SIMFEROPOL/MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin rebuffed a warning from U.S. President Barack Obama over Moscow’s military intervention in Crimea, saying Friday that Russia could not ignore calls for help from Russian speakers in Ukraine.
After an hour-long telephone call, Putin said in a statement that Moscow and Washington were still far apart on the situation in the former Soviet republic, where he said the new authorities had taken “absolutely illegitimate decisions on the eastern, southeastern and Crimea regions.
“Russia cannot ignore calls for help and it acts accordingly, in full compliance with international law,” Putin said.
Putin’s spokesman lashed out at the West and defended Russia’s actions, but said he hoped “extremely deep disagreements” would not lead to a new Cold War.
Dmitry Peskov said “extremely deep disagreements of a conceptual nature between Russia and the European Union and the United States have already been registered.”
But he added: “There still remains hope ... that some points of agreement can be found as a result of dialogue – which our partners, thank God, have not yet rejected.”
Asked whether East and West were entering a new Cold War, Peskov replied: “I believe that it has not started and I would like to believe it will not start.”
Ukraine’s border guards said Moscow had poured troops into the southern peninsula where Russian forces have seized control.
Serhiy Astakhov, an aide to the border guards’ commander, said there were now 30,000 Russian soldiers in Crimea, compared to the 11,000 permanently based with the Russian Black Sea fleet in the port of Sevastopol before the crisis.
Putin denies the forces with no national insignia surrounding Ukrainian troops in their bases are under Moscow’s command, although their vehicles have Russian military plates. The West has ridiculed his assertion.
Armed men thought to be Russians drove a truck into a Ukrainian missile defense post in the Crimea region Friday and took control without a shot being fired.
Initial reports said the truck had smashed through the gates and that posts in the city of Sevastopol were being stormed but there were no signs of the gates being damaged.
A Ukrainian military official, Vladislav Seleznyov, said by telephone that the armed men took over the base without any shooting and that no one was hurt.
The crisis over Crimea escalated Thursday when Crimea’s parliament, dominated by ethnic Russians, voted to join Russia. The region’s government set a referendum for March 16 – in just nine days’ time.
European Union leaders and Obama denounced the referendum as illegitimate, saying it would violate Ukraine’s constitution.
The head of Russia’s upper house of parliament said after meeting visiting Crimean MPs Friday that Crimea had a right to self-determination and ruled out any risk of war between “the two brotherly nations.”
In Moscow, a huge crowd gathered near the Kremlin at a state-sanctioned rally and concert billed as being “in support of the Crimean people.”
Obama announced the first sanctions Thursday against Russia since the start of the crisis, ordering visa bans and asset freezes against so far unidentified people deemed responsible for threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia warned that it would retaliate against any sanctions.
The EU, Russia’s biggest economic partner and energy customer, adopted a three-stage plan to force a negotiated solution but stopped short of immediate sanctions.
The Russian Foreign Ministry responded angrily Friday, calling the EU decision to freeze talks on visa-free travel and on a broad new pact governing Russia-EU ties “extremely unconstructive.”
Senior Ukrainian opposition politician Yulia Tymoshenko, freed from prison after Yanukovich’s ouster, met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Dublin and appealed for EU sanctions against Russia, warning that Crimea might otherwise slide into a guerrilla war.
The EU and the U.S. rushed to bolster the new authorities in economically shattered Ukraine, announcing both political and financial aid. The regional director of the International Monetary Fund said talks with Kiev on a loan agreement were going well and praised the new government’s openness to economic reform and transparency.