US president says he is “deeply concerned” by Russian troop movements in Crimea and warns of “costs” of intervention.
Speaking on Friday, Obama said he was “deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine”, after the ouster of Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich.
“The US will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine,” Obama said in the White House briefing room.
Tensions between the Cold War rivals soared after reports that 2,000 troops were airborne to a military airbase near the regional capital of the restive Crimean peninsula, which Ukraine’s central government deems an occupation and military aggression.
Government buildings, including two airports, in the semi-autonomous Crimea region, which has a majority of ethnic Russians, have had the Russian navy flag marking their roofs after pro-Kremlin armed men took control late Thursday.
Obama and other world leaders are looking into “possible repercussions” if Russia were to militarily intervene in Ukraine, a former member of the dissolved Soviet union, Al Jazeera’s Rosiland Jordan reported from Washington DC, quoting a White House official.
“There are no discussions, so far, of a military response, as it is hoped that the crisis would be solved through words and no weapons,” she added.
But as Russia denies any wrongdoing, the crisis is unlikely to ease.
“You all know we have an agreement with Ukraine on the presence of the Russian Black Sea fleet with a base in Sevastopol, and we are acting within the framework of that agreement,” Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said on Friday.
He made the statement after a closed-door UN Security Council emergency session which was called for by Kiev’s new government to discuss developments in Crimea.
“The best way to resolve the crisis is to look hard again at the February 21 agreement,” Churkin said. “They need to have a constitutional dialogue and process of forming a new constitution. They need to refrain from conducting a hasty presidential election which most likely will create more friction within the country. They need to stop trying to intimidate other regions and other political forces.”
Ukraine’s new government, which came to power after the ousting of Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovich, has called for fresh presidential elections on May 25.
Grappling with an enormous economic crisis, Ukraine’s newly formed government’s woes snowballed at signs of defiance from the Crimean government and parliament, which still sees Yanukovich as its president.
The Crimean parliament agreed that a referendum on the region’s status will also take place on May 25.
“The fear among politicians here in Kiev is that Russia is now embarked on an annexation of Crimea.” Whether its takes place over the coming days or in a war of attrition, they can see part of their country possibly slipping away from their control,” Al Jazeera’s Tim Friend said.
Oleksander Turchinov, Ukraine’s acting president, accused Russia of following a similar scenario to the one before it went to war with Georgia in 2008 over the breakaway Akhazia region which has a large ethnic Russian population.
Describing the troop deployments as Russian “provocations”, he said “they are working on scenarios which are fully analogous with Abkhazia, when having initiated a military conflict, they started to annex the territory,” he said in televised comments.
Armed men in unidentified military uniforms have moved in on Crimea’s parliament, state television building and telecommunication centres. They have also been patrolling airports in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, and Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based.
On Friday, Russian armoured vehicles and helicopters were also seen in and around Simferopol and Sevastopol.
Flights from and to Simferopol were cancelled with airlines saying airspace over the peninsula had been closed.
However, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said that any Russian military movements in Crimea were within Moscow’s long-standing arrangement with Ukraine on the deployment of military assets.
“We are acting within the framework of that agreement,” he said, after a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council.
He did not give details of any Russian military deployment.
The Kremlin said President Putin had spoken of the “extreme importance of not allowing a further escalation of violence” during telephone conversations with Western leaders.
On Friday, Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych made his first public appearance since being ousted from office a week ago.
Speaking in Russia, he apologised for not “having enough strength to keep stability” in Ukraine and called his usurpers “young, neo-fascist thugs”.
Mr Yanukovych said he would “continue to struggle for the future of Ukraine”, but said he would only return if his safety could be guaranteed.
Ukraine has started procedures demanding his extradition.
Mr Yanukovych is wanted on suspicion of mass murder following violent clashes between police and protesters last week that left more than 80 dead.
Ukraine’s political crisis began in November when Mr Yanukovych rejected a trade deal with the EU in favour of a similar agreement with Russia.
The move brought thousands of Western-leaning protesters out on to the streets calling for his resignation and closer ties with the EU.
Since he was deposed, tensions have shifted to Crimea where the majority of the population are ethnic Russians.