KIEV: Ukraine warned on Sunday (Monday in Manila) it was on the brink of disaster and called up military reservists after Russia’s threat to invade its Western-leaning neighbour risked sparking the worst crisis since the Cold War.
US President Barack Obama and his Western allies took turns admonishing Russia as Ukraine appeared on the brink of losing control of Crimea with the defection of its navy commander to pro-Kremlin forces who have tightened their grip on the Black Sea peninsula.
World leaders huddled for urgent consultations across global capitals after Russia’s parliament voted Saturday to allow President Vladimir Putin to send troops into the ex-Soviet state — a decision Obama branded a “violation of Ukrainian sovereignty”.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who will travel to Kiev on Tuesday to lend support to the new interim leaders, upped the stakes for Putin by warning Moscow risked losing its place among the Group of Eight nations if its sabre rattling did not halt.
“We are on the brink of a disaster,” Ukraine’s new Western-backed Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk — in power for just a week following the overthrow of a pro-Russian regime — told the nation of 46 million.
Yatsenyuk warned in a televised address that any invasion “would mean war and the end of all relations between the two countries”.
As Pro-Moscow gunmen believed to be acting under Kremlin orders tightened their grip on Crimea, a senior US official said Russia now controlled the strategic peninsula that has housed its navies since the 18th century.
Witnesses said Russian soldiers had moved out of their bases and blocked about 400 Ukrainian marines in the eastern port city of Feodosiya. AFP reporters saw a similar presence of troops outside a Ukrainian military installation near the Crimean capital Simferopol and other locations.
But the biggest blow to the new Kiev leaders came when 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 surrounded his building and cut off its electricity.
Crimea’s pro-Kremlin government chief Sergiy Aksyonov — installed in power Thursday after an armed raid on the region’s government building, and not recognised by Kiev — immediately named Berezovsky as head of the peninsula’s own independent navy.
Full combat alert
Fears of Russia’s first invasion of a neighbour since a brief 2008 confrontation with Georgia, another former Soviet republic, prompted the largely untested interim team in Kiev to put its military on full combat alert and announce the call-up of all reservists.
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.
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 because the wellbeing of their own citizens was at stake.
NATO called for international observers to be sent to Ukraine and for Russia to pull back its forces, after urgent talks in Brussels.
The 28-nation alliance sought talks with Moscow as its head Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned Russia its troop movement “threatens peace and security in Europe”.
Germany offered a rare glimmer of hope, saying Putin had agreed in a telephone conversation with Chancellor Angela Merkel to set up a contact group on Ukraine, enabling the opening of a political dialogue.
Washington and its Western allies meanwhile pulled out of preparatory meetings for the June G8 summit in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Kerry went one step further, 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 its 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 told the US leader 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.
‘We will not surrender’
What sounded like a loud explosion was heard in Simferopol at around 11:15 pm (2115 GMT) Sunday, but the cause was not clear.
Pro-Kremlin sentiments remained strong in the city. “Crimea is Russia”, one elderly lady told Agence France-Presse in front of a statue of Soviet founder Lenin that dominates a square next to the occupied parliament building in Simferopol.
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. AFP