When the new Ukrainian government took power last month after more than 80 people died in clashes between protesters and police, parliamentarians moved quickly to disband much of the internal security force.
But now, with the crisis in Crimea escalating, the government plans to bring some of that force back in the form of a National Guard. The move is aimed largely at bolstering the country’s military, which is so poorly equipped it is almost out of fuel for its aircraft and is running low on shoes and clothing.
There is no time to lose. With Russian troops surrounding several Ukrainian bases in Crimea and the territory increasingly cutting itself off from the central government in preparation for a vote Sunday on joining Russia, officials in Kiev are calling for help.
On Tuesday, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said the new National Guard would be made up largely of volunteers, particularly those with some military background. The goal is to “protect the country and its citizens from any crimes against internal and external aggression,” Mr. Turchynov told parliament.
The government said it has barely 6,000 combat-ready troops. That compares with roughly 200,000 Russian soldiers on the eastern borders. And even though the Ukrainian treasury is nearly empty, parliamentarians put through a special measure to increase the pay of soldiers serving in Crimea, in an effort to match the higher salaries earned by Russian troops.
Compounding matters was the re-emergence Tuesday of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych who read a prepared statement to reporters in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia. Mr. Yanukovych said he remained the country’s legitimate president and commander of the armed forces. He denounced the new government in Kiev as a “junta” and “bandits” and vowed to return “once the situation becomes better.”
There were no details about how the proposed National Guard would be structured and controlled. However, on the streets of Kiev there appears to be no shortage of volunteers. With the protest movement, known as Maidan, winding down, many young people have little to do and seem to be looking for a focus. The crisis in Crimea has become something of a drawing card and many are eager to join a new body that will fight for Ukraine.
“We want to go to Crimea and keep our territory for all Ukrainians,” said Max Mazur a 24-year-old scientist who works in a university laboratory. “If Russians want to get our territory, we’re going to fight.”
Mr. Mazur sported a camouflage jacket he recently bought and a black bullet-proof vest he said he took from a security officer during clashes last month. Camouflage coats and pants are now the norm in Independence Square, where young protesters used to wear helmets and gas masks. Just how organized these young people are isn’t clear and it is doubtful very many will head to Crimea. But the government appears to be hoping that putting them into a National Guard will give them some structure.
For now, Ukrainian officers have told their troops not to confront the Russians and so far there has been no shooting, even though Russian soldiers have surrounded several bases in Crimea and taken control of nearly a dozen border posts. There are also reports Crimean officials have cut commercial flights from Kiev and Istanbul, but not flights from Moscow.
On Tuesday, the Crimean government also approved a motion officially cutting ties with Ukraine. The next step is for the territory to join Russia, something that is expected to happen shortly after Sunday’s referendum.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who will be in Washington Wednesday to meet U.S. President Barack Obama, demanded the United States and Britain honour a 1994 treaty that compelled those countries to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty as a condition of it giving up nuclear weapons.
The country’s parliament passed a resolution on Tuesday calling on the Western nations to “fulfill their obligations … and take all possible diplomatic, political, economic and military measures urgently to end the aggression and preserve the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine.”
Also on Tuesday, senior officials from countries including the United States, Canada, Italy, France, Germany and Poland met in London to co-ordinate the targeted measures to be taken against Russia if it does not respond to pressure to withdraw forces from Crimea.
Legal experts from Canada’s Foreign Affairs department attended the meeting. A government source, who would not specify why Canada sent legal experts, said it was not a decision-making meeting but rather aimed at exploring options.
In a statement Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird warned Moscow against proceeding with legislation aimed at absorbing Crimea. “Russia appears to be preparing the ground for outright, illegal annexation of Crimea,” he said, noting Ottawa will not recognize the legitimacy of Sunday’s referendum.
With a report from Kathryn Blaze Carlson
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