The prospect of a full-scale Russian military intervention in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula mounted on Saturday, as the region’s new prime minister asked for Vladimir Putin’s assistance and a Kremlin source said it would “not leave unnoticed” the request.
The pro-Russian prime minister of the region asked for Moscow’s assistance in keeping the peace and claimed he had control of all military, police and other security services.
The call by Sergei Aksenov came after armed men described as Russian troops took control of key airports and a communications centre in Crimea on Friday, and Ukraine accused Russia of a “military invasion and occupation”.
In the reply the Russian foreign ministry said it was “extremely concerned” about the recent developments in Crimea, which it said confirmed the desire of Kiev’s politicians to destabilise the situation on the peninsula.
The foreign ministry also accused pro-Kiev gunmen of attempting to take over the interior ministry headquarters in the region, claiming several injuries had occurred.
“In Russia, we are extremely concerned about the recent developments in Crimea,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. “We believe it is extremely irresponsible to further pressure the already tense situation in the Crimea.”
In the escalating war of words between Kiev and Moscow, Ukraine’s defence minister, Ihor Tenyukh, accused Russia of having “recently” brought 6,000 additional personnel into Ukraine and that the Ukrainian military were on high alert in the Crimea region.
The Crimean peninsula is home to a key Russian strategic naval base for the Black Sea fleet which it leases from Ukraine under an agreement.
Russian officials claimed on Friday that military movements in the region were covered by that agreement – a claim denied by Kiev.
The latest statements from both sides in the crisis follow mounting concern in the west, which on Friday prompted a statement from the US president, Barack Obama. Obama warned Moscow on Friday “there will be costs” if it intervenes militarily.
His comments came after the British foreign secretary, William Hague, announced he would travel to Kiev on Sunday for talks with the new government there.
The latest escalation of tension in Ukraine, where Viktor Yunukovych was deposed as president a week ago following mass demonstrations in whicvh more than 80 people died, came after armed men described as Russian troops took control of key airports and a communications centre in Crimea on Friday.
Ukraine’s population is divided in loyalties between Russia and the west, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the European Union while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support.
Crimea, a south-eastern peninsula of Ukraine that has semi-autonomous status, was seized by Russian forces in the 18th century under Catherine the Great. It 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.
Moscow has taken a confrontational stance toward its southern neighbour after pro-Russian Yanukovych fled the country.
Aksenov, the head of the main pro-Russia party on the peninsula, said in his statement that he appealed to Putin “for assistance in guaranteeing peace and calmness on the territory of the autonomous republic of Crimea.”
Aksenov was appointed by the Crimean parliament on Thursday after pro-Russian gunmen seized the building and as tensions soared over Crimea’s resistance to the new authorities in Kiev, who took power last week.