Barack Obama warned “there would be costs” for Russian military intervention in Ukraine as the country’s acting president called on Vladimir Putin to cease “provocations” aimed at luring Kiev into a military conflict to “annex” the peninsula of Crimea.
Mr Obama’s statement and Oleksandr Turchynov’s televised appeal came at the end of a day of mounting tensions after armed men in unmarked military uniforms took up positions at two airports in Crimea and the Russian military staged allegedly unauthorised incursions into Ukrainian territory.
“I personally address President Putin with the demand to immediately end these provocations and call back the troops from . . . Crimea, to stick within the framework of signed agreements,” said Mr Turchynov, who became acting president after last Saturday’s dramatic toppling of president Viktor Yanukovich.
There was no immediate response from the Russian president.
In a short statement at the White House, Mr Obama said “any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be destabilising, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe.”
“It would represent a profound interference in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people …and clear violence of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine, and of international laws.”
Mr Obama gave no detail about what the “costs” for Russia would be but White House officials said it was reevaluating attending the G8 summit in Sochi in June and economic co-operation.
Serhiy Kunitsin, Mr Turchynov’s envoy to Crimea, told a Ukrainian TV channel late on Friday that a de facto “military invasion” of the peninsula was under way. He said Russia had brought in almost 2,000 extra troops to Crimea on board military flights.
Although there appeared to be no violence, Friday’s incidents ratcheted up tensions over control of the Crimean peninsula, after pro-Russian politicians in the majority ethnic Russian region, with the backing of armed militia, a day earlier promised a referendum on greater autonomy from Kiev.
Late on Friday, all flights in and out of Simferopol airport were cancelled and roads into Crimea were reportedly blocked by armed men. Ukrtelecom, the telephone company, said it had lost all fixed line communications with the Black Sea region.
“[The Russians] are trying to provoke us into a military conflict. According to our intelligence information, they are employing a scenario completely analogous to the Abkhazia scenario, in which they provoke a conflict and start annexing a territory,” Mr Turchynov said. His comments were a reference to Russia’s brief 2008 war with Georgia that ended with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia under Russian occupation.
Mr Turchynov insisted Ukraine’s army would not allow itself to be provoked.
Ukraine’s parliament on Friday adopted a resolution describing developments in Crimea as “foremost foreign interference”. It accused Russia of conducting movements of troops from its Black Sea Fleet, which is based in the leased Crimean port of Sevastopol, without permission from Ukrainian authorities.
Russia’s foreign ministry denied any military involvement. It said movements of the fleet’s equipment were “linked to the necessary maintenance of safety in places of the fleet’s deployment on Ukrainian territory, and happened in full accordance with the basic Russian-Ukrainian agreements on the Black Sea Fleet”.
Adding to the tensions, Mr Yanukovich surfaced in southern Russia. He used his first public appearance since being ousted a week ago to insist he was still Ukraine’s president and urge Moscow to “to use all means at its disposal to end the chaos and terror gripping Ukraine”.
John Kerry, US secretary of state, called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to express Washington’s concern.
Mr Kerry said the US was watching to see if Russian activity “might be crossing a line in any way” and urged Moscow against action that might be misinterpreted as a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. The UN Security Council called an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the crisis.
John McCain, the hawkish Republican senator, told CNN the US could impose “far reaching” economic sanctions, expedite Georgia’s admission into Nato, re-establish missile defence capability in the Czech Republic and extend existing travel bans on select Russians to those involved in the Ukraine military incursion.
“Obviously we are not going to be sending troops in anywhere,” he said.
Earlier, Mr Turchynov described the gunmen who seized the airports in Simferopol and Sevastopol, the two main cities on the peninsula, as “professional soldiers” and “armed military groups operating under the Russian flag”.
Gunmen at Simferopol airport refused to identify themselves or to speak to anyone. Local “militia” activists appeared to be working with them, some also in combat gear, wearing pro-Russian orange and black ribbons. They claimed they did not know the identity of the armed men, but one of them said: “We don’t have uniforms like this in Ukraine.”
The militia members said they were “preserving order” against the new government in Kiev.
Friday’s developments come after political power in Crimea appeared to have fallen to pro-Russian forces in a fast-paced but opaque sequence of events on Thursday. After the territory’s parliament building was seized by a group of unidentified armed men, parliament called a referendum on the territory’s relations with the central government and later announced a new Russia-friendly prime minister.
“Under the guise of military training Russia has brought its armies into the autonomous republic of Crimea. They have not only seized the parliament of Crimea, the government of Crimea, they are also trying to take control over civilian telecommunications infrastructure, they are trying to block movement of Ukraine’s military,” Mr Turchynov said.
Russia’s Mr Putin discussed the crisis in phone calls with David Cameron, UK prime minister, Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, and European Council head Herman Van Rompuy. He “emphasised the utmost importance of preventing further escalation of violence in Ukraine”, the Kremlin said, adding that the leaders agreed to intensify co-operation between their foreign ministries.
One Nato official said alliance leaders were concerned by the troop movements in Crimea and had urged “all parties” to return to the negotiating table and “refrain from provocative actions”.
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