europe are not obligated to come to its defence, but the country has taken part in some alliance exercises.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who will travel to Kiev on Tuesday to lend support to the new interim leaders, upped the stakes for Putin by warning Moscow that it risked losing its place among the Group of Eight nations if its sabre rattling did not halt. Kerry urged the Russian president to pull back from “an incredible act of aggression”.

Kerry, interviewed on US television news shows, talked about boycotting the G-8 summit, as well as possible visa bans, asset freezes and trade and investment penalties against Russia. All the foreign ministers he talked to were prepared “to go to the hilt” to isolate Russia, Kerry said.

‘Dangerous track’

But the reaction from Washington, despite “all sorts of threats, has not been a strong one,” FRANCE 24’s Philip Crowther reported from the capital.

“The Obama administration does not want to talk about any kind of a military option,” he said. “It wants to talk about what it calls a de-escalation of the crisis.”

Obama also spoke on Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.

An Autonomous Republic of Crimea and a Ukrainian flag fly side by side as a man watches armed men in military fatigues blocking access to a Ukrainian border guards base on Sunday. Photo: AFP.

“We are on a very dangerous track,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. But “it is still possible to turn around. A new division of Europe can still be prevented.”

Interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said there was no reason for Russia to invade Ukraine and warned that “we are on the brink of disaster”.

“We believe that our western partners and the entire global community will support the territorial integrity and unity of Ukraine,” he said on Sunday in Kiev.

Surrounded

So far, however, Ukraine’s new government and the West have been powerless to counter Russia’s tactics. Armed men in uniforms without insignia have moved freely about Crimea since Friday, occupying airports, smashing equipment at an air base and besieging a Ukrainian infantry base southeast of Kiev.

FRANCE 24’s Douglas Herbert, who visited Privolnoye on Sunday, described the situation at the army base as “extremely tense”.

“By the end of the day there were around 300 Russian commandos, still in masks, toting machine guns, surrounding the perimeter of the base,” he said.

“No shots were fired, but what we witnessed was perhaps the beginning of the final chapter in what’s been a slow motion consolidation of Russian control over the military, the police forces, the security forces and now, Ukrainian military bases.”

Senior Obama administration officials said the US now believes that Russia has complete operational control of Crimea, a pro-Russian area of the country, and has more than 6,000 air, naval and ground forces in the region.

Putin has defied calls from the West to pull back his troops, insisting that Russia has a right to protect its interests and those of Russian-speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine. His confidence is matched by the knowledge that Ukraine’s 46 million people have divided loyalties. While much of western Ukraine wants closer ties with the 28-nation European Union, its eastern and southern regions like Crimea look to Russia for support.

Russian slant

Russia has long wanted to reclaim the lush Crimean Peninsula, part of its territory until 1954. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet pays Ukraine millions every year to be stationed at the Crimean port of Sevastopol and nearly 60 percent of Crimea’s residents identify themselves as Russian.

During a phone conversation Sunday with Merkel, Putin “directed her attention to the unrelenting threat of violence from ultra-nationalist forces [in Ukraine] that endangered the life and legal interests of Russian citizens,” according to a Kremlin statement.

The statement also said “the measures taken by Russia are fully adequate with regard to the current extraordinary situation”. Russia’s state-controlled media has played almost non-stop footage of the Ukrainian crisis, highlighting what it says are ultra-nationalist attacks on Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians by activists from Kiev or regions further west. However, AP reporters in Ukraine witnessed no acts of violence directed at Russians or Russian sympathisers in Crimea.

Ukraine’s new government came to power last week following months of pro-democracy protests against the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, and his decision to turn Ukraine toward Russia instead of the EU.

Yanukovich fled to Russia after more than 80 people were killed in the protests, but insists he’s still president.

Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, put Ukraine’s armed forces on alert, calling up reserves for training and stepping up security at nuclear power plants, airports and other strategic locations. However, no overt military actions by Ukraine were seen.

Oligarchs involved

Turchynov also moved to consolidate the new government’s authority in eastern Ukraine, appointing 18 new regional governors and enlisting the support of the country’s wealthy businessmen, known as oligarchs. The new appointees included two oligarchs in the eastern cities of Dneprotrovsk and Donetsk, as big business and the new Ukrainian government united against Russia.

Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, urged business, ordinary people and the government to join together, saying on Sunday that the use of force and “illegal action from outside” were “impermissible”.

“I call upon all my fellow citizens to unify for the sake of a whole and undivided Ukraine ... Our strength is in the solidarity of business, government and society,” said Akhmetov, whose SCM Group has 300,000 employees and interests in steel, coal and mining.

Faced with the threat from Russia, “the national elite has consolidated around the new government,” political analyst Vadim Karasyov of the Institute for Global Strategies told AP. “This is a very good sign for the new government.”

Russian troops, meanwhile, pulled up to the Ukrainian military base at Perevalne on the Crimean Peninsula in a convoy on Sunday that included at least 13 trucks and four armoured vehicles with mounted machine guns. The trucks carried 30 soldiers each and had Russian license plates.

In response, a dozen Ukrainian soldiers, some with clips in their rifles, placed a tank at the base’s gate, leaving the two sides in a tense standoff. It appeared to be the first known case of outmatched Ukrainians standing up to Russian military might.

Unidentified soldiers were also seen cutting power to the headquarters of the Ukrainian Naval forces in Crimea - whose own commander defected later on Sunday and pledged his allegiance to “the people of Crimea”. In Kiev, a Ukrainian security official said the head of the Ukrainian Navy - Admiral Denis Berezovsky - had been dismissed and faces a treason investigation after declaring his allegiance to the pro-Russian government in Crimea and offering no resistance to the Russian troops.

The speaker of Crimea’s legislature, Vladimir Konstantinov, was quoted as saying local authorities do not recognise the new government in Kiev. He said a planned referendum on March 30 would ask voters about the region’s future status.

Street protests

A convoy of hundreds of Russian troops was also seen heading toward Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea. Armed men in military uniforms without markings strolled around Simferopol’s central plaza, Lenin Square, outside its Council of Ministers building.

“It is very important that we all do everything we can to calm tensions,” said British Foreign Minister William Hague, who flew to Kiev on Sunday.

He said he has urged Russian officials to “speak directly to the Ukrainians”.

On Sunday, Putin agreed to a proposal from Merkel to set up a contact group on Ukraine, the German government said on Sunday.

People attend an anti-war rally in the Ukrainian Black Sea city of Odessa on Sunday. Photo: AFP.

In Kiev, Moscow and other cities, thousands of protesters took to the streets to either decry the Russian occupation or celebrate Crimea’s return to its former ruler.

“Support us, America!” a handful of protesters chanted outside the US Embassy in Kiev. One girl held up a placard reading: “No Russian aggression!”

In Moscow, at least 10,000 people bearing Russian flags marched freely through the city Sunday, while a few dozen demonstrating on Red Square against the invasion of Ukraine were quickly detained by Russian riot police.

“We understand that the West wants to attack us and seize this territory. It [the West] is dangerous to us,” said Victor Sidelin, a Moscow resident at the march.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)

Date created : 2014-03-03

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