Ukraine’s Western-backed leaders voiced fears on Sunday of an imminent Russian invasion of the eastern industrial heartland following the fall of their last airbase in Crimea to defiant Kremlin troops.
Saturday’s takeover involving armoured personnel carriers and stun grenades provided the most spectacular show of force since the Kremlin sent troops into the heavily Russified peninsula three weeks ago before sealing its annexation Friday.
Alarm about a push outside Crimea by Moscow’s overwhelming forces — now conducting drills at Ukraine’s eastern gate — were fanned further Sunday by a call by its self-declared premier for Russians across the ex-Soviet country to rise up against Kiev’s rule.
The interim leaders in Kiev fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin — flushed with expansionist fervour — is developing a sense of impunity after being hit by only limited EU and US sanctions for taking the Black Sea cape.
“The aim of Putin is not Crimea but all of Ukraine… His troops massed at the border are ready to attack at any moment,” Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council chief Andriy Parubiy told a mass unity rally in Kiev.
Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya reaffirmed that message in an interview broadcast on Sunday on a top US political talk show.
“We do not know what Putin has in his mind and what would be his decision. That’s why this situation is becoming even more explosive than it used to be a week ago,” Deshchytsya told ABC’s “This Week”.
Europe’s most explosive crisis in decades will dominate a nuclear security summit opening in The Hague on Monday that will include what may prove to be the most difficult meeting to date between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The encounter comes with Russia facing the loss of its coveted seat among the G8 group of leading nations and US financial restrictions imposed on the most powerful members of Putin’s inner circle for their decision to resort to force in response to last month’s fall of Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin regime.
– ‘Call to fight’ –
One of the biggest tests facing the besieged interim leaders in Kiev now comes from restless Russians who have been stirring up violent protests and demanding their own secession referendums in the southeastern swaths of Ukraine.
The region’s mistrust of the new team’s European values lies from cultural and trade ties with Russia that in many cases are centuries old — a fact seized upon on Sunday by Crimea’s Russia-backed prime minister Sergei Aksyonov.
He said in an impassioned address he posted on Facebook and read out on local TV that Crimea began facing a “sad fate” the moment three months of deadly protests involving a mix of nationalist and pro-Western forces toppled the pro-Kremlin regime in Kiev.
“But we resisted and won! Our motherland — Russia — extended her hand of help,” said Aksyonov. “So today, I appeal to you with a call to fight.”