Russia’s upper house of parliament voted unanimously Saturday to approve sending Russian military forces into Ukraine, amid mounting tensions in the country’s Crimea region.
The vote followed a request from Russian President Vladimir Putin for approval to send Russian troops into Crimea to normalize the political situation there.
Due to the “extraordinary situation in Ukraine,” Putin said, there are threats to the lives of Russian citizens and Russian military personnel based in the southern Crimean region.
The vote came on the day that the new pro-Russian leader of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, asked Putin for help in maintaining peace in the Black Sea peninsula — where Russia has a major naval base at Sevastopol.
International concerns are mounting that Moscow may intervene militarily in the crisis, despite warnings from the United States and other Western powers that it should respect Ukrainian sovereignty.
In response to Putin’s move, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted: “Russian military intervention in Ukraine is clearly against international law and principles of European security.”
The newly appointed interim government in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, is seeking to prevent tensions in Crimea, which has a majority-Russian population, escalating into a full-blown bid for separation.
Ukraine’s government suspects Moscow of fomenting separatist tensions in the autonomous region — and it has accused Russia of having already sent troops into its territory.
Amid the uncertainty, about 300 gunmen wearing Russian Special Forces uniforms attempted to take over the Sevastopol unit of the Ukrainian Coast Guard, a senior official with the Ukrainian Border Service said Saturday.
The gunmen were positioned outside the Ukrainian Coast Guard building, with local residents standing between the two sides, said Col. Sergii Astakhov, assistant to the chief of the Ukrainian Border Service.
The residents are reportedly trying to negotiate and asking the gunmen not to attack, Astakhov said.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Coast Guard has moved its ships away from the immediate coastline, and they are being approached by three motorboats and one cruiser from the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Astakhov said.
‘Limited’ Russian force
A senior Russian lawmaker said Saturday that Russia could send a “limited” armed force to Crimea to ensure the security of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol and Russian citizens living there, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti said.
But the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, Valentina Matviyenko, acknowledged that “this decision surely rests with our President, the supreme commander-in-chief.”
Aksyonov, who was installed as the region’s premier after armed men took over the Crimean parliament building Thursday, said security forces “are unable to efficiently control the situation in the republic,” in comments broadcast on Russian state channel Russia 24.
Consequently, he said, he was taking charge of security and asking Russia for assistance. His actions are also a response to Kiev’s actions in appointing a new police chief in Crimea without consulting the parliament, he said.
Aksyonov said Saturday that the date for a referendum on greater Crimean autonomy would be moved up from May 25 to March 30.
A Kremlin spokesman had said Russia “will not disregard” Aksyonov’s request for help “in maintaining peace and accord in Crimea.”
The crisis in Crimea has echoed round the world, with the U.N. Security Council president holding a private meeting about the crisis enveloping Ukraine on Friday and world leaders calling on armed groups not to attempt to challenge Ukrainian sovereignty.