Ukraine tells Russia to back off as secession fears deepen

Posted at 6:40 AM, Feb 28, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-28 06:43:26-05

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (CNN) — Men in military uniforms patrolled the main airport in Ukraine’s Russian-majority Crimea region Friday, a move that Ukraine’s Interior Minister called part of an “armed invasion” by Russian forces.

Around noon Friday, the armed men still stood guard outside the Simferopol airport. Airport operations did not appear affected.

“We are checking to make sure that no radicals come to Crimea from Kiev, from the Ukraine,” said one man, who didn’t give his name.

“We don’t want radicals, we don’t want fascism, we don’t want problems.”

Avakov claimed that armed men were also blocking a military airbase, in Sevastopol, and said they were troops from Russia’s Black Sea fleet, stationed in the port city. They were camouflaged in uniforms without military insignia, he said.

Writing on his Facebook page, Avakov said Russia’s actions were “an armed invasion and occupation,” and “a direct military provocation on sovereign Ukrainian territory.”

Concerned, Ukraine’s parliament voted through a resolution that demanded that Russia halt any activity which can be interpreted as an attack.

Russia did not react to Ukraine’s latest allegations.

But it continued snap military exercises on Ukraine’s doorstep.

A house divided

Ever since President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted Saturday, Ukraine has been showing a deepening schism:

Those in the west generally support the country’s interim government and its tilt toward the European Union.

And many in the east prefer things as they were — a Ukraine where its larger neighbor, Russia, casts a long shadow.

And nowhere is that feeling more intense than in Crimea. It’s the last big bastion of opposition to the new political leadership. And Ukraine suspects Russia of fomenting tension in the autonomous region — tension that might escalate into a bid for separation by its Russian majority.

Ousted President to speak

Yanukovych, who has not been seen since his ouster, is now in Russia, where authorities have accepted his request for security, according to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency. It attributed the information to anonymous government sources.

He is expected to give a news conference Friday in the southwestern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, near the border with Ukraine.

He has already rejected Ukraine’s newly appointed unity government, saying he is still the country’s legitimate elected leader, so his reappearance may only fuel the rising tensions in Crimea.

Voting out the premier

On Thursday, dozens of armed men seized government administration buildings in Simferopol, the Crimean capital. They planted Russia’s flag atop the parliament building.

Then, in a vote of no-confidence, pro-Russian members of the Crimean parliament dismissed the government of Premier Anatolii Mohyliov, who was perceived as pro-Kiev.

The lawmakers also scheduled a referendum on greater autonomy for the region within Ukrainian territory.

The date of the referendum? May 25 — the day Ukraine is scheduled to hold its presidential and local elections.

Amid the dizzying developments, Kiev has gone about its business of governing.

On Thursday, lawmakers approved opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk as Prime Minister. He made clear that he believes the country’s future rests in closer ties to Europe, not Russia.

Russian maneuvers

As tensions simmer in the Crimea, Russia alarmed some observers by announcing surprise military exercises Wednesday in its western and central areas.

Those continue Friday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said, with more than 80 combat helicopters set to take to the skies in Russia’s Western Military District, which borders Ukraine, for search and rescue drills.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday against provocations by any party.

“I’m closely watching Russia’s military exercises along the Ukrainian border,” he said. “I expect Russia to be transparent about these activities, and I urge them not to take any steps that could be misinterpreted or lead to miscalculations.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had told him the snap military exercises were pre-scheduled and unrelated to the events in Ukraine.

He also said Lavrov had reaffirmed to him a commitment that Russia would “respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Kerry said that was a commitment Russian President Vladimir Putin had previously made to President Barack Obama when they spoke last week.

Crimea was handed to Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954. Just over half its population is ethnic Russian, while about a quarter are Ukrainians and a little more than 10% are Crimean Tatars, a predominantly Muslim group oppressed under former Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

CNN’s Victoria Eastwood and Diana Magnay reported from Simferopol, Ingrid Formanek from Kiev and Fred Pleitgen from Moscow. Laura Smith-Spark wrote from London. Journalist Azad Safarov and CNN’s Alla Eshchenko contributed to this report.

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