WASHINGTON/KIEV, March 1 (RIA Novosti) – US President Barack Obama signaled his administration’s alarm Friday at indications of military movements by Russian troops inside Ukraine’s region of Crimea and warned Moscow that there would be costs for any armed intervention.
International media earlier in the day reported Russian troops entering Crimea, and soldiers identified as being with the Russian armed forces stationed on the peninsula blockaded at least one airport, which nonetheless appeared to still be operating.
Obama said he was “deeply concerned” by reports of Russian troop movements inside Crimea.
“Russia has a historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties, and a military facility in Crimea,” Obama told reporters in Washington. “But any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe.”
Obama said the United States would stand with the international community “in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.”
Moscow’s envoy to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said Friday that Russia was operating in Crimea within the terms of a lease agreement for its Black Sea Fleet.
"We have an agreement with Ukraine on basing of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, and we operate under this agreement," Churkin said, speaking after an informal emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.
Ukraine’s parliament had requested the emergency meeting at the Security Council to monitor the situation in Crimea and for action to be taken in the event of the country’s sovereignty being violated.
Beyond serving as the strategic location of Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet base, Crimea is home to a large ethnic Russian community, which has reacted with alarm to what it sees as the aggressively nationalistic government that has taken hold since last month’s overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Crimea’s ties with Russia go back a long way.
Until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 transferred the territory to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Crimea was officially a part of Russia.
Further complicating matters, around one-tenth of the peninsula’s population is comprised of traditionally Muslim ethnic Tatars, who have made a public show of coming out in support of the interim government.
A tense standoff between crowds of ethnic Russians and Tatars outside the Crimean parliament, in the administrative center of Simferopol, degenerated on Wednesday into scuffles, during which at least two people died. A day later, unidentified gunmen occupied the parliament and hoisted a Russian flag on the roof.
Numerous Russian public figures, apparently with blessing of authorities in Moscow, have traveled to Crimea to voice their support for their ethnic kinfolk, many of whom have openly voiced a desire for the peninsula to break away from Ukraine and merge with Russia.
A proposal presented to Ukraine’s parliament that has aroused much indignation among Ukraine’s ethnic Russians, who also live in large quantities in the country’s east, would downgrade the status of the Russian language. That plan is seen by many as an attempt to marginalize Russians from public life.
But Ukraine’s UNIAN news agency cited an interview with a representative for acting President Oleksandr Turchinov as saying that proposal would be vetoed, a move that could serve to substantially lower tensions and appease Moscow, which had voiced objections.
Beyond the still uncertain security situation, the incoming government headed by 39-year old Arseny Yatsenyuk must confront the profound economic crisis in which the country is steeped.
Yatsenyuk has admitted that painful reforms will be needed to lead the country away from total economic collapse and secure the foreign loans it very much needs.
Incoming authorities have asked Western powers to provide at least $35 billion in urgent financial aid amid a funds crisis exacerbated by Russia’s likely decision to stop payments of a $15 billion loan package promised to Ukraine last year.
So far, the government has received tentative offers of financial support from the United States and the European Union.
Despite unwillingness by Moscow so far to recognize the interim Ukrainian government, the Kremlin has seemingly shown willingness to join in transnational efforts to help its western neighbor.
A perfunctory statement issued late Thursday night by the Kremlin reported that President Vladimir Putin had instructed the government to hold consultations with foreign partners, including the International Monetary Fund and G8 nations, on organizing financial aid for Ukraine.