KIEV, Ukraine – As tensions rose in Crimea with the takeover of government buildings Thursday by armed pro-Russian groups, news agencies reported from Moscow that ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has asked for and received a security guarantee from Russia.
The armed men seized the local parliament and the regional government headquarters early Thursday in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s Crimea region, barricading themselves inside both buildings and raising Russian flags, according to Ukraine’s new interior minister.
“Obviously, the people in southeastern Ukraine and Crimea are refusing to accept the anarchy and actual lawlessness in the country where ministers are elected by the mob on a square,” Yanukovych said in a statement distributed to Russian news organizations Thursday. He was referring to the selection of a new Ukrainian cabinet in Kiev, after interim authorities had conferred with a self-organized council of protesters at Independence Square, popularly known as the Maidan.
Yanukovych still considers himself the rightful president of Ukraine, according to his statement, and believes that his opponents have violated a deal reached last Friday that would have allowed him to remain in office until a presidential election could be held in December.
Over the weekend, after he fled Kiev, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove him from office and scheduled elections for May 25.
In his statement, Yanukovych said the current government is illegitimate, and he called on the Ukrainian military to resist any orders to interfere in pro-Russian protests in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a leader of the Kiev protests who was approved by parliament Thursday as Ukraine’s new prime minister, told reporters that Yanukovych is not the president.
“He is no longer president. He is a wanted person who is suspected of mass murder, a crime against humanity,” Yatsenyuk said.
Yanukovych’s whereabouts were not clear, though a Russian newspaper, RBK, reported Wednesday that he had arrived in Moscow the day before.
A Ukrainian news Web site, lb.ua, also reported that it had spoken with a witness who saw Yanukovych in Moscow, at the Ukraine Hotel, on Tuesday. With him, it said, were the former interior minister, Vitaliy Zakharchenko, and the former chief prosecutor of Ukraine, Viktor Pshonka.
Russian wire services quoted unidentified government spokesmen as saying that Yanukovych’s security would be guaranteed as long as he is on Russian soil.
Ukrainian authorities want him tried by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and have put him on a wanted list for charges of “mass murder.” Almost 90 people were killed last week in clashes between protesters and police during a crackdown by Yanukovych’s government. Russia apparently intends not to comply with any Ukrainian request to turn him over — if in fact he is in Russia now.
“I officially declare my determination to fight until the end for the implementation of the important compromise agreements concerning the Ukrainian recovery from the profound political crisis,” Yanukovych said.
In Simferopol, the armed men who took over the parliament and regional headquarters of Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea before dawn were reported to be wearing plain uniforms without designating marks. The Interfax news agency quoted a local authority as saying the men were from a Crimean self-defense group. Local reporters said the men threw flash grenades at them.
A few thousand protesters gathered outside the regional parliament building in support of the armed men.
The mood was defiant, at times celebratory. The protesters were organized into so-called self-defense militias, whose leaders said they oppose decrees from Kiev. They denounced the actions of the new government as illegal, and while they did not demand a return of ousted president Yanukovych, they called the new leaders in Kiev “bandits” and “hooligans.”
The protesters said they were there to assert their rights to remain allied with Russia and to continue to speak Russian.
The militias were associated with the political group called the Russian Bloc, which wants to maintain close ties with Moscow. Many were from Sevastopol, one of the most Russian cities in Ukraine and the home port for Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet.
A hastily constructed barricade blocked the front doors to the parliament. National police formed a cordon around the building but did not brandish shields or batons.
There was no word from the men inside, who were assumed to be pro-Russia militiamen.
Asked what he thought would happen next, a Russian Bloc politician from Sevastopol, Gennadiy Basov, said, “I have no idea.”
Basov said the pro-Russia militias in Crimea “are prepared to defend our homes and families” from any forces sent from the central government in Kiev.
“Everything coming out of Kiev is illegal,” Basov said.
In the Ukrainian capital, Arsen Avakov, the interim interior minister, said: “Measures have been taken to counter extremist actions and not allow the situation to escalate into an armed confrontation” in the centre of Simferopol. Avakov, whose responsibilities include state security, said the occupied buildings were being sealed off by police.
Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s interim president, warned Moscow that any movement of military personnel off Russia’s leased Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol “will be viewed as military aggression.”
Speaking in the Verkhovna Rada, or parliament, on Thursday, he said, “Ukrainian enemies should not try to destabilize the situation, should not encroach on our independence, sovereignty and territory.”
Then, following three months of protests during which opponents of Yanukovych occupied public buildings in Kiev and in cities across Ukraine, Turchynov declared: “Any attempts to seize administrative buildings will be viewed as a crime against the Ukrainian state.”
In a public statement Thursday before a closed-door meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, alliance Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was “extremely concerned about the most recent developments in Crimea.”
Calling “this morning’s action by an armed group . . . dangerous and irresponsible,” Rasmussen said: “I urge Russia not to take any action that could create misunderstanding and . . . all parties to step back from confrontation, refrain from provocative actions and return to the path of dialogue.”
The alliance later urged Russia “not to take any action that could create misunderstanding.”
In a series of statements, NATO has tried simultaneously to warn Russia not to intervene in Ukraine while insisting that there is no indication it intends to.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he was “arranging a call” to his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in light of the pro-Russia demonstrations in Crimea and an announcement of Russian military exercises on the Ukrainian border.
“It’s a time for very cool, wise leadership, on the Russian side and on everybody’s side,” Hagel said in a news conference. “Yes, we’re concerned, and we will continue to talk to our Russian counterparts about what their motives are.”
Rasmussen said the alliance has “no information indicating Russia has any plans to intervene militarily.” He added, “Having said that, obviously, it doesn’t make things easier that there is a coincidence between the timing of this exercise and the ongoing events in the Ukraine.” He noted, however, that NATO had been informed of the exercises and said the Russians had “lived up to all their obligations as regards transparency.”
Rasmussen also said that Ukraine, whose acting defense minister met with NATO Thursday morning, has not requested any alliance assistance.
The takeover of government buildings in Simferopol, which brought tensions in Crimea to a new high, came after Moscow ordered surprise military exercises in a district bordering Ukraine and put troops in the region on high alert.
The developments stoked concerns about divided loyalties in Ukraine and raised the question of Russian military intervention, which Secretary of State John F. Kerry said would be a “grave mistake.” Russia insisted that the exercises were routine.
While the demonstrations have quieted in Kiev — the protest council called on members of “self-defense” groups to remove their ski masks and put down their weapons — they are just beginning in Crimea. In Simferopol, pro-Russia demonstrators clashed Wednesday with thousands of Muslim Tatars who were rallying in support of the interim pro-Europe government in Kiev.
Police mostly succeeded in keeping the two sides apart, though fists flew as the two groups staged dueling rallies outside the regional parliament. A dozen people were injured Wednesday, and one elderly man died of a heart attack at the demonstration.
The Tatars, who as a people were deported to Asia by Joseph Stalin after World War II and who returned to their ancestral homeland only in the 1980s, are Russian-speakers who strongly oppose the idea of joining Russia.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, there were some signs of reconciliation. In the fervently anti-Yanukovych city of Lviv, in the Ukrainian-speaking west, activists organized a campaign Wednesday to have everyone there speak Russian for the day. In Odessa and in Donetsk, Yanukovych’s home town, there was a move to have residents and businesses use only Ukrainian for a day.
The most independent television company in the country, Channel 5, which came to be identified with the protests, announced that it will now present the evening news in Russian.
The country’s interim authorities presented their list of nominees Wednesday for a new cabinet headed by Yatsenyuk, one of the three political leaders who helped maintain the protest movement over the course of the past three months. Neither of the other two — Vitali Klitschko, a former boxing champion who is running for president in the May election, or Oleh Tiahnybok, a member of the nationalist All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda” party — was on the list.
The roster was approved in consultations with a self-organized council of protesters from the Maidan but was greeted with little enthusiasm by the thousands gathered there.
“Too many politicians. We don’t trust anyone,” said Svetlana Kravtsova, 50. “We need to see real people.”
Parliament confirmed the list Thursday. The move came amid concerted efforts to secure foreign aid, with the Ukrainian currency dipping to a new low.
Military drills at issue
Moscow’s military exercises — which, intentionally or not, are a stark reminder of Russia’s armed power — were announced by Defense Minister Shoigu. He said the maneuvers were not related to Ukraine’s turmoil but were ordered by President Vladimir Putin to check preparedness “for action in crisis situations that threaten the nation’s military security.”
The exercises, due to start Friday and last four days, will also involve elements of the Russian navy and air force, Shoigu said. Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet is at a leased base in Sevastopol’s deep-water harbor.
Russia has held at least six such snap exercises in the past year to test readiness, the RIA Novosti news agency said.
The exercises, Shoigu said, involve the western military district, which abuts Ukraine’s northeastern border, and units of the central district, which covers a vast swath across the middle of Russia. The district closest to Crimea is not involved.
Russian officials have said their country has no intention of intervening militarily in Ukraine. Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said Wednesday that intervention was out of the question.
In a brief news conference in Brussels on Wednesday, Rasmussen made no direct mention of the Russian exercises but said, “We take it for granted that all nations respect the sovereignty and independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and this is a message that we have also conveyed to whom it may concern.” He made the remarks as NATO defense ministers assembled for a scheduled meeting.
Although Ukraine has not sought NATO membership, it has long cooperated with the alliance’s operations, sending troops to Bosnia and Afghanistan and participating in NATO anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.
Ukraine’s acting defense minister is expected to attend a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission on Thursday.
A city loyal to Russia
Sevastopol embraced news of the Russian military exercises and took them as a sign of sabre-rattling and support.
Sevastopol looks, sounds and feels like a little corner of Russia, and activists here have declared that it will remain that way, no matter what happens in the rest of Ukraine.
“We have our Russian language, Russian heroes and Russian culture,” said Valeriy Bespalko, who stood in the drizzling rain earlier in the day to support the city’s new de facto mayor, who is a Russian, not Ukrainian, citizen and who took over City Hall two days ago.
Hours after the new Ukrainian interior minister announced Wednesday that he would disband the elite police force that spearheaded most of the attacks on protesters in Kiev last week, its members were offered sanctuary here in Crimea, further stoking concerns about divided loyalties and old schisms in turbulent Ukraine.
“These people adequately fulfilled their duty to the country and have shown themselves to be real men,” said Alexey Chaly, the new head of the Coordinating Council of Sevastopol.
Chaly said the police unit had been “abandoned to the mercy of this rabid pack of Nazis,” a reference to the protesters in Kiev.
“At this difficult time, our city needs decent men who could form the basis of self-defense groups and, in the future, the municipal police. We are ready to provide for them if they join us in our struggle, and to offer safety to their families,” he said in a post on his Facebook page.
The special police unit, known as the “Berkut,” was reviled by the protesters in Kiev after attacks that included the use of live ammunition. Dismantling such units can be difficult business. A similar outfit, the Latvia OMON, was disbanded in 1991, and its members became the backbone of organized crime in St. Petersburg.
Re-published with permission.