Ukraine warned on Sunday it was on the brink of disaster and called up all military reservists after Russia’s threat to invade its neighbour drew sharp rebukes from the United States and its Western allies.
US Secretary of State John Kerry upped the stakes for Russian President Vladimir Putin by bluntly warning that Moscow risked losing its coveted place among the Group of Eight nations over its deployment of troops in Crimea.
The dramatic escalation in what threatens to blow up into the worst crisis between Moscow and the West since the Cold War came as pro-Kremlin forces seized key government buildings in Crimea and blockaded military bases on the strategic Black Sea peninsula.
World leaders huddled for urgent consultations across global capitals after Russia’s parliament voted Saturday to allow Putin to send troops into its western neighbour — a decision US President Barack Obama branded a “violation of Ukrainian sovereignty”.
The former Soviet nation’s new pro-Western Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also warned that any invasion “would mean war and the end of all relations between the two countries.”
“We are on the brink of a disaster,” Yatsenyuk told the nation of 46 million in a televised address. “This is not a threat. This is a declaration of war on my country.”
Pro-Moscow gunmen intensified their grip Sunday on large swathes of the rugged flashpoint peninsula that has housed Russian navies since the 18th century.
Witnesses said Russian soldiers had blocked about 400 Ukrainian marines at a base in the eastern port city of Feodosiya and were calling on them to surrender and give up their arms.
As pressure mounted Ukrainian Navy Commander Denis Berezovsky announced a day after his appointment that he was switching allegiance to the pro-Russian authorities in Crimea after gunmen believed to be acting under orders from Moscow surrounded his building.
- Full combat alert –
Fears of Russia’s first invasion of a neighbour since a brief 2008 confrontation with Georgia prompted the largely untested interim team that took power in Kiev just a week ago to put its military on full combat alert and announce the call-up of all reservists.
Ukraine says Russia has already sent 30 armoured personnel carriers and 6,000 additional troops into Crimea to help pro-Kremlin militia gain broader independence from Kiev.
The vast country on the eastern edge of Europe would face a David-and-Goliath struggle should the conflict escalate. Russia’s army of 845,000 soldiers could easily overwhelm Ukraine’s force of 130,000 — half of them conscripts — with ageing equipment.
Putin said it was his duty to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea and southeastern swathes of Ukraine that have ancient ties to Moscow and look on Kiev’s new pro-EU leaders with disdain.
Russian officials also argued they had no need to ask the UN Security Council for permission — as Putin had demanded for any Western action in Syria — because the wellbeing of their own citizens was at stake.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Russia during urgent talks in Brussels that its movement of troops “threatens peace and security in Europe. Russia must stop its military activities.”
German Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke ominously of preventing “a new division of Europe” while France and Britain called for negotiations between Moscow and Kiev — either directly or through the United Nations.
The most immediate response to Russia’s actions came when Washington and its Western allies pulled out of this week’s preparatory meetings for the June G8 summit in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Kerry went one step further by warning Putin that “he is not going have a Sochi G8, he may not even remain in the G8 if this continues.”
Sochi hosted last month’s $51-billion Winter Olympic Games extravaganza that along with the football World Cup in 2018 are meant to highlight Russia’s return to prosperity and global influence under Putin’s rule.
Russia was admitted to the G8 in 1998 in recognition of the late president Boris Yeltsin’s democratic reforms — a spot the Kremlin views as recognition of its post-Soviet might.
- ‘Candid’ Obama-Putin exchange –
Events have moved rapidly since a three-month crisis in culturally splintered Ukraine — long fought over by Moscow and the West — sparked by pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to spurn a historic pact with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.
It culminated in a week of carnage last month that claimed nearly 100 lives and led to Yanukovych’s ouster.
The Kremlin appeared stunned by the loss of its ally and Kiev’s subsequent vow to seek EU membership — a decision that would shatter Putin’s dream of reassembling a powerful economic and military post-Soviet bloc.
The White House said Obama told Putin in a “candid and direct” exchange his actions in Crimea were a “breach of international law.”
The Kremlin’s account of Putin’s conversation with Obama was equally blunt.
It said Putin flatly told the US leader that Russia “reserves the right to protect its interests and those of the Russian-speaking population” if violence in Ukraine spread.
Analysts called Ukraine the most serious crisis to test the West’s relations with Moscow since the 1991 breakup of the USSR.
“The damage to Russia’s relations with the West will be deep and lasting, far worse than after the Russian-Georgian war,” Eugene Rumer and Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in a report.
“Think 1968, not 2008,” they said in reference to the Soviet Union’s decision to send tanks into Prague to suppress a pro-democracy uprising.
Pro-Kremlin sentiments in Crimea remained in evidence Sunday, portrayed in detail by Kremlin-controlled television amid a burgeoning Russia media propaganda campaign.
“Crimea is Russia,” one elderly lady told AFP in front of a statue of Soviet founder Lenin that dominates a square next to the occupied parliament building in the regional capital Simferopol.
- ‘We will not surrender’ –
The mood in Kiev was radically different as about 50,000 people massed on Independence Square — the crucible of both the latest wave of demonstrations and the 2004 Orange Revolution that first nudged Kiev on a westward path — in protest at Putin’s latest threat.
“We will not surrender,” the huge crowd chanted under grey skies.
Ukraine’s prime minister had assured the nation Saturday he was “convinced” Russia would not launch an offensive because Moscow realised it would put an end to relations between two neighbours with centuries of shared history.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also said Saturday that “for the moment, this decision (to invade) has not been taken”.