In a move European leaders characterized as “unthinkable in the 21st century in Europe,” the Russian Parliament on Saturday approved military action in Ukraine.
The measure fell short of an actual declaration of war, but none was needed. Hundreds of Russian troops had already taken control of critical locations in the Crimea, an autonomous Ukrainian republic where 50 percent of the population is ethnically Russian and the local government of Crimean Prime Minister Serhiy Aksyonov had asked for Russian assistance to protect his region from the new pro-Western government that had taken power last week in Kiev, Ukraine's capital.
There were no reports of resistance to the Russian presence in Crimea, which already hosts the Russian navy's Black Sea Fleet. On Friday, Aksyonov has announced that he was assuming sole control of the military and security forces in his region.
The Russian vote to send troops was unanimous, without even any abstentions. It came after Russian President Vladimir Putin Saturday made a written statement outlining the reasons such an audacious move was necessary.
"In connection with the extraordinary situation that has developed in the Ukraine, posing a threat for the lives of citizens of Russia, our compatriots, our forces deployed on the territory of Ukraine (Autonomous Republic of Crimea) in agreement with an international treaty I request approval of the use of armed forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine until the socio-political situation is restored in that country," the statement said.
Russia also appeared moving to pressure the government in Kiev,and it was uncertain whether it might deploy troops elsewhere.
The Russian energy giant Gazprom told the Russian news agency Ria Novosti that it was demanding quick payment of overdue Ukrainian bills totaling $1.55 billion. If those payments are not made quickly, Gazprom said, it will have to discontinue the longstanding discount Ukrainians get on their gas from the company.
There were reports of pro-Russia sentiments in parts of Ukraine outside of Crimea, including the raising of Russian flags, but the extent was not immediately known.
Russia's approval of military action in Ukraine left European leaders scrambling to figure out how to best react.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius immediately noted that “France is extremely concerned.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said everything has to be done these days “to protect territorial integrity.”
She added: “What we see in the Crimea is a deep concern to us. Everything has to be done, what we have learned from our history how important it is that conflicts need to be solved peacefully and diplomatically. This should also be true of the Crimea.”
Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski cut short a visit to Iran citing concerns about the Ukraine situation.
Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said he was “struck by reports of violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty."
"These are events that would be considered unthinkable in the 21st Century,” he said.
German Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said “the situation, particularly in Crimea has escalated sharply. Anyone who throws more oil in the fire with words or deeds is deliberating pursuing an escalation.”
The Russian action comes after months of street protests led to the fall of Viktor Yanukovych, the elected president of Ukraine. Yanukovych fled his post and the country as protesters overwhelmed his Kiev complex. He has since described the situation as a “bandit coup,” but outside of the small area of Crimea, he appears to have been abandoned by even his staunchest former supporters in the rest of the country.
Crimea is different. Along the Black Sea coast, it has long leaned on Russia for support, and is the home of a large Russian naval base. Many residents yearn for the days of the Soviet empire, a sentiment thought to be especially strong among the thousands of ethnic Russians who were settled in the area by the Soviets, as far back as the rule of Joseph Stalin.
In the days of the Soviet Union, Crimea was the home base for Soviet nuclear subs, and included many large sections that were officially forbidden territory. Workers assigned to the region were obligated to cut off all contacts with anyone not within the community, including family members.
The Russian vote followed days of complaints from Ukrainian politicians that Russia was already running a camouflaged invasion in the Crimea that were flatly denied by Russian officials. During this time, Ukrainian officials have also claimed that Russians refuse to discuss the situation with them.