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Russian moves raise stakes in Ukraine conflict

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (AP) - Masked gunmen stormed parliament in Ukraine's strategic Crimea region Thursday as Russian fighter jets scrambled to patrol borders, while the newly formed government pledged to prevent a national breakup with strong backing from the West - the stirrings of a potentially dangerous confrontation reminiscent of Cold War brinksmanship.

Moscow granted shelter to Ukraine's fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, state media said. He was said to be holed up in a luxury government retreat and to have scheduled a news conference Friday near the Ukrainian border.

As gunmen wearing unmarked camouflage uniforms erected a sign reading "Crimea is Russia" in the provincial capital, Ukraine's interim prime minister declared the Black Sea territory "has been and will be a part of Ukraine."

The escalating conflict sent Ukraine's finances plummeting further, prompting Western leaders to prepare an emergency financial package.

Yanukovych, whose abandonment of closer ties to Europe in favor of a bailout loan from Russia set off three months of protests, finally fled by helicopter last week as his allies deserted him. The humiliating exit was a severe blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been celebrating his signature Olympics even as Ukraine's drama came to a head. The Russian leader has long dreamed of pulling Ukraine - a country of 46 million people considered the cradle of Russian civilization - closer into Moscow's orbit.

For Ukraine's neighbors, the specter of Ukraine breaking up evoked memories of centuries of bloody conflict.

"Regional conflicts begin this way," said Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, calling the confrontation "a very dangerous game."

Russia has pledged to respect Ukraine's territorial integrity. But the dispatch of Russian fighter jets Thursday to patrol borders and drills by some 150,000 Russian troops - almost the entirety of its force in the western part of the country - signaled strong determination not to lose Ukraine to the West.

Thursday's dramatic developments posed an immediate challenge to Ukraine's new authorities as they named an interim government for the country, whose population is divided in loyalties between Russia and the West. Crimea, which was seized by Russian forces in the 18th century under Catherine the Great, was once the crown jewel in Russian and then Soviet empires.

It only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia - a move that was a mere formality until the 1991 Soviet collapse meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.

In the capital, Kiev, the new prime minister said Ukraine's future lies in the European Union, but with friendly relations with Russia.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, named Thursday in a boisterous parliamentary session, now faces the difficult task of restoring stability in a country that is not only deeply divided politically but on the verge of financial collapse. The 39-year-old served as economy minister, foreign minister and parliamentary speaker before Yanukovych took office in 2010, and is widely viewed as a technocratic reformer who enjoys the support of the U.S.

Shortly before the lawmakers chose him, Yatsenyuk insisted the country wouldn't accept the secession of Crimea. The Black Sea territory, he declared, "has been and will be a part of Ukraine."

In Simferopol, the Crimean regional capital, gunmen toting rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles raised the Russian flag over the local parliament building. They wore black and orange ribbons, a Russian symbol of victory in World War II.

Oleksandr Turchynov, who stepped in as acting president after Yanukovych's flight, condemned the assault as a "crime against the government of Ukraine." He warned that any move by Russian troops off of their base in Crimea "will be considered a military aggression."

"I have given orders to the military to use all methods necessary to protect the citizens, punish the criminals, and to free the buildings," he said.

Experts described a delicate situation in which one sudden move could lead to wider conflict.

"The main concern at this point is that Kiev might decide to intervene by sending law enforcement people to restore constitutional order," said Dmitry Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "That is something that would lead to confrontation and drag the Russians in."

In a bid to shore up Ukraine's fledgling administration, the International Monetary Fund said it was "ready to respond" to Ukraine's bid for financial assistance. The European Union is also considering emergency loans for a country that is the chief conduit of Russian natural gas to western Europe.

IMF chief Christine Lagarde said in the organization's first official statement on Ukraine's crisis that it was in talks with its partners on "how best to help Ukraine at this critical moment in its history." Ukraine's finance ministry has said it needs $35 billion over the next two years to avoid default. Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, dropped to a new record low of 11.25 to the U.S. dollar, a sign of the country's financial distress.

Western leaders lined up to support the new Ukrainian leadership, with the German and British leaders warning Russia not to interfere.

"Every country should respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Ukraine," British Prime Minister David Cameron said after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in London.

NATO defense ministers met in Brussels, and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel emerged appealing for calm.

"These are difficult times," he said, "but these are times for cool, wise leadership on Russia's side and everyone's side."

Yet the prospect of the West luring Ukraine into NATO is the very nightmare that Russia is desperately trying to avoid. Trenin of the Carnegie Center said a Ukraine-NATO courtship "would really raise the alarm levels in Moscow."

Yanukovych declared Thursday in a statement that he remains Ukraine's legitimate president. He was reportedly to hold a news conference Friday in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, not far from the Ukrainian border. A respected Russian news organization said the fugitive leader was staying at the Kremlin-run Barvikha retreat just outside Moscow, though spokesmen for Putin and for the department that runs the resort told The Associated Press they had no information about Yanukovych's whereabouts.

"I have to ask Russia to ensure my personal safety from extremists," Yanukovych's statement read, according to Russian news agencies. Shortly after, an unnamed Russian official was quoted as saying that Yanukovych's request had been granted.

Yanukovych fled after riot police attacked protesters in Kiev's central square in clashes that killed more than 80 people, and European and Russian officials intervened. He has not been seen publicly since Saturday, when he insisted he remained the legitimately elected president - a position backed by Russia. Legal experts say his flight and the appointment of a new government make that stance moot.

On Thursday, the White House said Yanukovych "abdicated his responsibility" and welcomed the Ukrainian parliament's efforts to stabilize the country.

The Russian Foreign Ministry voiced concern about the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine and vowed to protect their interests. Putin on Thursday asked the government to consider providing humanitarian assistance to Crimea.

State-owned ITAR-Tass news agency quoted a statement read at a session of the ministry's board on Thursday, saying that Russia "will have a firm and uncompromising response to violations of the rights of compatriots by foreign states."

In Crimea's capital, a pro-Russian activist who gave only his first name, Maxim, said he and other activists were camped overnight outside the parliament in Simferopol when about 50 men wearing flak jackets and carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers and sniper rifles took over the building.

"Our activists were sitting there all night calmly, building the barricades," he said. "At 5 o'clock unknown men turned up and went to the building. They got into the courtyard and put everyone on the ground."

"They were asking who we were. When we said we stand for the Russian language and Russia, they said: 'Don't be afraid. We're with you.' Then they began to storm the building bringing down the doors," he said. "They didn't look like volunteers or amateurs; they were professionals. This was clearly a well-organized operation."

"Who are they?" he added. "Nobody knows."

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
harry murphy February 27 2014 at 10:29 PM

Any red lines here or will we bury our head in the sands as we have been doing under the present administration.
In retrospect,,,,,,red lines ..... can be crossed with impunity, We are the most powerful paper tiger in the world

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hallegermany1 February 27 2014 at 10:43 PM

What am I to do? What Can I do? What a mess. Hey Hilary...oops, sorry Kerry. What do you think Putin is going to do? Do you think he'll cross the line?

I think he already did Mr President. Just make up a new line and say that the first line was drawn up by McCain. He's a hawk anyway.

Dam, I have to stop using that phrase, it gets me in trouble every time I use it. And then what?

Call Putin and tell him that he needs to have patience so that we can twist this around and make Russia look like the good guys and the westerners the bad guys.

Good. What's his phone #?

Just talk, he's got this room bugged.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
*Antje D & OMax* February 27 2014 at 7:25 PM

46 million Ukrainians should be able to formally express their WISHES as to where a better future may wave at them with open ARMS OF WELL-MEANT WELCOME.--- Let us hope Vladimir Putin is leading the way.---

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odiegood February 27 2014 at 10:49 PM

There is going to be another Crimean War. Just look at the Fighting over that region in the 19th Century. Hopefully, It will not escalate into a World War.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
steve February 27 2014 at 7:25 PM

Who didn't know this would happen?? Obama is seen as a push over by most world leaders. He has done nothing to earn respect. Who is going to show any respect for a world leader that can not lead?
The shi#%$ts is gonna hit the fan, and we are gonna cut the military to shreds so that we can pay for entitlements. Good Plan!!!

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1 reply
eeodjo steve February 27 2014 at 10:57 PM

You should be happy & lucky that Obama is seen as a push over, as you STATED. Otherwise, if he were like your favorite buddy G.W. Bush, you would be in the front line so fast it'll make your head swim and wonder WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?

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williamlevi123 February 27 2014 at 10:49 PM

The next rulers of the region will be NATO, the UN, the IMF, and the Germans. They will rule monetarily.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
izzyis1h February 27 2014 at 6:23 PM

You now have 2 hazards. Putin the Russian empire builder, whose word was never to be trusted or believed who has military forces that like him have no conscience and have demonstrated blood lust. Then you have Obama who is a lying incompetent and also cannot be believed or trusted, the big difference is the U.S. is 6000 miles from the scene [BHO drew a line, where?] and the Russians are right there ready to face European forces who have stronger unions and will not act unless their business agent tells them to.

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1 reply
ramonbatt izzyis1h February 27 2014 at 7:29 PM

You are 100% right on. Putin is the president Viktor is his Vice President. Obama is nobody to Russia. I am wrong. Obama is a joke to Putin. The people of Ukraine will be slaughter under the orders of Putin while the west just watch and wait. I am moving my life long companion and her family to Latin America from Ukraine. It is what is but true! EU can not stop Russia if Russia takes back Ukraine. We are to busy fighting antigay laws in support of religion. Shame on us!

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jamesjake February 27 2014 at 7:23 PM

What great time for us to be cutting back our military!

Flag Reply +2 rate up
Hello, Mary February 27 2014 at 7:22 PM

Another divided country, once again showing the Russian power they like to hide until situations like this arise. I trust Putin as far as I can spit (and I can't do that). His Russia is no different than the old USSR. This crisis will further show the ineffectiveness of NATO, the UN, and our current administration ..... lip service! And no doubt Putin is doubling Russian aid to Syria.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
jjrb1990 February 27 2014 at 11:42 PM

Please, Mr President, stay out of this.

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2 replies
diempostdiem jjrb1990 February 28 2014 at 12:04 AM

Sad Ham Hussein Obama will have America ending up in a spider hole in the end.

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phd jjrb1990 February 28 2014 at 12:10 AM

Relax. Obama is spineless and the whole world knows it. We used to be the shining light on the hill to those enslaved by totalitarian regimes. No more. Not with the apologist Obama and sidekick Kerry destroying our standing in the world. Obama will stay out of it, and by doing so, abandons the Ukrainians to more totalitarian control of their lives. Putin sees Obama as a weak leader, just as the entire world does, except for the syncophant media in the US who think of him as great leader. Gag.....

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2 replies
ERIC phd February 28 2014 at 11:09 AM

Will you offer to fund the war and/or go fight in it? No? Then stop putting Obama down for doing the right thing by staying out of it. There's no reason for us to interfere. Ukraine isn't vital to our interests. I've had it with all these damn wars that we keep getting involved in and I'm even more fed-up with the whole damn world always expecting the U.S. to be the one to do something about situations like these. Enough is enough for Christ sake.

Flag 0 rate up
hynotman phd February 28 2014 at 10:19 PM

Osama b Laden doesn't know it.
Neither does Pakistan.

GWB would have had a major terrorist attack AND a global economic meltdown by now...!

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