MOSCOW – The international conflict over Russia’s military moves in Crimea escalated precariously Saturday as lawmakers in Moscow authorized the use of armed forces to protect their nation’s interests and ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and President Barack Obama pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin during a 90-minute phone call to back down.
The unanimous vote in the upper house of parliament came after Russian troops had already taken up positions in Crimea, the Ukrainian region that is home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, in spite of Obama’s warning Friday that “there will be costs” if Moscow intervenes in its neighbor’s political upheaval.
During Saturday’s call, Obama threatened Russia with “greater political and economic isolation,” according to a White House statement. The president, who had already issued a warning to Russia during a hastily called Friday news conference, suggested that the United Nations would take action for what he called a “breach of international law.”
A Kremlin statement on the phone call suggested that Putin was unmoved. It said the Russian president told Obama that the unrest in Ukraine was the result of “provocations and criminal actions by ultranationalist elements encouraged by the current powers in Kiev,” and said Russia reserved the right to defend its citizens and interests from those aggressions.
The standoff follows the overthrow late last month of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych after three months of protests by mostly urban and western Ukrainians who favor ties with the West, leaving Ukrainians in Crimea and elsewhere in the east, who tend to favor ties with Moscow, fearful for their future. On Thursday, pro-Russian lawmakers in Crimea elected a new leader who called on Moscow to come to his region’s aid.
At the United Nations, where the Security Council met Saturday in open and closed sessions to discuss the Russian moves, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “gravely concerned,” while European Union foreign ministers called an emergency session in Brussels for Monday and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged Russia to respect the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
But the Kremlin’s de-facto control of Crimea and influence over other Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine have presented that country’s interim government, fledgling leaders filling the power vacuum since Yanukovych fled, with an unpleasant choice: challenging Russia’s superior military might or issuing powerless statements of outrage.
The interim leaders in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, held an emergency meeting Saturday night and announced that their nation’s armed forces had been put on “full combat alert.” But they also urged calm and restraint in dealing with Moscow’s provocation.
On Saturday, hundreds of Russian soldiers bolstered positions taken the day before by gunmen in unmarked military fatigues in strategic sites around Simferopol, the Crimean administrative capital. The Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations, Yuri Sergeyev, said Moscow had already deployed 15,000 troops in his country even before Putin’s appeal for legislative authorization of the armed intervention.
Their presence was cheered by Russian-speaking residents, who make up a majority of Crimea’s population of 2 million, even as it served to discourage any protests by Ukrainian-speaking and Tatar communities. There were no reports of exchanges of gunfire despite the tense standoff. Russian media did report an overnight attack on the Crimean regional Interior Ministry in which unspecified “injuries” occurred.
While Obama and other Western leaders have reacted to Moscow’s intervention with stern warnings about the risk of provoking bloodshed, Putin appears to have calculated that none are prepared to play an active role in defending Ukraine.
Putin’s request for legislative backing for an armed deployment underway in Crimea won unanimous endorsement, 90-0, by the Federation Council, which met in an extraordinary session carried live on Russia-24 television. The upper-house lawmakers recommended that Putin withdraw Russia’s ambassador to Washington in protest of Obama’s critical remarks Friday about the Kremlin’s military moves.
“The president will consider the appeal and make a decision,” Federation Council chief Valentina Matvienko told reporters after the council’s recommendation of diplomatic censure.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the Kremlin leader hadn’t decided whether to act on the lawmakers’ suggestion to recall the envoy. Peskov also noted that Putin was still pondering how and whether to use “the entire arsenal of means necessary for settling this situation” that was authorized.
Even if Putin were to withdraw his Washington ambassador, the diplomatic heavy lifting between the U.S. and Russia is handled by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who have managed to maintain a productive and civil discourse despite the Cold War-like chill already besetting their countries’ relationship.
Putin turned to parliament after Sergei Aksenov, who was named Crimea’s leader on Thursday by a hastily gathered group of pro-Kremlin regional lawmakers, appealed for help “normalizing” the social order in the region. Aksenov conceded in his televised address that Russian forces were already securing strategic assets in Crimea, moves that prompted acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov to accuse Russia of “naked aggression.”
Putin’s request for authorization of use of force in “the territory of Ukraine” was particularly alarming for Western leaders, as it appeared to grant him latitude to intervene anywhere in the vast country cleaved by the social divide between Western-oriented citizens and those who want their country to be allied with Russia. Unrest in defiance of the new leadership in Kiev had been mostly confined to Crimea until Saturday, when pro-Russia demonstrators occupied government buildings and raised Russian flags in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Odessa.
Gunmen in Russian military fatigues seized control of Crimea’s regional parliament and government headquarters Thursday. The rejection of Kiev’s authority escalated Friday when thousands of Russian troops arrived by transport aircraft at a military airstrip near Simferopol. Checkpoints were erected on roads leading to the peninsula from the Ukrainian mainland, and key public facilities such as the local television station and the main telecommunications center were surrounded by gunmen in Russian uniforms and local “self-defense” militiamen.
The occupied Crimean parliament on Thursday voted to hold a referendum on the area’s future allegiance, balloting moved up Saturday to March 30 in an effort to build on the momentum for separating from western Ukraine.
Russia-allied residents of Ukraine fear their rights to cultural and linguistic equality will be undermined by the politicians now in power in Kiev. Those fears gained validity when nationalist lawmakers, in the power vacuum that occurred after Yanukovych fled, voted to remove Russian as an official language in areas of Ukraine where it is widely spoken.
Turchynov, Ukraine’s acting president, denounced the bill as undemocratic and refused to sign it into law, a fact usually omitted by Russia’s Kremlin-controlled media that have cast the Kiev leadership change as the work of “radicals and fascists.”