SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine – Dozens of armed men in military uniforms seized an airport in the capital of Ukraine’s strategic Crimea region early today, a report said.
Witnesses told the Interfax news agency that the 50 or so men were wearing the same gear as the ones who seized government buildings in the city, Simferopol, on Thursday and raised the Russian flag.
The report said the men with “Russian Navy ensigns” first surrounded the Simferopol airport’s domestic flights terminal.
The report could not be immediately confirmed. A woman who later answered the phone at the airport said “no comment,” and the airport’s website listed the morning’s first flight, to Moscow, as boarding on schedule.
The events in the Crimea region have heightened tensions with neighboring Russia, which scrambled fighter jets to patrol borders in the first stirrings of a potentially dangerous confrontation reminiscent of Cold War brinksmanship.
Russia also has granted shelter to Ukraine’s fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, after recent deadly protests in Kiev swept in a new government.
While the government in Kiev, led by a pro-Western technocrat, pledged to prevent any national breakup, there were mixed signals in Moscow. Russia pledged to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Yanukovych was said to be holed up in a luxury government retreat, with a news conference scheduled today near the Ukrainian border. He has not been seen publicly since Saturday.
On Thursday, as masked gunmen wearing unmarked camouflage uniforms erected a sign reading “Crimea is Russia” in Simferopol, Ukraine’s interim prime minister declared the Black Sea territory “has been and will be a part of Ukraine.”
The escalating conflict sent Ukraine’s finances plummeting further, prompting Western leaders to prepare an emergency financial package.
Yanukovych, whose abandonment of closer ties to Europe in favor of a bailout loan from Russia set off three months of protests, finally fled by helicopter last week as his allies deserted him. The humiliating exit was a severe blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been celebrating his signature Olympics even as Ukraine’s drama came to a crisis. The Russian leader has long dreamed of pulling Ukraine – a country of 46 million people considered the cradle of Russian civilization – closer into Moscow’s orbit.
For Ukraine’s neighbors, the specter of Ukraine breaking up evoked memories of centuries of bloody conflict.
“Regional conflicts begin this way,” said Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, calling the confrontation “a very dangerous game.”
Russia’s dispatch of fighter jets Thursday to patrol borders and drills by some 150,000 Russian troops – almost the entirety of its force in the western part of the country – signaled strong determination not to lose Ukraine to the West.
The dramatic developments posed an immediate challenge to Ukraine’s new authorities as they named an interim government for the country, whose population is divided in loyalties between Russia and the West. Crimea, which was seized by Russian forces in the 18th century under Catherine the Great, was once the crown jewel in Russian and then Soviet empires.
It only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia – a move that was a mere formality until the 1991 Soviet collapse meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.
In the capital, Kiev, the new prime minister said Ukraine’s future lies in the European Union, but with friendly relations with Russia.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, named Thursday in a boisterous parliamentary session, now faces the difficult task of restoring stability in a country that is not only deeply divided politically but on the verge of financial collapse. The 39-year-old served as economy minister, foreign minister and parliamentary speaker before Yanukovych took office in 2010, and is widely viewed as a technocratic reformer who enjoys the support of the U.S.
Vice President Joe Biden has told Ukraine’s new prime minister that the U.S. welcomes the formation of the country’s new government.
The White House said Biden called Yatsenyuk Thursday.
Biden told Yatsenyuk the U.S. will give full support as Ukraine seeks to restore order in the wake of a major political crisis.