Political tension grows in Ukraine's Crimea region
POSTED: Friday, February 28, 2014 - 4:52pm
UPDATED: Saturday, March 1, 2014 - 10:54am
Political tension roiled in Ukraine's Crimea region Friday, as U.S. officials received assurances that Russian military activities there were routine and not intended as a threat to Ukraine sovereignty.
At the same time, Ukrainian officials grappled with rising secessionist passions in the Russian-majority region and faced major disruptions to airport and communications services.
The region's airspace was closed Friday. Further, the government accused Russian Black Sea forces of trying to seize two airports in Crimea but said Ukrainian security forces had prevented them from taking control.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Western leaders Friday he wanted normalcy in Ukraine and no further violence.
Ukraine Interior Minister Arsen Avakov earlier characterized the presence of the unidentified armed men, who wore uniforms without insignia, as an "armed invasion."
Ukraine's largest telecom firm was unable to provide data and voice connectivity between Crimea and the rest of Ukraine because unknown people seized telecommunications nodes and destroyed cables, it said Friday. There is almost no phone connectivity or Internet service across Crimea, said Ukrtelecom, which is the only landline provider.
The series of events unfolded after ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych gave a defiant performance earlier in the day, insisting he remained his country's legitimate elected leader and was not giving up.
The crisis echoed throughout the world, with the White House saying it held deep concerns and the U.N. Security Council president holding a private meeting about the country.
At a press conference outside the U.N. Security Council, Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.N. Yuriy Sergeyev said the country was prepared to defend itself and urged the U.N.'s moral and political support for the Kiev government, particularly in Crimea.
U.N. officials should speak with Russian delegates and urge them to support the Ukrainian government.
"We still have a chance to stop the negative developments and separatism," Sergeyev said. "I think we are strong enough to defend ourselves.
"We have a spiritual feeling that we are right in what we are doing," he added.
Kerry talks to Russian foreign minister
The Russian Foreign Ministry said maneuvers of armored vehicles from the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea were needed for security and were in line with bilateral agreements.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday morning about the airport and military activities, and Lavrov told Kerry that the Russians "are not engaging in any violation of the sovereignty" of Ukraine. Russia has a military base agreement with the country.
Lavrov told him the military exercises were prescheduled and unrelated to the events in Ukraine, Kerry said.
"I nevertheless made it clear that that could be misinterpreted at the moment,'' Kerry said, "and there are enough tensions that it is important for everybody to be extremely careful not to inflame the situation and send the wrong messages."
Sergeyev accused Russia on Friday of making a "permanent invasion in our domestic affairs," saying "this group is making a serious mistake challenging our territorial integrity." He also said Russian forces in Crimea had blocked Ukrainian security forces, including its border guards, police and others.
Yanukovych's news conference was under way in Russia, Kerry said, as he spoke with Lavrov.
Kerry said Lavrov had reaffirmed to him a commitment that Russia would "respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine."
Kerry urged calm from all parties.
"We would overwhelmingly stress today that we urge all parties -- all parties; that includes the new interim technical government, rightists, oppositionists and others, anybody in the street who is armed -- we urge all parties to avoid any steps that could be misinterpreted or lead to miscalculation or do anything other than to work to bring that peace and stability and peaceful transition within the governing process within Ukraine," he said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the United States is looking to see whether Russia is doing anything that would cross the line in Ukraine, adding there is "deep concern" about developments in Crimea.
Carney would not say what the U.S. options would be if Russia intervenes.
In a telephone call with European leaders, Putin stressed the importance of avoiding a further escalation of violence in Ukraine, the Kremlin said in a prepared statement Friday.
Putin also called for a normalization of the situation, speaking with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, according to the Kremlin.
Crimea was handed to Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954. Just over half its population is ethnic Russian, while about a quarter are Ukrainians and a little more than 10% are Crimean Tatars, a predominantly Muslim group oppressed under former Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
Meanwhile, Russian lawmakers introduced two bills Friday to simplify annexing new territories into the Russian Federation and simplify access to Russian citizenship for Ukrainians, the state news agency Itar Tass said.
One bill also stipulates that the accession of a part of a foreign state to Russia should be taken through a referendum, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
In Crimea, which is in political turmoil, the region's airspace was closed Friday, prohibiting any plane from taking off or landing, the head of the Crimean capital airport said. The order came from authorities in Kiev without any further explanation, said Yevgeniy Plaksin, director of the international airport in Simferopol. Plaksin didn't know how long the restrictions would last.
At the United Nations, the president of the U.N. Security Council was scheduled to hold a private council meeting in connection to a letter from Ukraine's representative, and that meeting was to be followed by "informal consultations of the whole" on the matter, the president said in a prepared statement.
Ukraine's President in Russia
Making his first public appearance since his ouster Saturday, Yanukovych said the newly appointed interim government was not legitimate and did not represent the majority of Ukraine's 45 million citizens. His press conference last more than an hour.
"I intend to continue the fight for the future of Ukraine against those who, with fear and with terror, are attempting to replace the power," Yanukovych said in Russian, not Ukrainian.
"Nobody has overthrown me. I was compelled to leave Ukraine due to a direct threat to my life and my nearest and dearest."
In his speech, Yanukovych accused the interim authorities in Ukraine of propagating violence. He spoke against a backdrop of Ukraine's blue-and-yellow flags before reporters in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don about 700 miles south of Moscow.
He blamed them for last week's bloodshed in which dozens of protesters died in clashes with security forces.
"I never gave any orders to shoot," he said, adding that he sought peace and that the security forces took up arms only when their lives were at risk.
He said Western powers -- including the United States -- that helped broker an unimplemented deal between his government and the opposition for early elections also bore responsibility for the situation.
Yanukovych is wanted in Ukraine on charges connected to the deaths of demonstrators.
He insisted he had not fled Ukraine but had left after he was "shot at virtually from all sides" while traveling within the country after leaving Kiev.
And he said he was "ashamed" he had not been able to maintain stability in his country.
Yanukovych said he had spoken with Putin by phone but had not met with him.
He will not ask for Russian military support to return him to power, he said. But he said he was "surprised" that Putin had remained silent so far on the events unfolding in Russia's western neighbor.
Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, told CNN the fact that Yanukovych was not in Moscow and had not met with Putin suggested he might not be in high standing with the Russian leader at present.
Asked how he intended to fight for Ukraine's future from outside its borders, Yanukovych did not give a clear response, but said he would return to Ukraine once his safety could be guaranteed.
Yanukovych's decision to scrap a European Union trade deal in favor of one with Russia prompted the protests that led to his toppling.
Armed men at airports
Back in Kiev, Andrii Parubii, chief of national security and defense, said Ukrainian military and police forces had stopped Russian military forces from seizing two airports in the Crimean region.
The Russian military is on the outside of both airports, Parubii said in a televised news conference from the Ukrainian parliament.
Weapons were not used during the operation, said Avakov, the interior minister.
Russian armored vehicles were moving toward Simferopol on Friday, the Ukrainian news outlet TSN reported.
A CNN team in Crimea reported seeing the Ukrainian flag flying on top of an air traffic control tower in Ukromnoye, near the main Simferopol airport.
The men in military uniforms had been seen patrolling the airport in the regional capital, Simferopol, as well as a military and civilian airbase in nearby Sevastopol since early Friday.
Avakov said the armed men at the Sevastopol air base were troops from Russia's Black Sea Fleet, stationed in the port city. They were in camouflage uniforms without military insignia, he said.
Writing on Facebook, Avakov called Russia's actions "an armed invasion and occupation" and "a direct military provocation on sovereign Ukrainian territory."
The presence of the armed men has not affected the Simferopol airport, civil aviation authorities said.
"We are checking to make sure that no radicals come to Crimea from Kiev, from the Ukraine," said one man outside the airport, who didn't give his name. "We don't want radicals, we don't want fascism, we don't want problems."
Other men outside the airport, dressed in black rather than military fatigues, said they belonged to the pro-Russia Unity Party and had come on orders of the new Crimean administration -- voted in Thursday after armed men seized regional government buildings.
Concerned about the latest developments, Ukraine's parliament passed a resolution Friday that demanded Russia halt any activity that can be interpreted as an attack on its sovereignty.
Meanwhile, Russia continued snap military exercises on Ukraine's doorstep.
Moscow alarmed some observers by announcing the surprise military exercises Wednesday in its western and central areas.
Those continue Friday, Russia's Defense Ministry said, with more than 80 combat helicopters set to take to the skies in Russia's Western Military District, which borders Ukraine, for search and rescue drills.
A house divided
Ever since Yanukovych's ouster, Ukraine has faced a deepening schism, with those in the west generally supporting the interim government and its European Union tilt, while many in the east prefer a Ukraine where Russia casts a long shadow.
Nowhere is that feeling more intense than in Crimea, the last big bastion of opposition to the new political leadership. And Ukraine suspects Russia of fomenting tension in the autonomous region that might escalate into a bid for separation by its Russian majority.
In Crimea, government administration buildings in Simferopol remained under siege Friday, a day after armed men stormed in and planted Russia's flag atop the parliament building.
On Thursday, in a vote of no confidence, pro-Russian members of the Crimean parliament dismissed the government of Premier Anatolii Mohyliov, who was perceived as pro-Kiev.
The lawmakers also scheduled a referendum on greater autonomy for the region within Ukrainian territory.
The date of the referendum is May 25, when Ukraine is set to hold presidential and local elections.
On Thursday, lawmakers in Kiev approved opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk as Prime Minister. He made clear he believes the country's future rests in closer ties to Europe, not Russia.
Assets frozen in Switzerland, Austria
Ukrainian media have alleged corruption by Yanukovych, citing evidence found in the lavish residence he abandoned.
The Swiss government said Friday it was freezing assets in Switzerland that belong to Yanukovych and his entourage to avoid any potential embezzlement of Ukrainian public funds.
If the funds are found to have been amassed illegally, they can be returned to Ukraine after any criminal conviction of Yanukovych and his entourage, it said. The 20 people named by Switzerland include Yanukovych, his son Oleksandr and former government ministers, including ex-Prime Minister Mykola Azarov.
Austria's Foreign Ministry said it was also freezing the accounts of 18 Ukrainian nationals at the request of Ukraine's new authorities, with "the backdrop of possible human rights abuses during the bloody power struggle in Ukraine and because of possible corruption."
Yanukovych said at Friday's news conference he had no money, bank accounts or other assets overseas.
-- CNN's Victoria Eastwood, Diana Magnay and Nadjie Femi reported from Simferopol, Ukraine, Ingrid Formanek from Kiev and Frederik Pleitgen from Moscow. Michael Martinez wrote from Atlanta. Journalist Azad Safarov and CNN's Alla Eshchenko, Laura Smith-Spark and Richard Allen Greene contributed to this report.
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