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Russian troops take over Ukraine's Crimea region

Saturday - 3/1/2014, 3:59pm  ET

A man holds a Russian flag as people gather outside the Parliament building in Simferopol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 1, 2014. The discord between Russia and Ukraine sharpened Saturday when the pro-Russian leader of Ukraine's Crimea region claimed control of the military and police and appealed to Russia's president for help in keeping peace there. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

TIM SULLIVAN
Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Russian troops took over Crimea as the parliament in Moscow gave President Vladimir Putin a green light Saturday to use the military to protect Russian interests in Ukraine. The newly installed government in Kiev was powerless to react to the action by Russian troops based in the strategic region and more flown in, aided by pro-Russian Ukrainian groups.

Putin sought and quickly got his parliament's approval to use its military to protect Russia's interests across Ukraine. But while sometimes-violent pro-Russian protests broke out Saturday in a number of Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine, Moscow's immediate focus appeared to be Crimea.

Tensions increased when Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, made a late night announcement that he had ordered the country's armed forces to be at full readiness because of the threat of "potential aggression."

Speaking live on Ukrainian TV, Turchynov he had also ordered stepped up security at nuclear power plants, airports and other strategic infrastructure.

Ignoring President Barack Obama's warning Friday that "there will be costs" if Russia intervenes militarily, Putin sharply raised the stakes in the conflict over Ukraine's future evoking memories of Cold War brinkmanship.

After Russia's parliament approved Putin's motion, U.S. officials held a high-level meeting at the White House to review Russia's military moves in Ukraine. The defense secretary, CIA director and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were among those in attendance. The U.N. Security Council held a closed-door meeting for the second consecutive day to discuss the current situation in Ukraine.

"Russia and the West find themselves on the brink of a confrontation far worse than in 2008 over Georgia," Dmitri Trenin, the director of Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a commentary posted on its website. In Georgia, the Russian troops quickly routed the Georgian military after they tried to regain control over the separatist province of South Ossetia that has close ties with Moscow.

The latest moves followed days of scripted, bloodless turmoil on the peninsula, the scene of centuries of wars and seen by Moscow as a crown jewel of the Russian and Soviet empires. What began Thursday with the early-morning takeover of the regional parliament building by mysterious troops continued Saturday afternoon as dozens of those soldiers -- almost certainly Russian -- moved into the streets around the parliamentary complex and seized control of regional airports, amid street protests by pro-Russian Crimeans calling for Moscow's protection from the new government in Kiev.

That government came to power last week in the wake of months of pro-democracy protests against the now-fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, and his decision to turn Ukraine toward Russia, its longtime patron, instead of the European Union. Despite the calls for Moscow's help, there has been no sign of ethnic Russians facing attacks in Crimea or elsewhere in Ukraine.

Obama on Friday called on Russia to respect the independence and territory of Ukraine and not try to take advantage of its neighbor's political upheaval.

He said such action by Russia would represent a "profound interference" in matters he said should be decided by the Ukrainian people. He has not said, however, how the U.S. could pressure Moscow to step back from its intervention.

The Russian parliament urged that Moscow recall its ambassador in Washington in response to Obama's speech.

On Friday, Ukraine accused Russia of a "military invasion and occupation" in the Crimea, where Russia's Black Sea fleet is based. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk called on Moscow "to recall their forces, and to return them to their stations," according to the Interfax news agency. "Russian partners, stop provoking civil and military resistance in Ukraine."

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.

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. Putin has had good ties with Tymoshenko in the past, and he may look to her for a possible compromise.

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