The Russian president has received the power to deploy troops to Ukraine as the crisis there escalates.
Putin gets green light to deploy troops to Ukraine
KIEV // Vladimir Putin received a green light from parliament on Saturday to deploy troops to Ukraine, deepening the political crisis in Russia’s southern neighbour.
The Russian president was still weighing his options for responding to calls for protection from Ukraine’s Russian population after weeks of protests resulted in the removal of the pro-Moscow government in Kiev.
With tensions rising over the possibility of Russian military intervention, the United Nations Security Council on Saturday called for a second round of emergency consultations on how to respond to the crisis.
Mr Putin’s move follows US president Barack Obama’s warning on Friday “there will be costs” if Russia intervenes militarily, sharply raising the stakes in the conflict over Ukraine’s future and evoking memories of Cold War brinkmanship.
The explicit reference to the use of troops escalated days of conflict between the two countries, which started when Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was pushed out by a protest movement of people who wanted closer ties to Europe.
“I’m submitting a request for using the armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine pending the normalisation of the socio-political situation in that country,” Mr Putin said to parliament.
The request was granted, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Mr Putin has not yet taken a decision on sending troops to Ukraine.
The news came as pro-Russian demonstrations broke out in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east, where protesters raised Russian flags and beat up supporters of the new Ukrainian government.
Russia’s upper house of parliament also recommended that Moscow recalls its ambassador from Washington over Mr Obama’s comments.
Ukraine had already accused Russia on Friday of a “military invasion and occupation” of the Crimea peninsula, where Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based.
Ukrainian prime minister Arseny Yatsenyuk called on Moscow “to recall their forces, and to return them to their stations”. “Russian partners, stop provoking civil and military resistance in Ukraine.”
The crisis was sparked when Ukraine’s deposed president, Viktor Yanukovich, ditched a deal for closer ties to the European Union and instead turned towards Moscow. Months of protests followed, culminating in security forces killing dozens of protesters and Mr Yanukovich fleeing to Russia.
Ignoring Mr Obama’s warning, Mr Putin said the “extraordinary situation in Ukraine” was putting at risk the lives of Russian citizens and military personnel stationed at a naval base that Moscow has maintained in the Black Sea peninsula since the Soviet collapse.
Reflecting a degree of caution, deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin who presented Mr Putin’s request to the upper house, told reporters that the motion doesn’t mean that the president would immediately send additional troops to Ukraine.
“There is no talk about it yet,” he said.
Mr Putin’s motion loosely refers to the “territory of Ukraine” rather than specifically to Crimea, raising the possibility that Moscow could use military force in other Russian-speaking areas in eastern and southern Ukraine, where many oppose the new authorities in Kiev. Pro-Russian protests were reported in the eastern cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk and the southern port of Odessa.
Ukraine’s population is divided in loyalties between Russia and Europe, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the European Union while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support.
Crimea, a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine, is mainly Russian-speaking.
In Crimea, the pro-Russian prime minister who took office after gunmen seized the regional parliament claimed control of the military and police there and asked Mr Putin for help in keeping peace, sharpening the discord between the two neighbouring Slavic countries.
Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said the election of Sergei Aksyonov as prime minister of Crimea was invalid.
Ukrainian officials and some Western diplomats said that a Russian military intervention is already well underway after heavily armed gunmen in unmarked military uniforms seized control of local government buildings, airports and other strategic facilities in Crimea in recent days.
Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia, a move that was a mere formality when both Ukraine and Russia were part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet break-up in 1991 meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.
Russia put pressure on Ukraine from another direction when a spokesman for state gas company Gazprom said that Ukraine owed $1.59 billion (Dh5.84 billion) in overdue bills for imported gas.
Sergei Kuprianov was quoted by the RIA-Novosti agency as saying the gas arrears would endanger a recent discount granted by Russia. The discount lowered the price to $268.50 per thousand from other $400. The Russian payment demand and loss of the discount would accelerate Ukraine’s financial crisis. The county is almost broke and seeking emergency credit from the International Monetary Fund.
Russia has taken a confrontational stance toward its southern neighbour after Mr Yanukovich fled the country. Mr Yanukovich was voted out of office by parliament after weeks of protests ended in violence that left more than 80 people dead.
Aksyonov, the Crimea leader, appealed to Mr Putin “for assistance in guaranteeing peace and calmness on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea.”
Mr Aksyonov was voted in by the Crimean parliament on Thursday after pro-Russia gunmen seized the building and as tensions soared over Crimea’s resistance to the new authorities in Kiev, who took office this week.
* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse