Russia’s parliament on Saturday gave President Vladimir Putin permission to invade Ukraine where thousands of his troops appeared to have already seized the Crimea, the peninsula that headquarters Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Latvia and Lithuania, both former Soviet republics, called for emergency NATO consultations to discuss what looks to be the worst crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War ended in 1991. Such an emergency council has only been called three times before, most recently in 2012 after Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet.
Ukraine also made a request to the alliance to “look at using all possibilities for protecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, the Ukrainian people and nuclear facilities on Ukrainian territory,” its foreign minister said.
More than a dozen Russian aircraft landed in the Crimea on Friday, according to Ukraine’s interim government, carrying 150 military personnel each. Eleven Russian military helicopters were spotted flying over the city of Saky, north of Sevastopol, in the direction of Russia’s naval base. In Balaklava, just south of Sevastopol, soldiers encircled and disarmed a garrison of Ukrainian border guards and were cheered on by local residents.
The rapid pace of events rattled the new leaders in Kiev who took power in a country on the verge of bankruptcy when President Viktor Yanukovich fled the capital last week. He surfaced in Russia on Friday where he called on Ukraine’s former Soviet master to “use all means at its disposal to end the chaos and terror gripping Ukraine.”
Yanukovich’s ouster came after months of protests that were stirred by his decision to scuttle a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of deeper ties with Russia. Welcomed by Ukrainians in especially the west of the country, which used to be part of Poland and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the takeover by more pro-Western leaders in Kiev was met with apprehension by the ethnic Russian majority in the Crimea. A local businessman and Russian citizen was installed as mayor of Sevastopol on Tuesday. In Kerch, in the far east of the peninsula and across the Kerch Strait from Russian territory, demonstrators raised the Russian flag over city hall.
Russian media have tended to portray the population of the region, which was part of the Russian Empire for almost two centuries before Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954, as victims of the new government, carrying reports of Ukrainian hooligans burning down the homes of Russian speakers.
Last week, Ukraine’s parliament repealed a law that allowed regions to make Russian their second language.
Putin asked his parliament on Saturday to approve force “in connection with the extraordinary situation in Ukraine, the threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation, our compatriots” and to protect the Black Sea Fleet there. The upper house swiftly delivered a unanimous vote in support of his request.
Russia has a lease on military facilities in Sevastopol and others along the Crimea coast until at least 2042.
The need to protect Russian citizens was also used as a justification by Putin in 2008 to invade neighboring Georgia, after the Caucasus republic had attempted to reassert control over its breakaways regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which Russia subsequently recognized as independent states.
In a 1994 treaty with the United Kingdom and the United States, Russia had pledged, however, to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and its “existing borders.”