We’ll be adding updates throughout this post as the day continues.
The crisis in Ukraine took another ominous turn Friday when gunmen in unmarked military uniforms took control of two airports on the Crimean peninsula — where the majority of people are ethnic Russians and many want to break away from the new government in Kiev.
There was no violence. No shots were fired. But Ukraine’s new interior minister, Arsen Avakov, wrote on his Facebook page that “military units” from the Russian Navy fleet based at Crimea’s Black Sea port of Sevastopol were at one of the airports. At the other airport, Avakov wrote, the men “[did] not hide their affiliation to the armed forces of the Russian Federation.”
Avakov’s claims were dismissed by Moscow. “Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has denied that Russian servicemen are taking part,” the BBC says.
The developments at the airports follow Thursday’s takeover of government buildings in Crimea by pro-Russia gunmen and a vote by the parliament there to schedule a referendum on whether the region should demand more autonomy.
Meanwhile, ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was reported to be set to hold a news conference Friday in Rostov-on-Don, a city on the Russian side of the border with Ukraine. He’s expected to speak in the late afternoon, local time. That would be sometime between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. ET. Yanukovych has said he is still Ukraine’s president, even though the country’s parliament removed him from office last Saturday.
The new government in Ukraine has announced it will ask Russia to extradite Yanukovych, so that he can face mass murder charges stemming from the deaths in Kiev last week of scores of protesters. Yanukovych has also been accused of corruption and Ukrainian authorities claim he’s responsible for the disappearance of billions of dollars in government money.
As NPR’s Michele Kelemen reported Friday on Morning Edition, while all this goes on, “the U.S. says this should not be a zero sum game and Ukraine should not face a choice of East versus West, but that’s not an easy case to make.” Secretary of State John Kerry, she added, “says he received assurances from Moscow that it will respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”
We’ve previously summed up what sparked months of protest in Kiev and ultimately led to Yanukovych’s dismissal last weekend this way:
“The protests were sparked in part by the president’s rejection of a pending trade treaty with the European Union and his embrace of more aid from Russia. Protesters were also drawn into the streets to demonstrate against government corruption.”
Also Friday, Bloomberg BusinessWeek writes, “Ukraine’s new government said it had enough reserves to pay all creditors as the country started negotiations for an International Monetary Fund loan.” But BusinessWeek notes that Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, “[has] plunged to a record low this week as ethnic tensions at home and Russian military maneuvers nearby rattle investors.”