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Russian actions raise stakes in Ukraine conflict

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Pro-Russian activists hold up Orthodox icons at a checkpoint outside a Black Sea port in the Crimea, Ukraine, on Thursday. (Andrew Lubimov/The Associated Press)

Pro-Russian activists hold up Orthodox icons at a checkpoint outside a Black Sea port in the Crimea, Ukraine, on Thursday. (Andrew Lubimov/The Associated Press)

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine – Masked gunmen stormed parliament in Ukraine’s strategic Crimea region Thursday as Russian fighter jets scrambled to patrol borders, while the newly formed government pledged to prevent a national breakup with strong backing from the West – the stirrings of a potentially dangerous confrontation reminiscent of Cold War brinksmanship.

Moscow granted shelter to Ukraine’s fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, state media said. He was said to be holed up in a luxury government retreat and to have scheduled a news conference today near the Ukrainian border.

As gunmen wearing unmarked camouflage uniforms erected a sign reading “Crimea is Russia” in the provincial capital, Ukraine’s interim prime minister declared the Black Sea territory “has been and will be a part of Ukraine.”

The escalating conflict sent Ukraine’s finances plummeting further, prompting Western leaders to prepare an emergency financial package.

Yanukovych, whose abandonment of closer ties to Europe in favor of a bailout loan from Russia set off three months of protests, finally fled by helicopter last week as his allies deserted him. The humiliating exit was a severe blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been celebrating his signature Olympics even as Ukraine’s drama came to a head. The Russian leader has long dreamed of pulling Ukraine – a country of 46 million people considered the cradle of Russian civilization – closer into Moscow’s orbit.

For Ukraine’s neighbors, the specter of Ukraine breaking up evoked memories of centuries of bloody conflict.

“Regional conflicts begin this way,” said Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, calling the confrontation “a very dangerous game.”

Russia has pledged to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But the dispatch of Russian fighter jets Thursday to patrol borders and drills by some 150,000 Russian troops – almost the entirety of its force in the western part of the country – signaled strong determination not to lose Ukraine to the West.

Thursday’s dramatic developments posed an immediate challenge to Ukraine’s new authorities as they named an interim government for the country, whose population is divided in loyalties between Russia and the West. Crimea, which was seized by Russian forces in the 18th century under Catherine the Great, was once the crown jewel in Russian and then Soviet empires.

It only 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.

In the capital, Kiev, the new prime minister said Ukraine’s future lies in the European Union, but with friendly relations with Russia.

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