“This is not a threat: this is actually the declaration of war to my country,” said Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, head of a pro-Western government that took power when Russian ally Viktor Yanukovich fled last week.
Putin obtained permission from his parliament on Saturday to use military force to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine, spurning Western pleas not intervene.
Russian forces have already bloodlessly seized Crimea – an isolated Black Sea peninsula where Moscow has a naval base. On Sunday they surrounded several small Ukrainian military outposts there and demanded the Ukrainian troops disarm. Some refused, although no shots were fired.
Ukraine’s security council ordered the general staff to immediately put all armed forces on highest alert, the council’s secretary Andriy Parubiy announced.
The Defense Ministry was ordered to conduct a call-up of reserves – theoretically all men up to 40 in a country with universal male conscription, though Ukraine would struggle to find extra guns or uniforms for significant numbers of them.
“If President Putin wants to be the president who started the war between two neighboring and friendly countries, between Ukraine and Russia, so: he has reached this target within a few inches. We are on the brink of disaster,” Yatseniuk said in televised remarks in English, appealing for Western support.
THREAT TO EASTERN UKRAINE
At Kiev’s Independence Square, where anti-Yanukovich protesters had camped out for months, thousands demonstrated against Russian military action. Placards read: “Putin, hands off Ukraine!”
Of potentially even greater concern than Russia’s seizure of the Crimea are eastern swathes of the country, where most of the ethnic Ukrainians speak Russian as a native language.
Those areas saw violent protests on Saturday, with pro-Moscow demonstrators hoisting flags at government buildings and calling for Russia to defend them. Kiev said the protests were manufactured by Russia, accusing Moscow of sending hundreds of its citizens across the border to stage them.
Putin’s declaration that he has the right to invade his neighbor – for which he quickly received the unanimous approval of his senate – brought the prospect of war to a country of 46 million people on the ramparts of central Europe.
“President Obama expressed his deep concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which is a breach of international law,” the White House said after the leaders spoke for 90 minutes on Saturday.
Ukraine has appealed for help to NATO, and directly to Britain and the United States, as co-signatories with Moscow to a 1994 accord guaranteeing Ukraine’s security after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen accused Russia of threatening peace and security in Europe before NATO ambassadors met in Brussels to discuss their next steps.
Washington has proposed sending monitors to Ukraine under the flags of the United Nations or Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, bodies where Moscow would have a veto.
So far, the Western response has been largely symbolic. Obama and other leaders suspended plans to attend a G8 summit in Sochi, where Putin has just finished staging his $50 billion winter Olympic games. Some countries recalled ambassadors.