KIEV/BALACLAVA, Ukraine: Ukraine mobilized for war Sunday as U.S. officials announced that Russian forces completely controlled the Crimean peninsula in one of the biggest confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
Russian President Vladimir Putin secured permission from his Parliament Saturday to use military force to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine and told U.S. President Barack Obama he had the right to defend Russian interests and nationals, spurning Western pleas not to intervene.
“This is not a threat: This is actually the declaration of war to my country,” Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said. Yatsenuik heads a pro-Western government that took power when the country’s Russia-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich, was ousted last week.
Outrage over Russia’s tactics mounted in world capitals, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calling on Putin to pull back from “an incredible act of aggression.”
Kerry will head to Kiev Tuesday to stress U.S. political and economic support for the new government, a senior U.S. administration official said, adding that Russian forces were “now in complete operational control of the Crimean peninsula.”
On Sunday, Russian forces surrounded several small Ukrainian military outposts there and demanded the Ukrainian troops disarm. Some refused, leading to standoffs, although no shots were fired.
With Russian forces in control of majority ethnic Russian Crimea, the focus is shifting to eastern swaths of Ukraine, where most ethnic Ukrainians speak Russian as a native language.
Those areas saw more demonstrations Sunday after violent protests Saturday, and for a second day pro-Moscow activists hoisted flags at government buildings and called for Russia to defend them.
Russia has staged war games with 150,000 troops along the land border, but so far they have not crossed.
Ukraine’s security council ordered the general staff to immediately put all armed forces on highest alert. However, Kiev’s small and under-equipped military is seen as no match for Russia’s superpower might.
The United States is not considering military options to deal with the crisis, a senior official told reporters, but is focused on economic, diplomatic and political measures to get Russia to reverse its intervention.
After an emergency meeting, NATO allies urged the deployment of observers to defuse tension.
“We urge both parties to immediately seek a peaceful resolution through dialogue, through the dispatch of international observers under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council or the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe],” the 28-member Atlantic Alliance said in a statement after almost eight hours of talks.
Ukraine is not a NATO member, meaning the U.S. and Europe are not obligated to come to its defense.
In a phone conversation late Sunday, Putin accepted a proposal by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to establish a “fact-finding mission,” possibly under the leadership of the OSCE, to facilitate political dialogue, a spokesperson for the German government said.
Georg Streiter said the proposal came in a telephone conversation in which Merkel accused Putin of breaking international law with the “unacceptable Russian intervention in Crimea.” Obama spoke to Merkel and underscored the “complete illegitimacy” of Russia’s actions.
Putin has defied calls to pull back his troops, insisting that Russia has a right to protect its interests and those of Russian-speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine.
He told Merkel that Russian citizens and Russian-speakers in Ukraine faced an “unflagging” threat from ultranationalists, and that the measures Moscow has taken were completely fitting given the “extraordinary situation,” the Kremlin said.
Members of Putin’s human rights council urged him not to invade, saying threats faced by Russians there were far from severe enough to warrant sending in troops.
“True, there are known cases of lawlessness and violence carried out by representatives of various political forces,” it said. “But the use of external military force, linked with the violation of the sovereignty of a neighboring state and contradicting Russia’s international obligations, is completely inappropriate to the scale of the violations, in our opinion.”Kerry, interviewed Sunday on U.S. television news shows, talked about boycotting the G-8 summit, as well as possible visa bans, asset freezes and trade and investment penalties against Russia. Kerry said all the foreign ministers he had talked to were prepared “to go to the hilt” to isolate Russia.
Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, has ordered Ukraine’s armed forces to be on full alert and stepped up security at nuclear power plants, airports and other strategic infrastructure. The government called reservists into action but no overt military actions by Ukraine were seen.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Facebook that Ukraine’s new leaders had seized power illegally and predicted their rule would end with “a new revolution” and new bloodshed.
The speaker of Crimea’s legislature, Vladimir Konstantinov, was quoted as saying local authorities do not recognize the new government in Kiev. He said a planned referendum on March 30 would ask voters about the region’s future status.
Meanwhile, a Ukrainian security official said the head of the country’s navy – Adm. Denis Berezovsky – had been dismissed and faces a treason investigation after declaring allegiance to the pro-Russian government of the Crimea region and offering no resistance to the Russian troops.
Kiev said its troops were encircled in at least three places in Crimea Sunday. It pulled its coast guard vessels out of Crimean ports. But it said its naval fleet’s 10 ships were still in Sevastopol and remained loyal to Kiev.
Scores of Russian troops with no insignia were camped outside a base of Ukrainian troops at Perevalnoye, on a road from Crimea’s capital Simferopol toward the coast.
A representative of the base commander said troops on both sides had reached agreement so no blood would be shed.
Witnesses said Russian soldiers had moved out of their bases and blocked about 400 Ukrainian marines in the eastern port city of Feodosiya. Agence France Presse reporters saw a similar presence of troops outside a Ukrainian military installation near the Crimean capital Simferopol and other locations.