Ukraine Creates National Guard Ahead Of Crimea Vote
Ukraine’s parliament has voted unanimously to create a 60,000-strong National Guard to bolster the country’s defences.The vote came ahead of Sunday’s referendum in Crimea, now controlled by pro-Russian forces, on whether citizens want to join Russia.
The US has threatened action if Russia does not remove its troops from Crimea.
Germany’s Angela Merkel has said Moscow faces “massive” political and economic damage if it refuses to change course.
Russia was exploiting the weakness of neighbouring Ukraine, rather than acting as a partner for stability, the chancellor said on Thursday, adding that there was no military solution to the crisis.
The Russian military and pro-Russian armed men moved in to seize key sites in Crimea – an autonomous region of Ukraine whose population is mainly ethnic Russian – in late February after the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych.
The German chancellor has threatened an escalating series of EU measures if Russia does not relax the tension in Ukraine.
In a statement to the Bundestag, she said political and diplomatic measures, rather than military action, were the way to resolve the crisis.
“If Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine,” she said.Russia’s military presence remains visible in the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea, where the majority of people are ethnic Russians.
The world’s focus is on Crimea ahead of its controversial referendum on Sunday. This poster reads: “Together with Russia.”
“We would not only see it, also as neighbours of Russia, as a threat,” Mrs Merkel told MPs. “And it would not only change the European Union’s relationship with Russia. No, this would also cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.”
Although she did not use the word sanctions, she warned that if there was no progress in the next few days, measures with “serious economic impact” would be taken.
“The territorial integrity of Ukraine cannot be called into question,” she said.
EU foreign ministers are due to meet on Monday to consider their next steps. EU leaders have already suspended talks with Russia on easing visa restrictions as well as preparations for a G8 meeting in Sochi in June.
The leaders of the G7 group of industrial nations – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US – and the EU on Wednesday threatened to “take further action, individually and collectively” if Russia continues on its course.
Meanwhile, the head of the Duma (Russian parliament) international relations committee has acknowledged that Russian troops are involved in controlling Crimea – a break from Moscow’s official position that the armed, uniformed men are “self-defence units”.
“There are some military units there, which are in position in case there is an aggression, expansion from Kiev,” Leonid Slutsky told Ekho Moskvy radio.
It was not a “large-scale military operation” but they were there to protect people and ensure there was no bloodshed, he said.The interim government in Ukraine and its Western allies say the vote violates Ukraine’s constitution and will not be lawful. Russia says it will respect the outcome of the referendum.
Welcoming Ukraine’s interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to the White House earlier, US President Barack Obama pledged to “stand with Ukraine” in its dispute.
Mr Yatsenyuk said Ukraine “will never surrender” to Russia.
“It is absolutely unacceptable to have Russian boots on the Ukrainian ground in the 21st Century, violating all international deals and treaties,” he said.
Kiev’s parliament is voting on Thursday to establish a National Guard of 20,000 people – recruited from activists involved in the recent pro-Western protests as well as from military academies – to strengthen Ukraine’s defences.
Ukraine’s national security chief Andriy Parubiy said the Guard would be deployed to “protect state borders, general security and prevent “terrorist activities”.
Tensions have been high since President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine for Russia on 22 February following days of violent clashes between police and protesters in Kiev, in which more than 90 people were killed.
The protesters had been in Kiev’s Independence Square since November, in protest at Mr Yanukovych’s decision to reject a deal with the EU in favour of a bail-out from Russia.