People take part in an anti-war rally in protest against the Russian military actions in Ukraine, during a demonstration in Moscow, yesterday. The Moscow-leaning Crimea region is due to hold a referendum today.
KIEV: Ukraine accused Russia yesterday of invading a region bordering Crimea and vowed to use “all necessary measures” to ward off an attack that came on the eve of the peninsula’s breakaway vote.
The dramatic escalation of the most serious East-West crisis since the Cold War set a tense stage for the referendum on Crimea’s secession from Ukraine in favour of Kremlin rule — a vote denounced by both the international community and Kiev.
The predominantly Russian-speaking Black Sea region of two million people was overrun by Kremlin-backed troops days after the February 22 fall in Kiev of a Moscow-backed regime and the rise of nationalist leaders who favour closer ties with the West.
President Vladimir Putin defended Moscow’s decision to flex its military muscle by arguing that ethnic Russians in Ukraine needed “protection” from violent ultranationalists who had been given free reign by the new Kiev administration.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had told Secretary of State John Kerry in London on Friday that Moscow “has no, and cannot have, any plans to invade the southeast region of Ukraine”.
The invasion reported by the Ukrainian foreign ministry was small in scale and concerned a region that lies just off the northeast coast of Crimea called the Arabat Spit. The Ukrainian ministry said 80 Russian military personnel had seized a village on the spit called Strilkove with the support of four military helicopters and three armoured personnel carriers.
The Ukrainian “foreign ministry declares the military invasion by Russia and demands the Russian side immediately withdraw its military forces from the territory of Ukraine,” it said in a statement, “Ukraine reserves the right to use all necessary measures to stop the military invasion by Russia.”
There was no response to Ukraine’s announcement from Moscow but Washington’s UN representative Samantha Power called any new Russian troop movement in south Ukraine an “outrageous escalation”.
Ukraine’s claim of the invasion came on the second successive day of bloodshed that has now killed three people in the heavily Russified southeast of the culturally-splintered nation of 46 million. Police said a pro-Russian protester and a passer-by were killed when the nationalists holed up inside the building opened fire. Six others were hurt — including one officer — when police arrived at the scene.
That incident and another death in the Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv on Thursday prompted the Russian Foreign Ministry — its forces already conducting snap drills on Ukraine’s doorstep — to report “receiving many requests to protect peaceful citizens” in its western neighbour.
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov gravely told a session of parliament that Moscow’s repeated warnings meant “there is now a real danger of a (Russian) invasion on the territory of Ukraine”.
Yet Russia’s seizure of Crimea and ominous threats against the rest of Ukraine found the nuclear power staring in the face of international isolation when it was abandoned by key geopolitical ally China at a crucial UN Security Council vote on the crisis in New York.
Russia was alone in vetoing a US-drafted UN Security Council resolution reaffirming that the Crimean referendum “can have no validity” and that Ukraine must remain a sovereign state.
The measure was backed by 13 of the Security Council’s 15 members and saw Russia’s geopolitical ally China abstain — a massive blow that could shake the Kremlin’s confidence in the face of its deteriorating relations with the West.
The referendum comes in direct response to three months of deadly protests that toppled the pro-Kremlin president and brought to power a new European-leaning team in Kiev that threatens to shatter Putin’s dream of rebuilding a post-Soviet empire.