SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine: Armed men took control of two airports in the Crimea region yesterday in what the new Ukrainian leadership described as an invasion by Moscow’s forces.
More than 10 Russian military helicopters flew into Ukrainian airspace yesterday over Crimea, Kiev’s border guard service said, accusing Russian servicemen of blockading one of its units in the port city of Sevastopol, where part of Moscow’s Black Sea fleet is based.
A serviceman at the scene confirmed he was from the Black Sea Fleet and said they were there to stop the kind of protests that ousted Yanukovich in Kiev.
The fleet denied its forces were involved in seizing the military airport near Sevastopol, where armed men later occupied the runway, Interfax news agency said, while a supporter described the armed group at the civilian international airport in Simferopol as Crimean militiamen.
Moscow has promised to defend the interests of its citizens in Ukraine and has said it will not intervene by force. But its rhetoric since the removal of Yanukovich a week ago has echoed the run-up to its invasion of Georgia in 2008.
Any armed confrontation in Crimea would have major global repercussions, with Russia and the West already at odds over the change of power in Ukraine and supporting opposite sides in Syria’s civil war. They have, however, pledged to cooperate to prop up Ukraine’s faltering economy.
Ukraine’s top security official, Andriy Paruby, said the armed men in Crimea were taking their orders from the top in Russia. “These are separate groups ... commanded by the Kremlin,” Paruby, secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, told a televised briefing in Kiev.
One of the options being considered was declaring a state of emergency in Crimea, he added.
The United States warned all parties not to inflame the situation and said it had raised the issue of the reported armed takeovers of the airports with Russia. Moscow said it had no intention of violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, US Secretary of State John Kerry said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ukraine’s new leaders should implement a political deal brokered by the European Union before Yanukovich’s ouster, while they sought an emergency U.N. Security Council session on the crisis.
Russia announced war games on Wednesday near the Ukrainian border, putting 150,000 troops on high alert, although Kerry said Lavrov had told him the exercises were pre-planned.
The Russian Foreign ministry said on its Facebook page that Russia’s Consulate General in Crimea would hand out Russian pasports to the servicemen of Ukraine’s Berkut riot police. Protestors had accused Berkut of firing the live bullets that had killed dozens of protesters in Kiev.
Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein moved yesterday to freeze assets and bank accounts of up to 20 Ukrainians including Yanukovich and his son. Yanukovich said talk of foreign bank accounts was “empty chatter”.
Ukraine’s new rulers have said loans worth $37bn went missing from state accounts during Yanukovich’s three years in power — a jaw-dropping sum even for a population now used to tales of a lavish lifestyle and opulent residence outside Kiev.