Russia has granted protection to the fugitive Ukrainian president, reports say, as dozens of heavily armed gunmen seized control of government buildings in Ukraine’s Crimea region and raised the Russian flag.
The moves pose an immediate challenge to Ukraine’s new authorities as they sought to set up an interim government for the country, whose population is divided in loyalties between Russia and the West. Some 150,000 Russian soldiers carried out military exercises and fighter jets patrolled the border.
A respected Russian news organisation reported that President Viktor Yanukovych, who was driven out of Kiev by a three-month protest movement, was staying in a Kremlin sanatorium just outside Moscow.
“I have to ask Russia to ensure my personal safety from extremists,” Yanukovych said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies on Thursday.
Shortly afterwards, the same three Russian news agencies quoted an unnamed Russian official as saying that Yanukovych’s request for protection “was satisfied on the territory of Russia”.
Oleksandr Turchynov, who stepped in as acting president after Yanukovych’s flight, condemned the takeover of government buildings in Crimea as a “crime against the government of Ukraine”. He warned that any move by Russian troops from their base in Crimea “will be considered a military aggression”.
“Unidentified people with automatic weapons, explosives and grenades have taken over the governmental buildings and the Parliament building in the autonomous region of Crimea,” he said. “I have given orders to the military to use all methods necessary to protect the citizens, punish the criminals, and to free the buildings.”
In Kiev, MPs were expected to approve the new government that will face the hugely complicated task of restoring stability in a country that is on the verge of financial collapse.
Protest leaders said on Wednesday that they would propose Arseniy Yatsenyuk as the country’s new prime minister. The 39-year-old served as economy minister, foreign minister and parliamentary speaker before Yanukovych took office in 2010, and is widely viewed as a technocratic reformer who enjoys the support of the US.
Yanukovych fled after riot police attacked protesters in Kiev’s central square, killing more than 80 people, and European and Russian officials intervened. He has not been seen publicly since Saturday, when he said he remained the legitimately elected president – a position that has been backed by Russia.
Russia’s RBK news organisation has reported that Yanukovych was staying at the Barvikha sanatorium, which is run by the presidential administration’s property department. The spokesman for this department said he had no information about this.
The RBK report was impossible to confirm, but security at the Ukraina Hotel was unusually heavy, with police watching from parked vehicles outside and guards posted throughout the lobby. Some of Yanukovych’s allies, also reported to have been at the hotel, may have still been there.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman also said he had no information about Yanukovych’s reported arrival in Moscow.
In a clear warning to Ukraine, Mr Putin on Wednesday ordered massive military exercises involving most of the military units in western Russia.
On Thursday, as part of the exercises, 90 fighter jets were put on combat alert and were patrolling the border with Ukraine, the Defence Ministry said.
The military also announced measures to tighten security at the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on the Crimean peninsula in southeastern Ukraine.