Gunmen took control of two airports in Ukraine’s Crimea region on Friday when ousted president Viktor Yanukovich surfaced in Russia where he called upon the country’s former Soviet master to “use all means at its disposal to end the chaos and terror gripping Ukraine.”
“Russia cannot be indifferent, cannot be a bystander watching the fate of as close a partner as Ukraine,” Yanukovich told a news conference in Rostov-on-Don, a city close to Ukraine’s eastern border.
He had earlier described the transition in Kiev as a “coup d’état” and then disappeared for several days.
The interim authorities in the Ukrainian capital said thirteen Russian aircraft had landed in the Crimea, carrying 150 military personnel each. More than ten Russian military helicopters flew over the Black Sea peninsula while Russian servicemen blockaded a unit of the Ukrainian border guard in the port city of Sevastopol that headquarters Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Acting president Oleksandr Turchynov, the former parliamentary speaker who replaced Yanukovich last week, accused Russia of open aggression.
Russia denied its forces were involved in seizing the military airport near Sevastopol. American president Barack Obama nevertheless warned the country that “there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.” He added that a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be “deeply destabilizing.”
Since Yanukovich’s removal from office last week, 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, thousands of ethnic Russians living in the Crimea have demonstrated for independence from Kiev. A local businessman and Russian citizen was installed as mayor of Sevastopol on Tuesday.
The Crimea, which was part of the Russian Empire for almost two centuries before Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, is mainly populated by ethnic Russians and a bastion of Yanukovich supporters.
Few analysts expect an outright Russian invasion but Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, warns that President Vladimir Putin’s hand may be forced “depending on how the new authorities in Kiev respond to recent moves by the local population.”
One can easily imagine a harsh Russian response if Kiev takes rash steps to reassert its authority in Crimea either by sending in troops or by allowing revolutionary paramilitaries to launch a “people’s march” on Crimea.
The deterioration in relations between Russia on the one hand and the European Union and the United States on the other is an additional source of unpredictability, writes Trenin.
Russian leaders believe, rightly or wrongly, that the West drove events in Ukraine to the brink of collapse to secure geopolitical advantage over Moscow. Thus, Western appeals for Russian restraint in the event of a crisis over Crimea are unlikely to resonate.
A truce that preceded Yanukovich’s ouster between his government and the opposition had been negotiated by France, Germany and Poland while American diplomats were caught on tape discussing a successor administration to Yanukovich’s.
Whereas Western countries would like to wean Ukraine off Russian influence, President Putin is believed to see the country, which has a population almost a third of Russia’s, significant mineral resources and access to Black Sea ports, as a bridgehead into Europe and therefore critical to his tentative Eurasian Union which many Westerners, in turn, see as an attempt to restore the Soviet Union.