Ukraine pleads for U.S., U.K. help after Russian 'invasion'
Sevastopol, Ukraine — The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Feb. 28 2014, 2:15 AM EST
Last updated Friday, Feb. 28 2014, 7:53 AM EST
The new Ukrainian government says it has been invaded by Russia, and has appealed for the United States and United Kingdom to protect it, as they guaranteed under a 1994 agreement.
The move came after pro-Russian gunmen seized both main airports on the Crimean Peninsula early Friday, a day after other militiamen took control of the regional parliament building. With gunmen in the building and the Russian flag flying from the roof, deputies appointed a new government and passed a motion Thursday calling for a referendum on the future as part of Ukraine.
The armed takeovers sharply escalate what had already been an extremely volatile situation in Crimea, a Russian-speaking region that has rejected the overthrow of the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych and the rise to power of pro-Western forces in Kiev.
On Friday, Swiss police raided the premises of a Geneva firm owned by Mr. Yanukovych and his son Oleksander in an investigation into “aggravated money laundering.”
In Kiev, Ukraine’s parliament adopted a resolution on Friday demanding that Russia halt steps it says are aimed against Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and called for a UN Security Council meeting on the crisis.
The parliament also called for guarantees of the memorandum signed by Ukraine, Britain, Russia and the United States in Budapest in 1994. That agreement guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty and current borders in exchange for surrendering the nuclear weapons that were left after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It wasn’t clear whether the gunmen who seized the airports were Russian soldiers or pro-Russian militiamen. They wore no insignia, but carried automatic weapons and Russian flags into the airport.
On the road north of Sevastopol, which hosts Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, The Globe and Mail saw 12 military trucks with soldiers in the back. None had licence plates.
The road to Sevastopol’s Belbek airport was blocked by another military truck and at least seven armed men. A local member of “Russkiy Bloc” a pro-Russian political party that has organized “self-defence” units, said he didn’t know who the men blocking the airport road were.
“I was in the army for 10 years, and I can’t say whether these are professional soldiers,” said 42-year-old Andrei Sitnikov. “All I can say is they are people with guns.”
In a posting on his Facebook page, Ukraine's new Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, called the airport takeovers an "ARMED INVASION and OCCUPATION" by the "armed forces of the Russian Federation."
"It is a direct provocation of armed bloodshed in the territory of a sovereign State," Mr. Avakov wrote. "It is not the competence of the Ministry of internal affairs. This is the competence of the NATIONAL SECURITY and DEFENSE COUNCIL."
Russia’s Interfax news agency had reported earlier that “Russian servicemen” had gone to Belbek military airport to prevent “fighters” from flying in.
Raising the possibility of a Taiwan-and-China-style duelling governments in Ukraine, the newly appointed head of the Crimean administration has pledged allegiance to Mr. Yanukovych.
Crimea’s move toward autonomy – or some kind of association with Russia – was accompanied by fresh sabre-rattling from Kremlin, which put fighter jets on alert a day after announcing snap military drills along its border with Ukraine. And, in his first statement in almost a week, the deposed Mr. Yanukovych said he had taken refuge in Russia from “extremists” in Ukraine who had threatened him with bodily harm.
Moscow has denounced the fall of Mr. Yanukovych and the rise of pro-Western forces in Kiev as an armed coup, and has refused to recognize the new government. Crimea was part of Russia for two centuries before Nikita Khrushechev transferred it to Soviet Ukraine in 1954.
“I am addressing the Russian Black Sea Fleet command with a demand: all military servicemen should stay within the boundaries of the territories stipulated by the agreement,” Ukraine’s Interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said Thursday. “Any movement of military servicemen with weapons outside this territory will be viewed as military aggression.”
NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen used his Twitter account to warn Russia “not to take any action that can escalate tension or create misunderstanding.”
Foreign Minister John Baird is in Kiev Friday to meet with Mr. Turchynov and newly chosen Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk and express Canada’s support for the post-revolutionary government.
Russian media reported that Mr. Yanukovych would hold a press conference Friday in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Ukraine’s new government has asked that the International Criminal Court open a case against Mr. Yanukovych for his role in violence that saw more than 80 people killed in Kiev last week.
The gunmen who seized control of Crimea’s regional parliament were widely believed to be members of Berkut, a riot police force that was disbanded this week by the new government in Kiev, which blamed the force for much of the bloodshed in Kiev. Serhiy Kunitsyn, a former Crimean premier who is now an opposition MP in Kiev, told the national parliament that 120 people who were involved in the takeover of the Crimean government buildings.
“These professionally trained people are armed. They brought weapons - automatic weapons, grenade launchers, and machine guns,” Mr. Kunitsyn said.