Vladimir Putin’s proposal given go-ahead as fear of new cold war grows and UN security council holds emergency talks
Vladimir Putin gave the green light for an invasion of Ukraine on Saturday as the upper house of the Russian parliament unanimously approved his request to send troops into the neighbouring state.
After several days in which Russia appeared to be stealthily laying the groundwork for intervention in the Crimean peninsula, the move came suddenly and decisively. The Kremlin said Putin wanted to introduce troops into Ukraine “until the sociopolitical situation is normalised”.
Less than an hour later, in a hastily convened extraordinary sitting of Russia’s Federation Council that was laced with cold war rhetoric, senators voted unanimously to support Putin’s proposal and proposed withdrawing Russia’s ambassador to the US in protest at an “insult to the Russian people” from Barack Obama.
In Kiev, the acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, who has been in power since president Viktor Yanukovych fled a week ago, convened a special session of the cabinet, and spoke by telephone with the US secretary of state, John Kerry.
Former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, a leading candidate in presidential elections set for 25 May, called for parliament to convene and order a full mobilisation of the army. He also said Ukraine should consider cancelling the lease agreement with Moscow by which Russia’s Black Sea fleet is stationed in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. The lease runs until 2042, and part of Russia’s action has been cloaked in rhetoric about defending the base.
The United Nations security council was due to hold an emergency session to discuss Ukraine on Saturday night. In London, William Hague said that Russia’s ambassador to Britain had been summoned to the Foreign Office.
The Russian decree does not limit the use of troops to Crimea, specifying only that Russian military could be deployed “on Ukrainian territory”, and the big question is how far the Kremlin wants to go. So far, Putin’s statement only talks about “protecting the interests of Russian citizens and compatriots”, but there are fears that Moscow is planning a full-scale annexation of Crimea, with its majority ethnic Russian population.
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said that no decision to implement the decree had yet been taken.
Ominously, there were also clashes in the major eastern Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk on Saturday, with the deputy mayor of Kharkiv saying that 97 people had been injured in clashes between supporters of the new government in Kiev and pro-Russian demonstrators.
The decisive move by Putin comes after two days during which the Kremlin’s motives were unclear. Armed men seized the Crimean parliament on Thursday and the peninsula’s airports on Friday, but claimed to be members of locally organised “self-defence squads” rather than Russian troops. As late as Friday, the foreign ministry was insisting that no irregular troop movements were taking place, despite reports of thousands of Russian military personnel landing in Crimea. Putin has not spoken directly about Ukraine all week.
Ukraine had already accused Russia of a “military invasion and occupation” of Crimea, and that could now become official. Michael McFaul, until last week the US ambassador to Russia, castigated the Kremlin: “Russian companies and banks with business in the west will suffer as a result of reckless Putin decision. Will they speak up?” he tweeted.
But the parliamentary session appeared to foresee the barrage of western criticism and roundly dismissed it in advance. Senator Nikolai Ryzhkov said Russia should be prepared for the west to “unleash their dogs on us”, but should not listen: “We are obliged to defend Crimea, we are obliged to defend the people there. They ruined Yugoslavia, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, all in the name of western democracy. It’s not even double standards, it’s political cynicism.”
Late on Friday night, Obama told Russia there would be “costs” for any intervention in Ukraine. The statement was condemned by many in the US for being short on concrete threats, but one senator in the Federation Council said it “crossed a red line” and “insulted the Russian people”. The parliamentary body said it would prepare a note to Putin asking for the Russian ambassador to the US to be withdrawn.
Ryzhkov said a “brown plague” had seized Kiev, and much of the Russian rhetoric has been based on protecting Russians from ethnic cleansing. There was even talk of “preventing genocide” in the Federation Council debate.
Ukraine’s new government does include far-right groups, and one of the first laws it passed rescinded provisions for regions with large Russian-speaking populations to use Russian as a second official language.
However, actual signs of violence have been limited. The Russian foreign ministry claimed on Saturday that armed men “from Kiev” had tried to seize the government building in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, but had been repulsed by self-defence units, who took casualties. On the ground, however, nobody could offer any evidence of such an attack.
Yanukovych, who gave a press conference in the southern Russian city of Rostov on Friday at which he claimed he was still the legitimate president, has called the new government Nazis. His role is now unclear, but the Federation Council said he had approved the use of Russian troops. He fled after signing a compromise agreement with opposition leaders, in the presence of three EU foreign ministers. Russia has blasted the EU for failing to keep the opposition to its side of the bargain and says it still considers Yanukovych the legitimate president.
Yanukovych’s flight from Kiev was the culmination of three months of protest, ending with 82 people being killed in clashes with riot police. Ukraine’s new government has disbanded the Berkut riot police involved in clashes with protesters, while Russia has announced it will give them Russian passports. The first of them collected passports at a Russian consulate in Crimea on Saturday.
In Crimea on Saturday, there were more pro-Russia rallies, and the region already appeared under the control of Russian troops and pro-Russian militias, who were patrolling the airports, parliaments and roads in and out of the region.
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