Ukraine tells Putin to pull back from war
International diplomats scramble to put a lid on tensions in region as Russian leader gets approval to send troops
Ukraine defied Russian aggression last night (Saturday) warning that any military intervention would lead to war.
Ukraine's acting leaders appeared on television in a sombre address to the nation after Vladimir Putin gained parliamentary approval to send troops into the former Soviet state.
Oleksander Turchynov, Ukraine's interim president, said he had put his troops on combat alert. Security had been boosted around nuclear energy facilities, airports and other "strategic facilities".
Appearing beside him, the prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said: "I am convinced that Russia will not launch an intervention as this would mean war."
Mr Yatsenyuk said he had urged Russia to send its troops back to their bases in Crimea during a phone call with Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister.
Despite clear warnings from the West, Mr Putin had earlier sought formal backing for a military response to the revolution that ousted Viktor Yanukovych, a loyal Kremlin ally.
Russian troops spent the day tightening their grip on the Crimea, the strategic peninsula that is home to Russia's Black Sea fleet. The majority-Russian region lies at the heart of tussle between Moscow and Kiev.
Following an invitation from the pro-Moscow regional government in Crimea to provide security, uniformed Russian troops have taken control of three airports or airfields in Belbek, Simferopol and Kirovskoye.
Russian troops were also reported to be attacking an anti-aircraft base in Yalta, while their vessels based in Sebastopol continued their patrols. Militiamen wielding Kalashnikovs hoisted the Russian flag over Crimean government buildings.
Ihor Tenyukh, the Kiev defence minister, accused Moscow of drafting 6,000 extra troops into its Crimea bases in the lead up to the revolution that overthrew Viktor Yanukovych, the fugitive president. Mr Tenyukh did not specify the overall level of Russian forces in the peninsula.
But agreements between Kiev and Moscow allow for 25,000 personnel on the Black Sea installations.
Beyond the Crimea, there are violent clashes involving thousands of people in the eastern Ukranian cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk.
Protesters stormed a municipal building, raising the Russian flag. Scuffles also broke out in Odessa and Dnipro. The Kremlin's statement invoked the Russian agreement with Ukraine that authorises the military force in Sebastopol.
However, it left open the prospect of operations elsewhere in the region.
Mr Putin said: "I'm submitting a request for using the armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine, pending the normalisation of the socio-political situation in that country."
Western leaders rushed to provide support for Ukraine's two-day-old government as its newly appointed ministers reeled from the torrent of developments.
Last night a Russian news agency reported that Putin told Obama by telephone that Moscow reserves the right to protect its interests and those of Russian speakers in Ukraine, the Kremlin said.
In a statement posted online, the Kremlin said Obama had expressed concern about the possibility of Russian military intervention in Ukraine.
"In response to the concern shown by Obama about the plans for the possible use of Russia's armed forces on the territory of Ukraine, Putin drew attention to the provocative, criminal actions by ultra-nationalists, in essence encouraged by the current authorities in Kiev," the statement said. "The Russian President underlined that there are real threats to the life and health of Russian citizens and compatriots on Ukrainian territory. Vladimir Putin stressed that if violence spread further in the eastern regions of Ukraine and in Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and those of Russian speakers living there."
The UN Security Council began holding an open meeting Saturday afternoon on the growing crisis in Ukraine.
After meeting behind closed doors, the council agreed to hold the open, televised meeting despite objections from permanent member Russia. Ukraine has accused Russia of "a military invasion and occupation" of strategic points in the Crimean peninsula.
Ukraine has asked the other four permanent council members - the U.S., Britain, France and China - for help in stopping Russia's "aggression."
Russia's parliament earlier Saturday approved President Vladimir Putin's request to authorize the use of the Russian military to protect its interests in Ukraine.
Ukraine's U.N. ambassador, Yuriy Sergeyev, said Russia has rejected Ukraine's proposal to hold immediate bilateral consultations.
The vote to authorise the deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine precipitated a feverish round of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, as the American and European nations carefully weighed their options over how to respond.
Mark Lyall Grant, Britain's ambassador to the UN, called a meeting of the UN Security Council for a second round of emergency consultations.
Diplomatic sources said the meeting was designed to give Russia "a chance to clarify its intentions" following the vote, and to explain its behaviour towards Ukraine and the autonomous Crimean region.
Western diplomatic sources said that the emphasis was firmly on trying to de-escalate the crisis and avoid a repeat of the provocations that led to the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.
"There are lots of conversations going on with the government in Ukraine, urging them to stay sensible and looking at what they might do to address Russian concerns," the source said.
The source described an international full-court press to put a lid on Ukraine situation, involving the EU foreign affairs council which will called an emergency meeting for Monday.
Sanctions of the kind that targeted the Ukrainian elite deemed responsible for the bloodshed earlier this month remained "on the table", the source said.
"We're watching what Russia is doing with a degree of nervousness, very mindful of what happened in Georgia and trying not do anything that might precipitate some Russian action that would be regrettable for all sides," the source added.
News from Russia filtered through to the sombre crowds that continued to gather in Kiev's Independence Square.
Vitaly Klitschko, the champion boxer who is now a candidate for president in May's elections, joined other leaders of the revolution with a call for a "general mobilisation" against the Russian threat.
He called on the government to cancel the lease on the Russia naval base in Sebastopol.
"It looks like there will be a war against Russia," said Katerina Kobernik, a Kiev newspaper editor. "I have to decide how I am going to protect my daughter."
Sir Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Moscow, said the Kremlin announcement amounted to a blunt snub of Barack Obama's warning that there would a "cost" to incursions in Ukraine.
At the very least it appeared that Western leaders would be forced into some kind of boycott of June's meeting of the G8 in Sochi, the Russian winter Olympics city.
"The whole idea that Russia would evolve into a peaceful, democratic state is now shot to pieces," he said.
Jonathan Eyal, a Russia watcher at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said Mr Putin would seek to push its position in Ukraine as it had in Georgia in 2008 but stop short of outright war.
"My guess is that he will violate the treaty with Ukraine and put in more troops," he said. "It's a way of humiliating them without starting a war."
Sunday Telegraph, London