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US, Ukraine urge Putin to pull back

Igniting a tense standoff, Russian forces surrounded a Ukrainian army base Sunday just as the country began mobilizing its military in response to the surprise Russian takeover of the Crimean Peninsula. Outrage over Russia's tactics mounted in world capitals, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry calling on President Vladimir Putin to pull back from "an incredible act of aggression."

Fearing that Europe's borders were being rewritten by force, world leaders rushed to find a diplomatic solution to reverse what had already happened on the ground: Russia had captured the Black Sea peninsula on Saturday without firing a shot.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said there was no reason for Russia to invade Ukraine and warned that "we are on the brink of disaster."

"We believe that our western partners and the entire global community will support the territorial integrity and unity of Ukraine," he said Sunday in Kyiv.

NATO held an emergency meeting in Brussels, Britain's foreign minister flew to Kyiv to support its new government and the U.S., France and Britain debated the possibility of boycotting the next Group of Eight economic summit, being held in June at Sochi, the host of Russia's successful Winter Olympics.

In Kyiv, Moscow and other cities, thousands of protesters took to the streets to either decry the Russian occupation or celebrate Crimea's return to its former ruler.

"Support us, America!" a handful of protesters chanted outside the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. One young girl held up a placard reading: "No Russian aggression!"

"Russia! Russia!" the crowd chanted in Moscow.

Kerry, interviewed Sunday on U.S. television news shows, talked about boycotting the G-8 summit, as well as possible visa bans, asset freezes and trade and investment penalties against Russia. Kerry said all the foreign ministers he had talked to were prepared "to go to the hilt" to isolate Russia.

Still, politicians tread carefully, knowing it was a very delicate time for Europe.

"We are on a very dangerous track of increasing tensions," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. "(But) it is still possible to turn around. A new division of Europe can still be prevented."

But so far, Ukraine's new government and other countries have been powerless to counter Russian military tactics. Armed men in uniforms without insignia have moved freely about Crimea for days, occupying airports, smashing equipment at an air base and besieging a Ukrainian infantry base.

Putin has defied calls from the West to pull back his troops, insisting that Russia has a right to protect its interests and those of Russian-speakers in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine. His confidence is matched by the knowledge that Ukraine's 46 million people have divided loyalties between Russia and Europe. While much of western Ukraine wants closer ties with the EU, its eastern and southern regions like Crimea look to Russia for support.

Russia has long wanted to reclaim the lush Crimean Peninsula, which was part of its territory until 1954. Russia's Black Sea Fleet pays Ukraine millions every year to be stationed at the Crimean port of Sevastopol and nearly 60 per cent of Crimea's residents identify themselves as Russian.

 

The Canadian Press

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