MOSCOW — The international conflict over Russia’s military moves in Crimea escalated precariously Saturday as lawmakers in Moscow authorized the use of armed forces to protect their nation’s interests and ethnic Russians in Ukraine and President Obama pressed President Vladimir Putin during a 90-minute phone call to back down.
The unanimous vote in the upper house of the parliament came after Russian troops had already taken up positions in Crimea, the Ukrainian region that is home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and in spite of Obama’s warning Friday that “there will be costs” if Moscow intervenes in its neighbor’s political upheaval.
During Saturday’s call, Obama threatened Russia with “greater political and economic isolation,” according to a White House statement. The president, who had already issued a warning to Russia during a hastily called news conference Friday, suggested the United Nations would take action for what he called a “breach of international law.”
A Kremlin statement on the phone call suggested that Putin was unmoved. It said the Russian president told Obama the unrest in Ukraine was the result of “provocations and criminal actions by ultranationalist elements encouraged by the current powers in Kiev,” and said Russia reserved the right to defend its citizens and interests from those aggressions.
The standoff follows the overthrow late last month of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich after three months of protests by mostly urban and western Ukrainians who favor ties with the West, leaving Ukrainians in Crimea and elsewhere in the east, who tend to favor ties with Moscow, fearful for their future.
On Thursday, pro-Russian lawmakers in Crimea elected a new leader who called on Moscow to come to his region’s aid.
At the United Nations, where the Security Council met Saturday in both open and closed sessions to discuss the Russian moves, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “gravely concerned,” and European Union foreign ministers called an emergency session in Brussels for Monday and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged Russia to respect the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
But the Kremlin’s de facto control of Crimea and influence over other Russian-speaking areas of eastern Ukraine have presented that country’s interim government with a virtual fait accompli: fledgling leaders filling the power vacuum since Yanukovich fled appear to be facing a choice of challenging Russia’s superior military might or issuing powerless statements of outrage.
The interim leaders in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, held an emergency meeting Saturday night and announced that their nation’s armed forces had been put on “full combat alert.” But they also urged calm and restraint in dealing with Moscow’s provocation.
Hundreds of Russian soldiers on Saturday bolstered positions taken the day before by gunmen in unmarked military fatigues at strategic sites around Simferopol, the Crimean administrative capital. The Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations, Yuri Sergeyev, said Moscow had already deployed 15,000 troops in his country even before Putin’s appeal for legislative authorization of the armed intervention.
Their presence was cheered by Russian-speaking residents, who make up a majority of Crimea’s 2 million population, even as it served to discourage any protests by Ukrainian-speaking and Tatar communities. There were no reports of exchanges of gunfire despite the tense standoff, though Russian media did report an overnight attack on the Crimean regional Interior Ministry in which unspecified “injuries” occurred.
Although Obama and other Western leaders have reacted to Moscow’s intervention with stern warnings about the risk of provoking bloodshed, Putin appears to have calculated that none are prepared to play an active role in defending Ukraine.
Putin’s request for legislative backing for an armed deployment underway in Crimea won unanimous endorsement, 90-0, by the Federation Council that met in an extraordinary session carried live on Russia-24 television. The upper house lawmakers recommended that Putin withdraw Russia’s ambassador to Washington in protest of Obama’s critical remarks late Friday about Kremlin military moves in Ukraine.
“The president will consider the appeal and make a decision,” Federation Council chief Valentina Matvienko told reporters after the council’s recommendation of diplomatic censure.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the Kremlin leader hadn’t decided whether to act on the lawmakers’ suggestion to recall the ambassador. Peskov also noted that Putin was still pondering how and whether to use “the entire arsenal of means necessary for settling this situation” that was authorized by the council vote.
Even if Putin were to withdraw his Washington ambassador, the diplomatic heavy lifting between the U.S. and Russia is handled by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who have managed to maintain a productive and civil discourse despite the Cold War-like chill already besetting their countries’ relationship.
Putin turned to the parliament after Sergei Aksenov, who on Thursday was named Crimea’s leader by a hastily gathered group of pro-Kremlin regional lawmakers, appealed for help “normalizing” the social order in the region.
Aksenov, sporting a graying crew cut and black zip-front sweater, conceded in his televised address that Russian forces were already securing strategic assets in Crimea, moves that prompted acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov to accuse Russia of “naked aggression.”
Putin’s request for authorization to use of force in “the territory of Ukraine” was particularly alarming for Western leaders, as it appeared to grant him latitude to intervene anywhere in the vast country cleaved by the social divide between Western-oriented citizens and those who want their country to be allied with Russia. Unrest in defiance of the new leadership in Kiev had been mostly confined to Crimea until Saturday, when pro-Russia demonstrators occupied government buildings and raised Russian flags in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Odessa.
Crimea and its warm-water ports and vacation playgrounds were part of Russia for centuries. Its transfer to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 was at the time a relatively insignificant administrative move, as the Black Sea fleet and other military bases on the peninsula were responsible for the defense of all 15 republics of the Soviet Union.
After the 1991 Soviet breakup, those key Russian military facilities were marooned in another sovereign country, and for more than two decades they have been a point of contention between Kiev and Moscow, which leases them from Ukraine.
Gunmen in Russian military fatigues on Thursday seized control of Crimea’s regional parliament and government headquarters.
The rejection of Kiev’s authority escalated Friday when thousands of Russian troops arrived by transport aircraft at a military airstrip near Simferopol. Checkpoints were erected on roads leading to the peninsula from the Ukrainian mainland, and key public facilities such as the local television station and the main telecommunications center were surrounded by armed men wearing Russian uniforms and local “self-defense” militiamen.
The occupied Crimean parliament voted Thursday to hold a referendum on the area’s future allegiance, and on Saturday the balloting was moved up to March 30 in an effort to build on the momentum for separating from western Ukraine and aligning with Russia.
Russia put further pressure on Ukraine on Saturday when a spokesman for the Gazprom energy behemoth, Sergei Kupriyanov, warned Kiev that Moscow’s 30% discount to its former sister republic might be revoked unless the Ukrainian government pays $1.59 billion overdue for natural gas purchases.
Russia-allied residents of Ukraine fear that their rights to cultural and linguistic equality will be undermined by the politicians now in power in Kiev. That concern gained validity when nationalist lawmakers, in the power vacuum that occurred after Yanukovich fled, voted to remove Russian as an official language in areas of Ukraine where it is widely spoken.
Turchynov, Ukraine’s acting president, denounced the bill as undemocratic and refused to sign it into law, a fact usually omitted by Russia’s Kremlin-controlled media that have cast the Kiev leadership change as the work of “radicals and fascists.”
Times staff writers Kathleen Hennessey in Washington and Sergei L. Loiko in Kiev contributed to this report.