Ukraine Accuses Russia Of ‘Armed Invasion’ After Crimea Airports Blockaded – The Telegraph
Ukraine accused Russia of staging an “armed invasion” of Crimea on Friday as the ex-Soviet state’s ousted leader prepared to emerge defiant from five days of hiding after winning protection from Moscow.
Unidentified armed men were patrolling outside of Crimea’s main airport early Friday while gunmen were also reported to have seized another airfield on the southwest of the peninsula where ethnic Russians are a majority and where pro-Moscow sentiment runs high.
Western governments have been watching with increasing worry as Kiev’s new pro-EU rulers grapple with dual threats of economic collapse and cession from Russified southern and eastern regions of the divided nation, which had backed fugitive ex-president Viktor Yanukovych.
Russian President Vladimir Putin this week stoked concerns that Moscow might use its military might to sway the outcome of Ukraine’s three-month standoff by ordering snap combat drills near its border involving 150,000 troops and nearly 900 tanks.
Ukraine’s interim president Oleksandr Turchynov responded on Thursday by declaring that any movement of Russian troops out of their Black Sea bases in Crimea “will be considered as military aggression“.
US Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to relieve diplomatic pressure that has increasingly assumed Cold War overtones by announcing that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had assured him that Moscow “will respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
Putin also appeared to take a more conciliatory approach late on Thursday by vowing to work on improving trade ties with Ukraine and promising to support international efforts to provide Kiev with funds that could keep it from declaring a debt default as early as next week.
Yet tensions continued to soar by the hour in the Russian-speaking Crimea – a scenic Black Sea peninsula that has housed Kremlin navies for nearly 250 years and was handed to Ukraine as a symbolic gift by a Soviet leader in 1954.
Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov accused the Russian armed forces of being directly involved in armed dawn raids on an airport in Crimea’s main city of Simferopol as well as an airfield on the southwestern coast.
AFP reporters saw dozens of men armed with Kalashnikovs encircle the Simferopol airport on Friday morning after reports suggested that they had briefly seized control of its runway.
An administrator told AFP the “airport was operating normally” on Friday morning despite the presence of the armed men in battle fatigues.
Several supporters of the apparently pro-Russian gunmen said the armed men arrived after reports that members of the country’s new pro-EU government were planning to fly to Simferopol.
Unconfirmed reports by Ukrainian media said armed men had also seized the Belbek airfield near the city of Sevastopol, which is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
Avakov accused the Russian armed forces of being behind both incidents.
He said gunmen at the Simferopol airport “are not even hiding the fact that they belong to the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”
The interior minister added that the Belbek airfield was “blockaded by military units of the Russian navy.”
“I consider what is happening to be an armed invasion and an occupation,” Avakov said in a statement posted on his Facebook account.
But Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed source as saying that the Belbek air field was under the control of local pro-Russian self-defence units who had no links to the Black Sea fleet.
The peninsula of nearly two million people has been in crisis since dozens of pro-Kremlin gunmen seized and raised the Russian flag over Crimea’s parliament and government buildings on Wednesday.
Crimean lawmakers appointed Russian Unity party member Sergiy Aksyonov as regional premier in place of Kiev-allied Anatoliy Mohilyov in a vote held late on Thursday under the watchful eye of the pro-Kremlin militia.
Aksyonov said on Friday that he still recognised Yanukovych as Ukraine’s legitimate head of state.
The fugitive leader had not been seen since making a brief taped television appearance last Saturday that was aired only hours before parliament stripped him of power for a week of carnage in Kiev that claimed nearly 100 lives.
Ukraine’s bloodiest crisis since its 1991 independence erupted in November when Yanukovych made the shock decision to ditch an EU trade pact in favour of closer ties with old master Russia.
The 63-year-old fugitive issued a statement to Russian news agencies from an undisclosed location on Thursday announcing that he was “compelled to ask the Russian Federation to ensure (his) personal security.”
A source later told the same agencies that Yanukovych’s request for protection “was satisfied on Russian territory.”
The ousted leader is now expected to appear before the media at 1300 GMT in Rostov-on-Don – a Russian city less than two hours’ drive from the Ukrainian border.
Yet his personal problems do not appear to be over even if Yanukovych pronounces himself to be the head of a Ukrainian government in exile.
Switzerland said on Thursday said it was prepared to freeze any funds the Yanukovych family might have in the Alpine country’s banks.
It is unclear whether Yanukovych himself has funds in Switzerland. But his 40-year-old son Olexandr opened a branch of his Management Assets Company (MAKO) in Geneva in late 2011.
The Swiss weekly L’Hebdo estimates that Olexandr had amassed a personal fortune of around half a billion dollars (365 million euros) in the past three years alone.
Ukraine’s new leaders meanwhile are suffering from Moscow’s decision to freeze a $15-billion bailout package Putin promised to Yanukovych.
The leadership in Kiev won some reprieve when Kerry promised quick delivery of $1 billion in loan guarantees “with some other pieces” to follow.
Kerry said the EU was looking at loan guarantees worth some $1.5 billion for the nation of 46 million people.
Any aid would probably be funnelled through a mechanism overseen by the International Monetary Fund which had frozen its assistance programme because of Yanukovych’s refusal to make painful structural changes.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde promised Thursday to send a fact-finding mission to Kiev in the coming days to launch a “preliminary dialogue with the authorities”.
But Fitch Ratings warned on Friday that Ukraine’s new leaders “may struggle to regain confidence and meet policy conditions attached to IMF lending.”
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Pro-Russian Forces Seize Crimean Parliament Building – Hot Air
Tensions have rapidly increased in Crimea, where ethnic Russians look east toward Moscow rather that north toward Kyiv for their heritage, and perhaps destiny. After several days of unrest in which the Crimean regional parliament declined to seek separation from the new government of Ukraine, several armed men seized the building and hoisted the Russian flag onto the roof. The new government in Kyiv warned Russia to keep its military forces in its Crimean base within the confines of the facility:
Armed men seized the regional government headquarters and parliament in Ukraine’s Crimea on Thursday and raised the Russian flag, alarming Kiev’s new rulers, who urged Moscow not to abuse its navy base rights on the peninsula by moving troops around.
“I am appealing to the military leadership of the Russian Black Sea fleet,” said Olexander Turchinov, acting president since the removal of Viktor Yanukovich last week. “Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this territory (the base) will be seen by us as military aggression.”
In response, Russian military jets began patrols near the Ukraine border, in addition to keeping its ground forces on alert status:
– Russian fighter jets were patrolling the airspace on their side of the border with Ukraine, and Russia’s military remained on alert. “Constant air patrols are being carried out by fighter jets in the border regions,” Interfax reported, quoting a Russian ministry statement. “From the moment they received the signal to be on high alert, the air force in the western military region left for the… air bases.” (Reuters)
– Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, “warned that any move by Russian troops off of their base in Crimea ‘will be considered a military aggression.’ ” (AP)
Also according to the AP, the now-deposed Viktor Yanukovich has surfaced in Moscow after disappearing from Kyiv. Yanukovich reportedly tried to get across the border almost immediately after fleeing the capital, but was prevented from flying out of Kharkiv by border guards. An arrest warrant for mass murder was issued shortly afterward, but Yanukovich had gone underground by that time. The AP update briefly notes that a Russian official announced that Yanukovich had asked for protection from Moscow and gotten it.
Yanukovich also declared himself the rightful head of state for Ukraine:
Viktor Yanukovich said on Thursday he was still president of Ukraine and warned its “illegitimate” rulers that people in the southeastern and southern regions would never accept mob rule.
In a statement sent to Russian news agencies from an unknown location, Yanukovich railed against the “extremists” who had stolen power in Ukraine, threatened violence against himself and his closest aides and passed “illegal” laws…
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said he had no information and could not comment on Yanukovich’s statement.
Put this together and it looks like a pretext for action on Putin’s part. For the moment, he’s still playing his cards close to the vest; he’s agreed to sit down for IMF discussions on a Ukraine bailout to take the place of the one Putin suspended, for instance. Yanukovich is simply a clown show, though, as his credibility in Ukraine is shot, and Putin knows it. The Crimean peninsula will be the flashpoint for any action, and it’s not long odds on Ukraine losing it, either diplomatically or otherwise. The new government in Kyiv can’t sustain a war against Russia, and the EU won’t attack Putin on their behalf. They could well isolate Putin economically, though, and he knows it, especially if they begin buying natural gas from the US or developing their own through expanded fracking.
Update: The Ukrainian parliament has officially chosen its new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who received 371 out of 450 votes. Yatsenyuk declared that Ukraine’s future is in the EU, but we’ll see what Russia has to say about that.
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