KIEV, Ukraine – Warning that it was “on the brink of disaster,” Ukraine put its military on high alert Sunday and appealed for international help to avoid what it feared was a possible wider invasion by Russia.
Outrage over Russia’s military moves mounted in world capitals, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calling on President Vladimir Putin to pull back from “an incredible act of aggression.”
A day after Russia captured the Crimean Peninsula without firing a shot, fears grew in the Ukrainian capital and beyond that Russia might seek to expand its control by seizing other parts of eastern Ukraine. Senior Obama administration officials said the U.S. now believes that Russia has complete operational control of Crimea, a pro-Russian area of the country, and has more than 6,000 troops in the region.
Faced with the Russian threat, Ukraine’s new government moved to consolidate its authority, naming new regional governors in the pro-Russia east, enlisting the support of the country’s wealthy businessmen and dismissing the head of the country’s navy after he declared allegiance to the pro-Russian government in Crimea.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russia had no reason to invade Ukraine and warned that “we are on the brink of disaster.”
“We believe that our Western partners and the entire global community will support the territorial integrity and unity of Ukraine,” he said Sunday in Kiev.
World leaders rushed to try to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
NATO held an emergency meeting in Brussels, Britain’s foreign minister flew to Kiev to support its new government and Kerry was to travel to Ukraine on Tuesday. The U.S., France and Britain debated the possibility of boycotting the next Group of Eight economic summit, to be held in June in Sochi, the host of Russia’s successful Winter Olympics.
On Sunday evening, the White House issued a joint statement on behalf of the Group of Seven saying they will suspend participation in the planning for the upcoming summit because Russia’s advances in the Ukraine violate the “principles and values” on which the G-7 and G-8 operate.
In Kiev, Moscow and other cities, thousands of protesters took to the streets to either decry Russian occupation or celebrate Crimea’s return to its former ruler.
Kerry talked on U.S. television about boycotting the G-8 summit, as well as possible visa bans, asset freezes, and trade and investment penalties against Russia. All the foreign ministers he talked to were prepared “to go to the hilt” to isolate Russia, Kerry said.
President Barack Obama also spoke Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
NATO issued a statement saying it “condemns Russia’s military escalation in Crimea,” demanding Russia respect its obligations under the U.N. charter. Ukraine is not a NATO member, meaning the U.S. and Europe are not obligated to come to its defense, but the country has taken part in some alliance exercises.
“We are on a very dangerous track,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. But “it is still possible to turn around. A new division of Europe can still be prevented.”
Ukraine’s new government and the West have been powerless to counter Russia’s tactics so far. Armed men in uniforms without insignia have moved freely about Crimea for days, occupying airports, smashing equipment at an air base and besieging a Ukrainian infantry base.
Putin has defied calls from the West to pull back his troops, insisting that Russia has a right to protect its interests and those of Russian-speakers. His confidence is matched by the knowledge that Ukraine’s 46 million people have divided loyalties. While much of western Ukraine wants closer ties with the 28-nation European Union, its eastern and southern regions like Crimea look to Russia for support.
Russia has long wanted to reclaim the lush Crimean Peninsula, part of its territory until 1954. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet pays Ukraine to be stationed at the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Nearly 60 percent of Crimea’s residents identify as Russian.
During a phone conversation Sunday with Merkel, Putin “directed her attention to the unrelenting threat of violence from ultranationalist forces (in Ukraine) that endangered the life and legal interests of Russian citizens,” according to a Kremlin statement.
Germany said Putin had accepted Merkel’s proposal to set up a “contact group” to facilitate dialogue in the Ukraine crisis.
Russia’s state-controlled media has played almost nonstop footage of the Ukrainian crisis, highlighting what it says are ultranationalist attacks on Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians by activists from Kiev or regions farther west. However, Associated Press reporters in Ukraine witnessed no acts of violence directed at Russians or Russian sympathizers in Crimea.
Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, put Ukraine’s armed forces on alert Sunday, calling up reserves for training and stepping up security at nuclear power plants, airports and other strategic locations. However, no overt military actions by Ukraine were seen.
Turchynov also moved to consolidate authority in eastern Ukraine, appointing 18 new regional governors, including two of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, in the cities of Dnepropetrovsk and Donetsk, as big business and the Ukrainian government united against Russia.
Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, urged business, ordinary people and the government to join together, saying Sunday that the use of force and “illegal action from outside” were “impermissible.”
“I call upon all my fellow citizens to unity for the sake of a whole and undivided Ukraine. … Our strength is in the solidarity of business, government and society,” said Akhmetov, whose SCM Group has 300,000 employees and interests in steel, coal and mining.
“The national elite has consolidated around the new government,” political analyst Vadim Karasyov of the Institute for Global Strategies said. “This is a very good sign for the new government.”