(Reuters) - 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 Yanukovich 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 Andriy Deshchytsya said he had 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 had repeatedly urged Russia not to intervene, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who just a day before had held a televised address to warn Moscow of “costs” if it acted.
Troops with no insignia on their uniforms but clearly Russian - some in vehicles with Russian number plates - have already seized Crimea, an isolated peninsula in the Black Sea where Moscow has a large military presence in the 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 on Saturday.
"This is probably the most dangerous situation in Europe since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968," said a Western official on condition of anonymity. "Realistically, we have to assume the Crimea is in Russian hands. The challenge now is to deter Russia from taking over the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine."
Putin asked parliament to approve force “in connection with the extraordinary situation in Ukraine, the threat to the lives of citizens of 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 to words. A U.S. official said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had spoken to his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu. The official said there had been no change in U.S. military posture.
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 of Georgia, where Russian forces seized two breakaway regions and recognized them as independent.
FLAGS TORN DOWN
So far there has been no sign of Russian military action in Ukraine outside Crimea, the only part of the country with a Russian ethnic majority, which has often voiced separatist aims.
A potentially bigger risk would be conflict spreading to the rest of Ukraine, where the sides could not be easily kept apart.
As tension built on Saturday, demonstrations occasionally turned violent in eastern cities, where most people, though ethnically Ukrainian, are Russian speakers and many support Moscow and Yanukovich.
Demonstrators flew Russian flags on government buildings in the cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk, Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk.
In Donetsk, Yanukovich’s home region, lawmakers declared they were seeking a referendum on the region’s status.
"We do not recognize the authorities in Kiev, they are not legitimate," protest leader Pavel Guberev thundered from a podium in Donetsk.
Thousands of followers, holding a giant Russian flag and chanting “Russia, Russia” marched to the government headquarters and replaced the Ukrainian flag with Russia’s.
"WAR HAS ARRIVED"
On Kiev’s central Independence Square, where protesters camped out for months against Yanukovich, a World War Two film about Crimea was being shown on a giant screen, when Yuri Lutsenko, a former interior minister, interrupted it to announce Putin’s decree. “War has arrived,” Lutsenko said.
Although there was little doubt that the troops without insignia that have already seized Crimea are Russian, the Kremlin has not yet openly confirmed it. It described Saturday’s authorization as a threat for future action rather than confirmation that its soldiers are already involved.
A Kremlin spokesman said Putin had not yet decided to use force, and still hoped to avoid further escalation.
The rapid pace of events has rattled the new leaders of Ukraine, who took power in a nation on the verge of bankruptcy when Yanukovich fled Kiev last week after his police killed scores of anti-Russian protesters in Kiev. Ukraine’s crisis began in November when Yanukovich, at Moscow’s behest, abandoned a free trade pact with the EU for closer ties with Russia. - (Reuters)