Kiev was on edge Saturday after Russian parliament’s upper house unanimously approved President Vladimir Putin’s request for a military intervention in Ukraine, according to a Kremlin statement.
The approval came within two hours of Putin appealing to parliament, saying the move is needed to protect ethnic Russians and the personnel of a Russian military base in Ukraine's strategic region of Crimea, a peninsula the size of Massachusetts where three out of four people speak Russian.
However, the vote does not specify that Russian troops are authorized to enter Crimea; instead, it states Russia's military force can enter "Ukraine," giving themselves a legal cloak to target more than Crimea.
That set off alarm bells in Kiev, where the new, inexperienced and untested government is still trying to gain its footing.
Ukraine's acting national leaders called for calm Saturday, although they put their armed forces on the "highest alert" as a precaution against any possible military maneuvering from Russia.
Acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said he told Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to order Russian troops to return to their base in Crimea.
Russia, meanwhile, wasn't moving quickly.
Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Grigory Karasin — who Putin appointed as the official representative on the military action proposal — did not give a time frame for military action and it was unclear whether Putin's announcement was merely intended to send a message to international powers that Russia would not back down over the future of Ukraine.
Hours before Putin's statement, Western foreign ministers issued calls for Russia to de-escalate the crisis in Crimea — echoing a similar warning from President Barack Obama on Friday that armed intervention would have "costs."
The request, made to the Russian Senate, follows a letter from the upper house to Putin appealing for the same.
The statement said: "Due to the extraordinary situation in Ukraine and the threat to the lives of Russian citizens and compatriots, and the personnel staff of Russia’s military forces based in Ukraine (Crimea), according to international agreement ... I submit a request to the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation for the use of military forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine until the social and political situation in the country normalizes."
Earlier Saturday, Ukraine accused Russia of sending 6,000 additional troops into Crimea Saturday, deepening a crisis in which both sides accused each other of trying to destabilize the region.
Sasha Mazikima contributed to this report. Reuters also contributed.
BAZ RATNER / Reuters
Armed servicemen wait in Russian army vehicles outside a Ukranian border guard post in the Crimean town of Balaclava on Saturday.
First published March 1 2014, 6:08 AM