MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin won the green light from parliament Saturday to send troops into Ukraine after a bloody three-month uprising swept new pro-EU leaders to power while also sparking unrest in the pro-Kremlin Crimean peninsula.
The stark escalation in what threatens to become the worst crisis in relations between Moscow and the West since the Cold War came as Kalashnikov-wielding militia hoisted the Russian flag over Crimean government buildings and seized control of the peninsula’s airports.
Pro-Kremlin rallies also swept several big eastern and southern Ukrainian cities whose cultural links to Moscow stretch back centuries and whose economic survival depends largely on Russian trade.
Putin’s shock decision to seek the upper house of parliament’s authorisation to use force in the ex-Soviet country of 46 million came less than a day after US President Barack Obama warned that any such action would carry “costs” for Moscow.
Putin had remained silent since Ukraine’s parliament on February 22 ousted Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych — who has since fled to Russia — after a week of carnage in Kiev that claimed nearly 100 lives.
The vast country’s bloodiest crisis since its 1991 independence erupted with Yanukovych’s decision in November to reject a deal that would have opened Ukraine’s door to eventual EU membership in favour of tighter ties with old master Moscow.
The Kremlin said Saturday that Putin had asked the upper house to authorise force “in connection with the extraordinary situation in Ukraine and the threat to the lives of Russian citizens”.
“I submit to the Federation Council a request to use the armed forces of the Russian Federation on Ukrainian territory until the normalisation of the political situation in that country,” the Kremlin quoted Putin as saying.
Putin said Russia also had to protect servicemen of the Black Sea Fleet that is based in Crimea’s port town of Sevastopol “fully in line with an international accord”.
The Federation Council unanimously approved Putin’s request after a lightning-fast debate.
Upper chamber chair Valentina Matviyenko also ordered the Council’s foreign affairs committee to ask Putin to recall Russia’s ambassador from the United States.
Matviyenko suggested sending in a “limited contingent” — a phrase that echoed the language used for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The size of the contingent was not indicated, and a senior senator said that would be up to Putin.
Ukraine’s Defence Minister Igor Tenyukh had earlier told the new cabinet’s first session that Russia had already sent 30 armoured personnel carriers and 6,000 additional troops into Crimea to help pro-Kremlin militia gain broader independence from the new pro-EU leaders in Kiev.
Thousands of Ukrainians gathered on central Kiev’s iconic Independence Square — the crucible of both the latest wave of protests and the 2004 Orange Revolution that first nudged Ukraine on a westward course — within minutes of the Russian senators’ vote.
– Crimea appeal for help –
Putin’s move came after an appeal for help from Crimea’s newly chosen premier Sergiy Aksyonov — a ruler not recognised by Kiev and appointed by regional lawmakers after gunmen seized the parliament building in the regional capital Simferopol on Thursday.
“I ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to help in ensuring peace and calm on the territory of Crimea,” Aksyonov said in an address broadcast in full by Russian state television.
AFP reporters said several dozen were hurt in the eastern city of Kharkiv when a few hundred people broke away from a pro-Russian crowd of 20,000 and attempted to storm the regional administration centre.
More than 10,000 people carrying Russian flags also protested against Kiev’s new rulers in the ousted leader’s eastern stronghold of Donetsk.
And unidentified men briefly hoisted the Russian tricolour atop the administration building of the Black Sea port city of Odessa before it was replaced by the Ukrainian flag.
A Russian official said 143,000 Ukrainians had fled to Russia since the crisis first broke out in November.
Ukrainian boxer turned politician Vitali Klitschko responded to the Russian move by calling on parliament to ask interim president Oleksandr Turchynov to declare a “national mobilisation after the start of Russian aggression against Ukraine”.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said ahead of a visit to Kiev on Sunday that he had summoned the Russian ambassador to register his concerns over Moscow’s decision.
“This action is a potentially grave threat to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. We condemn any act of aggression against Ukraine,” Hague said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “what is happening in Crimea worries us” while EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said the 28-nation bloc’s foreign minister would hold crisis talks about Ukraine on Monday.
But one top Russian foreign ministry official indicated that Putin may pause before sending troops into Ukraine.
“The agreement that the president received… does not mean that this right will be realised quickly,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the same agency that “for the moment, this decision has not been taken”.
“It is to be hoped that the situation will not develop according to the scenario that is developing at the moment toward a threat for Russians in Crimea,” Peskov later told Russian state television.
– Obama warning –
Obama had warned Putin on Friday that “there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine”.
A senior US official separately told AFP that Obama and some key European leaders could skip the G8 summit in Sochi in June if Moscow’s forces became more directly involved in Ukraine.
Kiev’s new leaders have grappled with the dual threats of economic collapse and secession by regions that had backed Yanukovych.
The threat of a debt default that Kiev leaders warn could come as early as next week increased further when Russia’s state-owned Gazprom — often accused of being wielded as a weapon by the Kremlin against uncooperative ex-Soviet states — warned that it may be forced to hike the price it charges Ukraine for natural gas.
“The debt is $1.549 billion, it is huge,” Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov told the RIA Novosti news agency. (AFP)