WASHINGTON/SEVASTOPOL, UKRAINE – Sergei Aksenov, the pro-Russian prime minister of Ukraine’s restive Crimea region, claimed control of all military, police and other security services in the region Saturday and appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for help in keeping peace there. U.S. President Barack Obama warned Moscow “there will be costs” if it intervenes militarily.
In a statement reported by local and Russian news agencies, Aksenov declared that the armed forces, the police, the national security service and border guards will answer only to his orders. He said any commanders who do not agree should leave their posts.
As armed men described as Russian troops took control of key airports and a communications center in Crimea on Friday, Ukraine accused Russia of a “military invasion and occupation” — a claim that brought an alarming new dimension to the crisis, and raised fears that Moscow is moving to annex a strategic peninsula where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based.
“Understanding my responsibility for the life and security of citizens, I appeal to the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, for assistance in guaranteeing peace and calmness on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea,” Aksenov, the head of the main pro-Russia party on the peninsula, said in his statement.
Aksenov was appointed by the Crimean parliament on Thursday after pro-Russia gunmen seized the building and as tensions soared over Crimea’s resistance to the new authorities in Kiev, who took power last week.
Ukraine’s population is divided in loyalties between Russia and the West, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the EU while eastern and southern regions, where Crimea is, look to Russia for support.
Crimea, a southeastern peninsula of Ukraine that has semi-autonomous status, was seized by Russian forces in the 18th century under Catherine the Great. It 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.
Obama called on Russia to respect the independence and territory of Ukraine and not try to take advantage of its neighbor, which is undergoing political upheaval. “Any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing,” Obama said.
Such action by Russia would not serve the interests of the Ukrainian people, Russia or Europe, Obama said, and would represent a “profound interference” in matters he said must be decided by the Ukrainian people.
“Just days after the world came to Russia for the Olympic Games, that would invite the condemnation of nations around the world,” Obama said. “The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
He did not say what those costs might be.
Another senior official later suggested those costs could include a decision by Obama and top European leaders to skip the summit of Group of Eight industrialized nations in the Black Sea Olympic resort of Sochi in June.
Other possible trade and commercial concessions that the Kremlin has been seeking as recently as this past week could also be at risk, the official said.
Moscow would also squander any global goodwill spurred by the Winter Games, which ended last weekend, U.S. officials argued.
Beyond that, the extent of U.S. leverage on Russia over Ukraine remained unclear. There is no suggestion of U.S. or allied military action, and the route to a U.N. Security Council resolution would be blocked by Russia, which is a permanent member.
Washington is also trying to avoid a Cold War-type scenario with Moscow and needs Putin’s support on a string of issues, including talks between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program, the effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Earlier Friday, fugitive Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych resurfaced in Russia to deliver a defiant condemnation of what he since fleeing Ukraine last week, Yanukovych struck a tone both of bluster and caution — vowing to “keep fighting for the future of Ukraine,” while ruling out seeking Russian military help.
“Any military action in this situation is unacceptable,” Yanukovych told reporters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, near the border with Ukraine. Then, seeking to make a firm point, he tried — and failed — to break a pen.
At the U.N., Ukraine Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev said that 10 Russian transport aircraft and 11 attack helicopters had arrived in Crimea illegally, and that Russian troops had taken control of two airports in Crimea.
He described the gunmen posted outside the two airports as Russian armed forces as well as “unspecified” units.
“Some of them identified themselves as Russians. We know specifically some of the units,” Sergeyev said. He also said the Russians had captured the main air traffic control center on Crimea.
Serhiy Astakhov, a spokesman for the Ukrainian border service, said that eight Russian transport planes landed in the Crimea Peninsula with unknown cargo.
He said that the Il-76 planes arrived unexpectedly and were given permission to land, one after the other, at Gvardeiskoye Air Base, north of the regional capital, Simferopol. Astakhov said the people in the planes refused to identify themselves and waved off customs officials, saying they did not require their services.
Russia kept silent on claims of military intervention, even as it maintained its stance on protecting ethnic Russians in Crimea.
Earlier Friday, journalists in Crimea spotted a convoy of nine Russian armored personnel carriers on a road between the port city of Sevastopol, where Russia has a naval base, and the regional capital, Simferopol.
Later in the day, the airspace was closed over the peninsula, apparently due to tensions at the two airports.
Oleksandr Turchynov, who stepped in as president after Yanukovych fled Kiev last weekend, urged Putin to stop “provocations” in Crimea and pull back military forces from the peninsula.
Turchynov said that the Ukrainian military will fulfill its duty but will not be drawn into provocations.
In Kiev Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s newly named interior minister, accused Russia of military aggression. “I can only describe this as a military invasion and occupation,” Avakov wrote in a Facebook post.
In recent conversations between U.S. and Russian officials, including a lengthy telephone conversation between Obama and Putin just last week, Obama said the U.S. has made clear that Russia can be part of an international community’s effort to support the stability and success of Ukraine.
But, he said Friday, “We are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine.”
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power told reporters that the United States was proposing an urgent mediation mission to help resolve the crisis.
Russia is supposed to notify Ukraine of any troop movements outside the naval base it maintains in Sevastopol under a lease agreement with Ukraine.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the military vehicles were deployed to ensure the security of its base and didn’t contradict the lease terms.
A duty officer at the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said it had no information about the vehicles’ movements.
Meanwhile, Ukraine International Airlines said it had canceled flights to and from Simferopol airport on Friday evening and Saturday because of the closure of the airspace over Crimea. The announcement did not say who had ordered the closure.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s telecom provider, Ukrtelecom JSC, said unknown people seized several communications centers in Crimea late Friday, knocking out the company’s ability to connect the peninsula with the rest of the country.
The statement on the company’s website said there were almost no land line, Internet or mobile services operating in the Crimea.