Obama in 'direct' confrontation with Putin over UkraineBy Dmitry Zaks (AFP)
Kiev — The heart of Kiev braced Sunday for a monster protest after Russian President Vladimir Putin won the green light from parliament to invade Ukraine and was immediately warned by Washington that he was violating international law.
The stark escalation in what threatens to become the worst crisis in relations between Moscow and the West since the Cold War came as Kalashnikov-wielding militia hoisted the Russian flag over Crimean government buildings and seized control of the Black Sea peninsula's airports.
Putin said in a Kremlin statement that he was responsible for the safety of ethnic Russians on the Black Sea peninsula -- home to Kremlin navies for nearly 250 years -- and southeastern swathes of Ukraine with ancient ties to Moscow that look on Kiev's new pro-EU leaders with disdain.
The Western-backed but untested interim team in Kiev responded to Moscow's move toward its first war since a brief 2008 confrontation with neighbouring Georgia by putting the military on full combat alert.
But they also voiced confidence that a full-scale conflict will be averted because it would break the two neighbours' historic relations for good.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya added that Kiev had appealed to the US-led NATO military alliance "with a request to consider all options to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine".
Defence Minister Igor Tenyukh had earlier told Ukraine's first new cabinet session that Russia had already sent 30 armoured personnel carriers and 6,000 additional troops into Crimea to help pro-Kremlin militia gain broader independence from the new pro-EU leaders in Kiev.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation called emergency talks with its 28 ambassadors for Sunday at 1200 GMT.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague was due in Kiev later on Sunday for talks with the interim president Olexandr Turchynov.
- Tense Obama-Putin call -
The Russian upper house of parliament's unanimous vote authorising Putin to use force came after a three-month crisis in the strategic ex-Soviet nation of 46 million -- long fought over by Moscow and the West -- culminated in a week of carnage last month that claimed nearly 100 lives and led to the ouster of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych.
The Kremlin appeared stunned by the loss of its ally in Ukraine and Kiev's subsequent vow to seek membership in the European Union -- a decision that would shatter Putin's dream of reassembling a powerful economic and military post-Soviet bloc.
Putin had issued only one brief statement on Yanukovych's February 22 ouster before his Saturday request to use force against Ukraine.
But the ferocity of the international outcry sparked by the move underscores the increasing distance Putin has put between Russia and the West during his 14 years in power as both president and prime minister.
US President Barack Obama told Putin in what the White House described as a charged 90-minute call that Russia's earlier reported deployment of troops outside the bases Moscow leases from Kiev in Crimea had already broken international law.
"President Obama expressed his deep concern over Russia's clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity," the White House said.
Obama told Putin his actions were a "breach of international law, including Russia's obligations under the UN Charter, and of its 1997 military basing agreement with Ukraine."
US Secretary of State John Kerry also hosted a joint conference call with six other foreign ministers from Europe and Canada as well as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and the Japanese envoy to the Washington "to coordinate on next steps".
Kerry warned in a separate statement that Moscow was risking the peace and security of the entire region and not just Ukraine.
A US official said the tone of Obama's call to Putin was "candid and direct" -- diplomatic parlance for what is otherwise known as a heated exchange.
The Kremlin's account of Putin's conversation with Obama was equally blunt.
A Kremlin statement said Putin drew the US leader's "attention to the provocations and crimes of ultranationalist elements, which are effectively being encouraged by the current authorities in Kiev".
It said Putin stressed "the real threats to the lives and well-being" of Russian nationals living in Ukraine.
And Putin most importantly told Obama that "in case of the further spread of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and those of the Russian-speaking population" in Ukraine.
The United States later called on Russia to withdraw its reinforcements from Crimea at indecisive UN Security Council meeting that saw Kiev press for immediate action to halt the crisis.
- G8 Sochi summit boycott -
The extent of Russia's growing estrangement from the West was stressed when a senior US official raised the possibility that both Obama and several European leaders could skip the G8 summit Putin intends to host in Sochi in June.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said later on Saturday that he may join Washington in snubbing the Russian meeting because of the escalating crisis.
But Putin's actions have received overwhelming support from senior lawmakers and state-controlled media organisation in Moscow that are portraying the crisis as a battle between dangerous ultra-nationalist and Russian-speakers who are coming under increasing attack.
- Kiev protest -
Tense of thousands planned to gather at noon (1000 GMT) on Kiev's iconic independence square -- the crucible of both the latest wave of protests and the 2004 Orange Revolution that first nudged Kiev on a westward path -- in support of Ukraine's territorial integrity and in protest at Russia's sabre rattling.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk reassured the nation late on Saturday that he was "convinced" Russia would not launch an offensive because "this would mean war and the end of all relations between the two countries".
And at least two senior Russian officials have indicated that Putin's right to use force did not necessarily mean that war was imminent.
"The agreement that the president received... does not mean that this right will be realised quickly," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the same agency that "for the moment, this decision has not been taken".
But Ukraine's nationalist Svoboda party and the far-right Pravy Sektor group -- both instrumental players in protests that swept Kiev and western pro-European parts of Ukraine when Yanukovych ditched an historic EU deal in favour of closer ties with Russia -- called late on Saturday for a "general mobilisation".
"It's war! Ukrainian society must mobilise as much as possible," Svoboda said in a statement.
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