Russian troops take over Ukraine's Crimea region as Putin gets approval to use military

Troops in unmarked uniforms stand guard in Balaklava on Saturday, March 1, 2014, on the outskirts of Sevastopol, Ukraine. An emblem on one of the vehicles and their number plates identify them as belonging to the Russian military.

Troops in unmarked uniforms stand guard in Balaklava on Saturday on the outskirts of Sevastopol, Ukraine. An emblem on one of the vehicles and their number plates identify them as belonging to the Russian military. 

Associated Press + More

Ukraine's population of 46 million is divided in loyalties between Russia and Europe, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the European Union while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support. Crimea, a semi-autonomous region that Russia gave to Ukraine in the 1950s, is mainly Russian-speaking.

In his address to parliament, Putin said the "extraordinary situation in Ukraine" was putting at risk the lives of Russian citizens and military personnel stationed at the Crimean naval base that Moscow has maintained since the Soviet collapse.

Despite Putin's sharp move, there were possible signs Saturday that the Russian leader could soften his approach. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was freed a week ago after more than 2 ½ years in prison, was reported to be heading to Moscow for a meeting with Putin on Monday. Putin has had good ties with Tymoshenko in the past, and he may look to her for a possible compromise.

In a statement posted on her party's web site, Tymoshenko urged the U.N. Security Council to meet in Kiev and asked the EU leaders to convene a meeting in Crimea. She urged the West to help protect Ukraine's territorial integrity, asked Ukrainians to remain calm and voiced hope that diplomacy will succeed.

In a note of restraint, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said the motion doesn't mean the president would immediately send additional troops to Ukraine. "There is no talk about it yet," he said.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, also said in televised remarks that while the president "got the entire arsenal of means necessary for settling this situation," he hadn't yet decided whether to use the Russian military in Ukraine or recall the ambassador from Washington as lawmakers suggested.

Putin's motion loosely refers to the "territory of Ukraine" rather than specifically to Crimea, raising the possibility that Moscow could use military force in other Russian-speaking areas in eastern and southern Ukraine, where many detest the new authorities in Kiev.

Pro-Russian protests were reported Saturday in the eastern cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk and the southern port of Odessa. In Kharkiv, 97 people were injured in clashes between pro-Russia demonstrators who flushed supporters of the new Ukrainian government out of the regional government building and hoisted the Russian flag on top of it, according to the Interfax news agency.

Trenin, of Moscow's Carnegie office, said that Putin could be seeking to "include Crimea within the Russian Federation and eastern and southern regions of Ukraine forming a separate entity integrated with Russia economically and aligned with it politically."

"It is not clear at this point whether Kiev will be left to build a rump Ukraine with the western regions or whether it will be swayed to join the eastern regions," he wrote.

In Crimea, the new pro-Russian prime minister — who came to power after the gunmen swept into parliament on Thursday — claimed control of the military and police and asked Putin for help in keeping peace. There was no visible presence of Ukrainian troops Saturday.

The deputy premier in the Crimean government told Russian news agency RIA Novsti that Ukrainian troops were disarmed and others joined the Crimean people to help patrol the territory. The report couldn't immediately be confirmed.

Crimean Tatars, the historic hosts of the land who make up 12 percent of the island's population and stand strongly for Crimea remaining part of Ukraine, didn't put up any visible resistance Saturday.

"The last two or three days have turned around the life of all the people in Crimea," said Refat Chubarov, a Crimean Tatar leader. "They've taken over military bases and civil institutions. That's why Crimean society is filled with fear. People are afraid of everyone and everything."

Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia, a move that was a mere formality when both Ukraine and Russia were part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet breakup in 1991 meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.