Obama warns Russia not to interfere in Crimea

New York TimesFebruary 28, 2014 

— As Ukrainian leaders accused Russia of carrying out an armed invasion in the Crimea region, President Barack Obama on Friday warned Russia not to intervene militarily, saying the United States would stand with the world to condemn a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

“There will be costs,” Obama declared in a brief statement from the White House. He said the U.S. government was “deeply concerned” by “reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside Ukraine.”

He said any intervention militarily in Ukraine would be “deeply destabilizing” and would represent a “profound interference” in the Ukrainian people’s right to determine their own future.

Earlier, at the United Nations, the Ukrainian ambassador, Yuriy A. Sergeyev, said Russian troops had taken control of two airports in Crimea and the Russian navy was blocking the Ukrainian Coast Guard.

Armed men of uncertain allegiance took up positions at two airports in Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea, an area with stronger historical ties to Russia than to Ukraine’s central government in Kiev.

Although there were no confrontations or bloodshed by evening, the appearance of a large number of masked men with assault rifles unnerved residents and travelers, who were buffeted by warnings from Kiev of military meddling by Moscow and statements from the deposed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, that the country had been taken over by fascists and “bandits.”

In Simferopol, men dressed in camouflage and carrying assault rifles moved into position at the international airport and a second airfield nearby. Their military uniforms bore no insignia and it was not clear who they were or who was commanding them. They declined to answer questions.

Ukrainian International, Ukraine’s biggest airline, said Friday that it had canceled flights into and out of the Crimea region because the airspace had been closed.

Denials from Moscow

Moscow denied that its forces had moved into Crimea and attributed the presence of troops there to “internal political processes in Ukraine,” according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry. It said it had not violated agreements not to intervene in Ukrainian affairs.

Armored personnel carriers with Russian markings appeared on roads Friday outside Simferopol, sometimes alone but at other times in long columns of military vehicles. It was unclear whether the movements signaled a Russian push to occupy the city, a show of strength aimed at cowing far less numerous Ukrainian forces in the region, or simply a routine rotation of Russian hardware.

Russia has numerous military facilities in Crimea, the most important of which is the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, in Sevastopol. Its military vehicles regularly move around the peninsula, but Friday’s activity was more intense than usual, according to local residents.

There were no immediate signs of panic in Simferopol, which has a large ethnic Russian population and has generally supported Moscow’s line that Kiev, 400 miles to the north, has been overrun by fascists who pose a grave threat to the interests of Ukraine’s Russian speakers.

The only visible military presence in the center of the city were unidentified gunmen who seized the regional parliament building and a government office complex this week.

But Simferopol swirled with rumors, all unconfirmed, that Russian troops had seized Crimea’s main television station, the central post office and other strategic locations. Residents also exchanged information, apparently more grounded in reality, about sightings of Russian military transport planes landing at airports.

Armed men in the airports

“This is an open but unannounced aggression by the Russian Federation against the territory of Ukraine,” said Refat Chubarov, the leader of Crimea’s indigenous population of Tatars, a Muslim Turkic people, and a strong advocate of the region’s remaining part of Ukrainian territory. He said Russian military helicopters had flouted Ukrainian sovereignty by flying into Crimea without permission.

In Kiev, the speaker of parliament, Oleksandr Turchynov, who is now the acting president of Ukraine, convened a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council to discuss the situation in Crimea.

Announcing the meeting in parliament, Turchynov said, “Terrorists with automatic weapons, judged by our special services to be professional soldiers, tried to take control of the airport in Crimea.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke Friday with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, about the appearance of the armed men at the airports.

“We raised the issue of the airports, raised the issue of armored vehicles, raised the issue of personnel in various places,” Kerry told reporters in Washington.

Lavrov asserted that Russia would respect the sovereignty of Ukraine, Kerry said. But Kerry said he had told his Russia counterpart that “it is important for everybody to be extremely careful not to inflame the situation.”

At the Simferopol airport, the armed men set up positions around a central administrative building, but they did not appear to enter the terminals. There were no roadblocks or checkpoints on the roads leading to the airport or on the grounds of the airport.

‘Tension is building’

Meanwhile, another confrontation was underway at a second airport, called Belbek, that is used for military and some civilian flights.

In a post on his Facebook page, the interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said that units believed to be affiliated with the Russian military had blocked access to the airport overnight, with some Ukrainian military personnel and border guards inside. Avakov wrote that the men blocking the airport were also wearing camouflage uniforms with no identifying insignia, but he added, “They do not hide their affiliation.”

Avakov said the airport was not functioning and that “there is no armed conflict yet.”

At the international airport, Avakov said, Ukrainian authorities confronted the armed men and told them, “You soldiers have no right to be located here.” The uniformed men responded curtly, “We do not have instructions to negotiate with you,” he said.

“Tension is building,” Avakov wrote, adding: “I regard what is happening as an armed invasion and occupation in violation of all international treaties and norms. This is a direct provoking of armed bloodshed on the territory of a sovereign state.”

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