Western leaders have begun an effort to defuse the volatile situation in Ukraine as the country’s Prime Minister declared Russia’s troop manoeuvres had pushed it to “the brink of disaster.”
The Russian army has moved thousands of troops into Crimea, a southern, pro-Russian region of Ukraine, and surrounded three Ukrainian military bases on Sunday. No shots were fired during the standoff and the Ukrainian soldiers refused to hand over their weapons.
“This is actually a declaration of war to my country,” Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Sunday just before putting the country’s military on alert and closing airspace to military aircraft. “We are on the brink of disaster. There was no reason for the Russian Federation to invade Ukraine and we believe that our Western partners and the entire global community will support the territorial integrity and unity of Ukraine.”
In Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, there was an air of calm Sunday night. The airport reopened to civil aircraft after being closed for part of the weekend and there was no sign of soldiers or armed guards. A handful of Russian army trucks were spotted on a highway outside the city.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced he will visit Kiev on Tuesday. On Face The Nation on Sunday, Mr. Kerry criticized Russia’s actions, saying: “You just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.” He added if Russia didn’t withdraw its forces, the U.S. and other G8 countries would consider economic sanctions, visa restrictions and asset freezes. His comments came after U.S. President Barack Obama held two long telephone conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the crisis.
Mr. Putin has insisted Russia is protecting its interests and defending Russian nationals from the chaos that has ensued since Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was removed from office by Ukraine’s parliament a week ago. In calls with several leaders over the weekend, Mr. Putin cited “the unrelenting threat of violence from ultranationalist forces [in Ukraine] that endangered the life and legal interests of Russian citizens,” according to Russian officials. “The measures taken by Russia are fully adequate with regard to the current extraordinary situation.”
But Russia’s actions have brought condemnation from the West. Canada joined the U.S. call for possible sanctions and recalled its ambassador to Russia. However, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said military action by the West was unlikely.
The Americans have estimated that Russia has moved thousands of troops into Crimea, a peninsula that juts into the Black Sea. “Russian forces now have complete operational control of the Crimean peninsula, some 6,000-plus airborne and naval forces, with considerable matériel,” a U.S. official told reporters Sunday. “There is no question that they are in an occupation position in Crimea, that they are flying in reinforcements, and they are settling in.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he and Mr. Obama agreed that there would be “significant costs” to Russia unless it changed course on Ukraine.
“We are on a very dangerous track of increasing tensions,” added German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. But “it is still possible to turn around. A new division of Europe can still be prevented.”
Just how much impact any action taken by the West will have is unclear. Most of Russia’s exports are commodities such as oil, gas and agricultural goods that would not likely be affected by sanctions and are crucial to many European countries. Mr. Kerry has raised the prospect of Russia being removed from the G8, which Russia currently chairs as part of the organization’s rotating system of host countries. The U.S. and six other nations, including Canada, said Sunday they are suspending participation in the planning for a summit in Russia this summer. However, the G8’s importance has diminished over the years with the rise of the larger G20.
The bigger impact by far will be on Ukraine. The country has been reeling in the past two weeks from brutal clashes between protesters and police that killed nearly 100 people to the removal of Mr. Yanukovych, who fled to Russia and has insisted he is still president. The new government, led by Mr. Yatsenyuk, has barely been in office for a week and it is facing economic collapse, a military invasion and violent protests in other regions that have pro-Russian sympathies. The government’s control over the country remains in question and the popular uprising that led to Mr. Yanukovych’s removal has not subsided. Many protesters in Kiev are watching the new leadership intently, fearing a return to the same corrupt politics. Meanwhile the country’s military can hardly compete with Russia and the government even fired its naval commander on Sunday after he ordered soldiers to lay down their arms to the Russians.
As if to demonstrate the lack of control by the central government, the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine became the latest to announce that it wants to separate. In a statement Sunday the regional council said it “considers illegitimate all central executive branches of power because they were formed with violation of laws” and added that it wants a referendum on more autonomy. The regional government in Crimea has also rejected the central government and called for a referendum on its role within Ukraine.