Ukraine mobilised for war on Sunday and Washington threatened to isolate Russia economically, after President Vladimir Putin declared he had the right to invade his neighbour in Moscow’s biggest confrontation with the West since the Cold War.
“This is not a threat: this is actually the declaration of war to my country,” Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, head of a pro-Western government that took power when Russian ally Viktor Yanukovych fled last week, said.
Putin secured permission from his parliament on Saturday to use military force to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine and told US President Barack Obama he had the right to defend Russian interests and nationals.
Russian forces have already bloodlessly seized Crimea — an isolated Black Sea peninsula where Moscow has a naval base.
On Sunday they surrounded several small Ukrainian military outposts there and demanded the Ukrainian troops disarm. Some refused, leading to standoffs, although no shots were fired.
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All eyes are now on whether Russia makes a military move in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow demonstrators have raised Russian flags over public buildings in several cities.
Russia has staged war games with 1.5 lakh troops along the land border, but so far they have not crossed. Ukraine’s security council has ordered all armed forces on highest alert. However, Kiev’s small and under-equipped military is seen as no match for Russia’s superpower might.
US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Russia for what he called an “incredible act of aggression” and threatened “very serious repercussions”. “You don’t just, in the 21st century, behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext,” Kerry told CBS programme Face the Nation.
Kerry said Moscow still had a “right set of choices” to defuse the crisis. Otherwise, G8 countries and other nations were prepared to “to go to the hilt to isolate Russia”.
“They are prepared to isolate Russia economically. The rouble is already going down. Russia has major economic challenges,” he said. He mentioned visa bans, asset freezes and trade isolation.
Ukraine’s envoy to the United Nations said Kiev would ask for international military support if Russia expanded its military action in his country.
The new government announced it had fired the head of the navy and launched a treason case against him for surrendering Ukraine’s naval headquarters to Russian forces in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.
Obama spoke to Putin for 90 minutes by telephone on Saturday after the Russian leader declared he had the right to intervene and secured a unanimous yes vote from his parliament. The Kremlin said Putin told Obama Russian speakers were under threat from Ukraine’s new leaders. Putin’s justification — the need to protect Russian citizens — was the same as he used to launch a 2008 invasion of Georgia, where Russian forces seized two breakaway regions.
Ukraine, which says it has no intention of threatening Russian speakers, has appealed for help to NATO, and directly to Britain and the United States, as co-signatories with Moscow to a 1994 accord guaranteeing Ukraine’s security.
Washington has proposed sending monitors to Ukraine under the flags of the United Nations or Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, where Moscow has a veto.
So far, the Western response has been largely symbolic. Obama and others suspended preparations for a G8 summit in Sochi. Some countries recalled ambassadors. Britain said its ministers would stay away from the Paralympics due next in Sochi.