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Russian troops take over Ukraine’s Crimea, Obama sends warning


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Ukraine’s population of 46 million is divided in loyalties between Russia and Europe, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the European Union while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support. Crimea, a semi-autonomous region that Russia gave to Ukraine in the 1950s, is mainly Russian-speaking.

In his address to parliament, Putin said the "extraordinary situation in Ukraine" was putting at risk the lives of Russian citizens and military personnel stationed at the Crimean naval base that Moscow has maintained since the Soviet collapse.

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Despite Putin’s sharp move, there were possible signs Saturday that the Russian leader could soften his approach. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was freed a week ago after more than 2 ½ years in prison, was reported to be heading to Moscow for a meeting with Putin on Monday, though her spokeswoman denied that. Putin has had good ties with Tymoshenko in the past, and he may look to her for a possible compromise.

In a statement posted on her party’s web site, Tymoshenko urged the U.N. Security Council to meet in Kiev and asked the EU leaders to convene a meeting in Crimea. She urged the West to help protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, asked Ukrainians to remain calm and voiced hope that diplomacy will succeed.

Putin’s parliamentary motion loosely refers to the "territory of Ukraine" rather than specifically to Crimea, raising the possibility that Moscow could use military force in other Russian-speaking areas in eastern and southern Ukraine, where many detest the new authorities in Kiev.

But in a note of restraint, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said the motion doesn’t mean the president would immediately send additional troops to Ukraine. "There is no talk about it yet," he said.

Pro-Russian protests were reported Saturday in the eastern cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk and the southern port of Odessa. In Kharkiv, 97 people were injured in clashes between pro-Russia demonstrators who flushed supporters of the new Ukrainian government out of the regional government building and hoisted the Russian flag on top of it, according to the Interfax news agency.

Trenin, of Moscow’s Carnegie office, said that Putin could be seeking to "include Crimea within the Russian Federation and eastern and southern regions of Ukraine forming a separate entity integrated with Russia economically and aligned with it politically."

"It is not clear at this point whether Kiev will be left to build a rump Ukraine with the western regions or whether it will be swayed to join the eastern regions," he wrote.

In Crimea, the new pro-Russian prime minister — who came to power after the gunmen swept into parliament on Thursday — claimed control of the military and police and asked Putin for help in keeping peace. There was no visible presence of Ukrainian troops Saturday.


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The deputy premier in the Crimean government told Russian news agency RIA Novsti that Ukrainian troops were disarmed and others joined the Crimean people to help patrol the territory. The report couldn’t immediately be confirmed.

Crimean Tatars, the historic hosts of the land who make up 12 percent of the island’s population and stand strongly for Crimea remaining part of Ukraine, didn’t put up any visible resistance Saturday.

"The last two or three days have turned around the life of all the people in Crimea," said Refat Chubarov, a Crimean Tatar leader. "They’ve taken over military bases and civil institutions. That’s why Crimean society is filled with fear. People are afraid of everyone and everything."

Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia, a move that was a mere formality when both Ukraine and Russia were part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet breakup in 1991 meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt summed the situation up simply: "What’s happening in Crimea is a Russian takeover. There is no doubt about that," he told Swedish Radio. "Russian military forces are involved and there has been a local takeover of power."

Russia put pressure on Ukraine from another direction when a spokesman for state gas company Gazprom said that Ukraine owed $1.59 billion in overdue bills for imported gas. Sergei Kuprianov said in a statement carried by Russian news wires that the gas arrears would endanger a recent discount granted by Russia.

The Russian payment demand and loss of the discount would accelerate Ukraine’s financial crisis. The country is almost broke and seeking emergency credit from the International Monetary Fund.

The tensions barely touched everyday life in Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea, or anywhere on the peninsula. Children played on swings a few blocks from the parliament building, and most of the city’s stores were open. Couples walked hand-in-hand through parks. Crimea’s airports — civilian and military — were closed to air traffic, but trains and cars were moving to and from the Ukrainian mainland. The civilian airport in Simferopol was reopened late Saturday night.

"Things are normal," said Olga Saldovskaia, who was walking through town with her son and grandson. While she doesn’t like having gunmen in the streets, like many people in this overwhelmingly ethnic Russian city, she also found their presence reassuring.

"If anyone tries to hurt the people here, they will protect us," said Saldovskaia. She said she sympathized with the pro-democracy protesters in Kiev, but also worries that turmoil in the capital could lead to violence against ethnic Russians. She added, though, that she definitely doesn’t want Crimea to become part of Russia.

"Russia is not just all flowers and candy," she said.

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