Russia faced down a barrage of international criticism yesterday saying the decision to send troops to Crimea was not an act of aggression but a move to protect Russian citizens on the peninsula in southern Ukraine.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, condemned western threats of sanctions and boycotts and said military intervention was needed in Ukraine until the political situation "normalised."
“We are talking about the protection of our citizens and compatriots, about protecting the most fundamental human right – the right to live and nothing more,” he said in an address to the United Nations Council on Human Rights in Geneva yesterday. The US and western Europe have strongly criticised Russia’s decision to send troops to Crimea as a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and threatened political and economic reprisals.
Russia was one of three big powers, including the US and Great Britain, that agreed in 1994 to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty after Kiev gave up nuclear weapons inherited from the Soviet Union. Crimea belongs to Ukraine but is of vital strategic importance to Russia as the home of its Black Sea fleet.
Russian president Vladimir Putin won authorisation from Russian lawmakers on Saturday to deploy troops in Ukraine. Mr Lavrov said the new authorities in Kiev had ignored the terms of a February 21st agreement brokered by France, Germany and Poland that would have ushered in a unity government and allowed Viktor Yanukovich, the president of Ukraine, to remain in office until an election at the end of this year.
“The opposition did nothing. Illegal arms have not been relinquished, government buildings and the streets of Kiev have not been completely freed, radicals maintain control of cities,” he said.
Dmitry Gorenburg, a security expert at the Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian studies at Harvard University, said Russia's Crimean intervention was an effort to "avoid what Putin perceived to be a complete geopolitical rout in aftermath of the defeat of Yanukovich".
“It appears that the likeliest scenario is that Putin gets Crimea as a client state – or new province to subsidise – while permanently losing any influence in the rest of Ukraine,” he said.
Moscow Carnegie Centre director Dmitry Trenin said there was a risk Russia might launch military operations not only in Crimea but also in other areas of Ukraine: “The Ukrainian turmoil has pushed Russia to looking for a solution to the Ukrainian issue that would probably include Crimea within the Russian Federation and eastern and southern regions of Ukraine forming a separate entity integrated with Russian economically and aligned with it politically.”
Western governments’ options for imposing penalties severe enough to be taken seriously by Russia and yet affordable for the US and its allies are limited, said Keir Giles, a Russian security expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
“The West can scold Russia and cancel summits, but Moscow has at no time considered words of outrage to be a response that needs to be taken into consideration,” he said.