Ukraine stands in danger of breaking apart after Crimea’s parliament voted to join Russia, triggering Kiev’s fury and increasing the threat of harsh sanctions on Moscow by the European Union.
Europe’s worst security crisis in the post-Cold War era escalated when MPs on the predominantly Russian-speaking Black Sea peninsula of two million set a March 16 regional ‘referendum’ on switching to Kremlin rule.
Ukraine’s untested team of Western-backed interim leaders joined Washington and the European Union in denouncing the decision as illegitimate and a provocation that only stoked the crisis.
‘If this violation of international law continues, the resolve of the United States and our allies and the international community will remain firm,’ US President Barack Obama told reporters at the White House.
But with Moscow’s forces in effect controlling Crimea – home to tsarist navies since the 18th century – the threat of Ukraine breaking apart seemed more real than at any point since President Vladimir Putin won Russian authorisation last weekend to use military force against his eastern neighbour.
The new leaders in Kiev – brought to power on the back of three months of protests against Kremlin-backed leaders that Ukraine’s health ministry said left 100 people dead – immediately took steps to disband Crimea’s parliament.
Interim president Oleksandr Turchynov said the Crimea legislators’ decision was a ‘crime’ inspired by the Kremlin.
Russia’s refusal to call backs its troops or open direct negotiations unleashed a new wave of Western sanctions and threats against the Kremlin.
The United States slapped visa bans on Russians and Ukrainians it held responsible for destabilising both Ukraine and security in Europe.
EU leaders meeting in Brussels took political measures – but not economic sanctions – against Russia for threatening to unleash its first military campaign against a neighbour since a brief 2008 conflict with Georgia.
Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, made an impassioned appeal in Brussels for EU states and the United States to rise to his nation’s defence in the face of what he called an unfolding Russian aggression.
‘We still believe we can solve in peaceful manner but in case of further escalation and military intervention into Ukraine territory by foreign forces, Ukranian government and military will act in accordance with the constitution and laws,’ he said.
‘We are ready to protect our country.’
Yatsenyuk conceded that Ukraine’s forces were dwarfed by the Russian army but stressed that his country’s troops had the ‘spirit’ to defend themselves.
Putin for his part on Thursday chaired an unscheduled meeting of his national Security Council to discuss the latest developments but issued no further comment.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen had earlier said that the Western military alliance would review its ties with Russia while boosting cooperation with Ukraine.
The US visa bans on targeted Russians and Ukrainians was the latest in a series of moves by the US administration to punish Moscow for what the White House denounced as ‘Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’.
Obama also authorised freezing the assets of officials and individuals involved in ordering Russia’s military manoeuvres in Crimea.
European leaders – split between hawkish Eastern European states and big Western European powers that want to limit the damage to their economic relations with Russia because of reliance on its natural gas – renewed a commitment to sign an EU association accord with Ukraine before it holds snap presidential polls on May 25.
Ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to ditch that pact in November in favour of closer ties with Russia sparked the initial wave of protests in Kiev that led to his regime’s downfall and rise of new pro-EU rulers.
The European bloc agreed after about six hours of tense discussions to suspend visa and economic talks with Russia – a blow for Moscow’s years-long efforts to win open travel rights for Russians.
EU leaders also adopted a statement demanding that Russia enter into negotiations in the next few days to produce ‘results’ on ending the crisis.
‘In the absence of such results the European Union will decide on additional measures, such as travel bans, asset freezes and the cancellation of the EU-Russia summit’ in June.
EU president Herman Van Rompuy dubbed the Ukraine crisis as ‘perhaps the most serious challenge to security on our continent since the Balkans wars’ in the 1990s.