After a period of silence, officials in Moscow have confirmed the movement of Russian military forces into Crimea, in southern Ukraine.
The semi-autonomous peninsula is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and Russian authorities say the move is necessary to protect their ships from unrest in the region. Interfax-Ukraine is reporting that “unidentified soldiers carrying what appear to be Russian equipment and weapons” have taken control of airports in Sevastopol and Simferopol. “There are reports that the air traffic control company Krymaerorukh, which controls the airspace over Crimea, has been seized by soldiers in Russian uniform. There are reports that Russian Black Sea Fleet missile boats are blockading the Ukrainian Coast Guard station in Balaklava Bay,” the site said. “Hosting providers are not answering telephone calls.”
Clashes between pro-Russian activists and pro-Ukrainian Tatars broke out in Crimea several days ago when protesters stormed government buildings and raised the Russian flag.
The move was a reaction to widespread and lengthy protests in Kiev that left nearly 100 people dead and thrust former President Viktor Yanukovych from power. The former leader fled Kiev on Feb. 22 and remained in hiding for several days. His discovery in Russia drew anger from Ukrainians who say he is responsible for the brutal and deadly actions of local riot police, as well as widespread corruption.
The former leader made his first public appearance to reporters in Russia today, defiantly condemning Kiev’s interim government.
Many Ukrainians fear Moscow’s incursion into Crimea, which used to belong to Russia, is only the beginning. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying to lure Ukraine back into its orbit through massive bailout packages and gas deals. The successful revolution near its border is a threat to Moscow’s geopolitical vision and Putin’s authoritarian rule.
Mychaillo Wynnyckyj, a professor from Kiev, said on Facebook that he is concerned about the Russian incursion: “If Russian forces enter there, they may also be invited into Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk. And then Europe will have a Syria on its eastern border.”
Kostya Farkovets lives in Donetsk, northeast of Crimea near Ukraine’s Russian border. He called Moscow’s actions an “outrageous act of armed invasion” in a sovereign state.
“Ukraine’s diplomats have already formally contacted the United States, Great Britain, and Russia as guarantors of our sovereignty per Budapest’s treaty of 1994 when Ukraine gave up its own nuclear weapons to confirm their individual commitments,” Farkovets told me. “The next couple of days and nights are going to be very crucial for Ukraine and unfortunately uneasy for all of us.”
During a late afternoon press conference, U.S. President Barack Obama told reporters at the White House he was very concerned about Russia’s actions. And he had a blunt warning for Putin: “There will be costs” for any military intervention in Ukraine.