KIEV, Ukraine – Warning that it was “on the brink of disaster,” Ukraine put its military on high alert Sunday and appealed for international help to avoid what it feared was the possibility of a wider invasion by Russia.
Outrage over Russia’s military moves mounted in world capitals, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calling on President Vladimir Putin to pull back from “an incredible act of aggression.”
A day after Russia captured the Crimean Peninsula without firing a shot, fears grew in the Ukrainian capital and beyond that Russia might seek to expand its control by seizing other parts of eastern Ukraine. Senior Obama administration officials said the U.S. now believes that Russia has complete operational control of Crimea, a pro-Russian area of the country, and has more than 6,000 troops in the region.
Faced with the Russian threat, Ukraine’s new government moved to consolidate its authority, naming new regional governors in the pro-Russia east, enlisting the support of the country’s wealthy businessmen and dismissing the head of the country’s navy after he declared allegiance to the pro-Russian government in Crimea.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said there was no reason for Russia to invade Ukraine and warned that “we are on the brink of disaster.”
World leaders rushed to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
NATO held an emergency meeting in Brussels, Britain’s foreign minister flew to Kiev to support its new government and Kerry was to travel to Ukraine on Tuesday. The U.S., France and Britain debated the possibility of boycotting the next Group of Eight economic summit, to be held in June in Sochi, the host city of Russia’s Winter Olympics.
On Sunday evening, the White House issued a joint statement on behalf of the Group of Seven saying they are suspending participation in the planning for the summit because Russia’s advances in the Ukraine violate the “principles and values” on which the G-7 and G-8 operate.
In Kiev, Moscow and other cities, thousands of protesters took to the streets to either decry the Russian occupation or celebrate Crimea’s return to its former ruler.
“Support us, America!” a group of protesters chanted outside the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. “Russia! Russia!” the crowd chanted in Moscow.
Kerry talked about boycotting the G-8 summit, as well as possible visa bans, asset freezes and trade and investment penalties against Russia. All the foreign ministers he talked to were prepared “to go to the hilt” to isolate Russia, Kerry said.
President Barack Obama also spoke Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.
NATO issued a statement saying it “condemns Russia’s military escalation in Crimea” and demanding that Russia respect its obligations under the U.N. charter. Ukraine is not a NATO member, so the U.S. and Europe are not obligated to come to its defense.
So far, Ukraine’s new government and the West have been powerless to counter Russia’s tactics.
Putin has defied calls from the West to pull back his troops, insisting that Russia has a right to protect its interests and those of Russian-speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine. His confidence is matched by the knowledge that Ukraine’s 46 million people have divided loyalties. While much of western Ukraine wants closer ties with the 28-nation European Union, its eastern and southern regions like Crimea look to Russia for support.
Russia has long wanted to reclaim the lush Crimean Peninsula, part of its territory until 1954. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet pays Ukraine millions annually to be stationed at the Crimean port of Sevastopol and nearly 60 percent of Crimea’s residents identify themselves as Russian.