x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Ukraine critical of Russian ‘intervention’ as Yanukovich strikes defiant tone

Former president lashes out at Kiev’s new rulers who earlier in the day had criticised Moscow after Russian troops had taken up positions around a coastguard base and two airports on its Crimea peninsula.

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine // Ukraine’s deposed president Viktor Yanukovich said on Friday he is still the nation’s rightful leader and urged Russia to refrain from military intervention in the Crimea.

Mr Yanukovich has strong ties with Moscow and fled Ukraine last week after months of rallies against his government by pro-western protesters.

He spoke after the new rulers in Kiev accused Russia of a “military invasion and occupation” on Friday.

Ukraine’s government said Russian troops had taken up positions around a coastguard base and two airports on its Crimea peninsula, a region of the Ukraine with a majority ethnic Russian population.

Russia kept silent on those accusations but confirmed that armoured vehicles from its Black Sea Fleet were moving around Crimea for “security” reasons.

Russian president Vladimir Putin called for a rapid return to normality in Ukraine and warned against any further escalation of unrest, the Kremlin said.

In a telephone call with European leaders, Mr Putin emphasised “the extreme importance of not allowing a further escalation of violence and the necessity of a rapid normalisation of the situation”.

Speaking for the first time since leaving Ukraine, Mr Yanukovich said that the country should abide by a peace accord sealed a week ago with the European Union under which he would remain leader through December. He labelled the parliament in Kiev illegitimate and vowed to return.

“The whole Ukrainian people were cheated — I’d like to get an answer from those who signed this agreement,” Mr Yanukovich told reporters in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. Asked about Crimea, he said he is “categorically against intervention in Ukraine, against the violation of its integrity as a sovereign state”.

Moscow has vowed to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Crimea, where it has a major naval base, and Ukraine and the West have warned Russia to stay away. Russia did not confirm its troops were involved in Friday’s action in Crimea, which would be a major escalation.

In Kiev, Ukraine’s parliament adopted a resolution 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.

“I can only describe this as a military invasion and occupation,” Ukraine’s newly named interior minister, Arsen Avakov, wrote in a Facebook post.

The chief of Ukraine’s security council, Andriy Parubiy, seemed to strike a less strident tone later in the day, saying gunmen had tried to “seize” the airports in the Crimean cities of Simferopol and Sevastopol but insisting in comments to the Interfax news agency that “de facto the airports are controlled by the law enforcement bodies of Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service also said about 30 Russian marines from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet — which is based in Sevastopol — had taken up position outside the Ukrainian Coast Guard base in the area. It said the marines said they were there to prevent any weapons at the base from being seized by extremists.

Witnesses in Crimea spotted a convoy of nine Russian armoured personnel carriers and a lorry on a road between the port city of Sevastopol and the regional capital, Sinferopol. The Russian tricolour flags were painted on the vehicles, which were parked on the side of the road near the town of Bakhchisarai, apparently because one of them had mechanical problems.

Russia is supposed to notify Ukraine of any troop movements outside the naval base it maintains in Sevastopol under a lease agreement with Ukraine.

The Russian foreign ministry said movements of armoured vehicles belonging to the Russian Black Sea Fleet were prompted by the need to ensure security of its base and did not contradict the lease terms.

A duty officer at the Ukrainian defence ministry said it had no information about the movements of the vehicles.

At the airport serving Simferopol, commercial flights were landing and taking off despite dozens of armed men in military uniforms without markings patrolling with assault rifles. They did not stop or search people leaving or entering the airport.

One man who identified himself only as Vladimir said the men were part of the Crimean People’s Brigade, which he described as a self-defence unit ensuring that no “radicals and fascists” arrive from other parts of Ukraine. There was no way to verify his account.

The airport deployments came a day after masked gunmen with rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles seized the parliament and government offices in Simferopol and raised the Russian flag. Ukrainian police cordoned off the area but did not confront the gunmen. They remained in control of the buildings on Friday.

Meanwhile, Swiss prosecutors announced they had launched a criminal investigation against Mr Yanukovich and his son Aleksander over “aggravated money laundering.” They said police and Geneva’s chief prosecutor conducted a search and seized documents on Thursday at the premises of a company owned by Aleksander Yanukovych.

Switzerland and Austria both said they would freeze any assets Mr Yanukovich and his entourage might have in those countries.

Ukraine’s population is divided in loyalties between Russia and the West, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the European Union while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support.

* Associated Press with additional reporting by Bloomberg News