CNN Opinion
By Frida Ghitis
updated 7:50 AM EST, Fri February 28, 2014

Armed men patrol outside the Simferopol International Airport in Ukraine's Crimea region on Friday, February 28. The gunmen, whom Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov called part of an "armed invasion" by Russian forces, appeared around the airport without identifying themselves. Crimea is an autonomous republic of Ukraine with an ethnic Russian majority. It's the last large bastion of opposition to Ukraine's new political leadership after President Viktor Yanukovych's ouster. Armed men patrol outside the Simferopol International Airport in Ukraine’s Crimea region on Friday, February 28. The gunmen, whom Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov called part of an “armed invasion” by Russian forces, appeared around the airport without identifying themselves. Crimea is an autonomous republic of Ukraine with an ethnic Russian majority. It’s the last large bastion of opposition to Ukraine’s new political leadership after President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.

 

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Gunmen taking over buildings in Crimea a sign battle for Ukraine not over
  • Ghitis: Crimea a flashpoint: If Russia launches military intervention, it will start there
  • Ghitis: Ethnic Russians must be in Ukrainian government and be ensured equal status
  • She says Crimea has political, cultural, geographic links to Russia and high strategic value

(CNN) — On Friday, armed men in military fatigues marched into the principal airport in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s most contentious region, Crimea. The uniforms did not reveal their identity, but an alarmed Interior Minister in Ukraine’s new government declared the move an “armed invasion” by Russia.

The incursion came 24 hours after masked gunmen took over government buildings there, raising the Russian flag over the regional parliament in a defiant sign that the battle for Ukraine is far from over.

In Kiev, the pro-European activists who succeeded in bringing an end to the Russian-backed government of now-former President Viktor Yanukovych are making progress choosing a new government with a well-qualified prime minister. But in the Crimea, on the Black Sea, tensions are building.

The situation is serious and the risks are enormous. Crimea is the flashpoint. If Ukraine unravels, it will begin there, in the small peninsula that has played an outsize role throughout history. If Russia decides to launch a military intervention, its justification and its target will be the Crimea.

For that reason, Ukraine’s new government must skillfully pay attention to how it deals with the concerns of the Crimean people and the status of that part of the country. At the same time, the U.S. and Europe must play a useful and constructive role, making sure Moscow understands that this must — and can — be resolved without military intervention, and that Ukraine will not be dismembered.

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Armed men patrol at the airport in Simferopol, Crimea

Armed men patrol at the airport in Simferopol, Crimea. Photograph: Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images

 

Russian armoured vehicles on the move in Crimea

After airport seizures, world leaders urge Moscow to avoid action that may be seen as violation of Ukrainian sovereignty

• Ukraine live blog: latest developments

 

 

Link to video: Ukraine: armed men patrol Simferopol airport in Crimea

 

With Russian armoured personnel carriers on the move in the Crimean peninsula, world leaders have sought assurances from the Kremlin that Moscow is not acting to escalate the violence in Ukraine.

A convoy of nine APCs painted with the Russian flag were seen on the road between the port city of Sevastopol and the regional capital of Sinferopol. Reporters spotted them parked on the side of a road near the town of Bakhchisarai, apparently stalled after one vehicle developed a mechanical fault.

The Russian foreign ministry said movements of vehicles belonging to the Russian Black Sea Fleet were prompted by the need to ensure the security of its base in Sevastopol. Russia is supposed to notify Ukraine of any troop movements outside the naval base. The Ukrainian defence ministry said it had no information about the vehicles’ movements.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, confirmed he had spoken to the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Friday, hours after unidentified soldiers seized two airports in the Ukrainian peninsula overnight.

Kerry said the US was watching to see if Russian activity “might be crossing a line in any way” and had urged the Kremlin against action that might be misinterpreted as a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.

Military troops in unmarked uniforms resembling Russian uniforms took over two airports in Crimea, Simferopol airport and a military facility at Sevastopol, overnight, and there were reports on Friday evening that Simferopol airport was not allowing flights from Kiev.

After the airport seizures, Andriy Paruby, the newly appointed top Ukrainian security official, accused Russia of waging “a military invasion and occupation”. “These are separatist groups … commanded by the Kremlin,” Paruby said of the armed military men patrolling streets in the Crimean cities of Simferopol and Sevastapol.

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