MOSCOW/KIEV — Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded and won his parliament’s approval on Saturday to invade Ukraine, where the new government warned of war, put its troops on high alert and appealed to NATO for help.
Putin’s open assertion of the right to send troops to a country of 46 million people on the ramparts of central Europe creates the biggest confrontation between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, leading a government that took power after Moscow’s ally Viktor Yankovich fled a week ago, said Russian military action “would be the beginning of war and the end of any relations between Ukraine and Russia.”
Acting President Oleksander Turchinov ordered troops to be placed on high combat alert. Foreign Minister Andriv Deschytsya said he met European and U.S. officials and sent a request to NATO to “examine all possibilities to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine.”
Putin’s move was a direct rebuff to Western leaders who repeatedly urged Russia not to intervene, including US President Barack Obama, who held a televised address to warn Moscow of “costs” if it acted.
Troops with no insignia on their uniforms but clearly Russian — with some in vehicles containing Russian license plates — have already seized Crimea, an isolated peninsula in the Black Sea where Moscow has a large military presence inte headquarters of its Black Sea Fleet. Kiev’s new authorities have been powerless to stop them.
The Russian forces solidified their control of Crimea and unrest spread to other parts of Ukraine Saturday. Pro-Russian supporters clashed, sometimes violently, with supporters of Ukraine’s new authorities and raised the Russian flag over government buildings in several cities.
Putin asked parliament to approve force “in connection with the extraordinary situation in Ukraine, the threat to the lives of citizens in the Russian Federation, our compatriots” and to protect the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea.
The upper house swiftly delivered a unanimous “yes” vote, shown live on television.
Western capitals scrambled for a response, but it was limited for words.
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton urged Moscow not to send troops. Sweden Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said this would be “clearly against international law.” Czech President Milos Zeman compared the crisis to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, via Twitter:
“Urgent need for de-escalation in Crimea. NATO allies continue to coordinate closely.”
Putin said his request for authorization to use force in Ukraine would last “until the normalization of the socio-political situation in that country.” His justification — the need to protect Russian citizens — was the same as he used to launch a 2008 invasion on the country of Georgia, where Russian forces seized two breakaway regions and recognized them as independent.