KIEV, Ukraine – Authorities closed airspace over Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and at least five Russian transport planes landed at a military air strip near the regional capital late Friday, as the country's acting president accused Moscow of trying to seize territory.
A duty officer at the Simferopol airport said that all commercial takeoffs and landings had been canceled from the Crimean regional capital’s airport for at least 24 hours. In Kiev, Oxana Ozhigova, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian capital’s Borispol airport, confirmed that flights to and from Simferopol had been suspended.
The ominous military and security moves appeared intended to demonstrate the Kremlin's determination to secure its leased port at Sevastopol, from which Russian naval might is projected to the world. Crimea hosts the Russian Black Sea fleet and has the largest population of Russian speakers in Ukraine.
Kiev retains control over Ukrainian military forces in the western and central areas of the country, and even most Russian-leaning areas of eastern Ukraine have refrained from defying the new government.
But troops in Crimea may not be reliable in the face of the local population's rejection of Kiev authority, and with Russia gunmen deployed at airports and communications centers, it was unclear to what extend the capital could bring in forces to challenge the reported Russian buildup.
Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov called the armed takeover of strategic sites in Crimea "an armed invasion and occupation."
The Ukrainian parliament, now dominated by politicians with what were opposition parties just a week ago, called on the U.N. Security Council to take up the issue of illegal interference in Ukraine's affairs, claiming that Russian forces were "directly involved."
But no effective action or even statements of censure were expected to come out of the world body because Russia wields veto power as a permanent member.
While Crimea has been thwarting Kiev's authority over the peninsula, Russian President
But Putin also ordered military drills this week to test the "combat readiness" of Russian troops in the western and central regions of the country, creating a pretext for fighter jet sorties and tank and troop movements around Ukraine's borders that have fed suspicion that the Kremlin could intervene militarily.
Russia has considerable industrial interests and economic agreements in Ukraine, he said in answer to a question of whether he wanted intervention by Moscow.
He said Crimean Russians' fear and anger are "understandable," but appealed to his supporters there: "Do not allow blood to be shed or for conflict to begin. As the legitimate president of Ukraine, I think Crimea should be part of the Ukrainian state with its autonomous rights ensured."