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'We Are Ready To Protect Our Country,' Ukrainian Leader Says

Demonstrators carried a Russian flag during a rally this week in the western Crimean city of Yevpatoria.
Genya Savilov
AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators carried a Russian flag during a rally this week in the western Crimean city of Yevpatoria.
We're updating this post as the day continues.

While conceding that his nation can't come close to the military power of Russia, the interim prime minister of Ukraine said Thursday that "we are ready to protect our country" if Russia does not stop its "military aggression" in Crimea.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk told reporters in Brussels, Belgium, that the presence of Russian forces in that autonomous region of his nation "is unacceptable in the 21st century."

The Ukrainian military, Yatsenyuk said, has refrained from taking action so far because it does not wish to play into a "scenario designated by Russia." But he added that Ukraine has "the spirit" to defend itself if necessary.

Yatsenyuk spoke just after 9 a.m. ET. His comments followed the news from earlier in the day — as our post below details — that lawmakers in Crimea have taken steps toward what they hope would be an eventual split from Ukraine to join the Russian Federation.

Yatsenyuk called the Crimean parliamentarians' action "an illegitimate decision" and said that "Crimea was, is and will be an integral part of Ukraine." (Update at 12:25 p.m. ET.)

Also Thursday, as we report below, the White House took the initial step toward economic and travel sanctions on anyone who is "complicit" in Russia's actions in Ukraine.

The U.S. and Russia, meanwhile, continued to spar verbally.

Late Wednesday, the State Department posted about "President Putin's Fiction: 10 False Claims About Ukraine." The post says, for example, that although Putin has said the troops on the ground in Crimea are not Russian forces, "strong evidence suggests that members of Russian security services are at the heart of the highly organized anti-Ukraine forces in Crimea. ... They drive vehicles with Russian military license plates and freely identify themselves as Russian security forces when asked by the international media and the Ukrainian military. Moreover, these individuals are armed with weapons not generally available to civilians."

On Thursday, Reuters reports, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich called the State Department posting a "primitive distortion of reality."

"It's clear that in Washington, as before, they are unable to accept a situation developing not according to their templates," he added. (Update at 11 a.m. ET.)

Our original post and an earlier update pick up the story:

Another twist was added to the already complicated and confusing crisis in Ukraine when Crimea's parliament voted Thursday to join the Russian Federation and set a public referendum on that issue for March 16.

According to The Guardian, it isn't clear what the parliament's vote actually means, and "how this works alongside the referendum. ... Also unclear is what Russia's answer will be to a referendum vote — is Moscow now pushing ahead for full annexation, or is this a plot to make some eventual de facto independent state solution look like a compromise?"

In what might be a signal of how Russia will react, NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow that lawmakers there are preparing a bill that would simplify the addition of new territories to Russia.

Reuters adds that "Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Ukraine, including the Crimean parliament's appeal to let the region join Russia, at a meeting of his Security Council on Thursday, RIA news agency quoted his spokesman as saying."

In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Interim Economy Minister Pavlo Sheremeta said his nation's newly installed central government believes it would be unconstitutional for Crimea, an autonomous republic within Ukraine, to seek to split off and join the Russian Federation.

Crimean lawmakers had said last week that they hoped to hold a referendum on May 25 about whether to seek even more autonomy for the region. Later, they moved the date up to March 30. Now, they're seeking a vote in just 10 days and appear to be seeing it as a question of whether to confirm their decision about joining Russia, The Guardian's Shawn Walker reports.

As Reuters adds, "the sudden acceleration of moves to formally bring the Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority and has effectively been seized by Russian forces, under Moscow's rule came as European Union leaders gathered for an emergency summit to seek ways to pressure Russia to back down and accept mediation."

Crimea has been the focus of attention for more than a week now as the ripple effects of the protests that led to last month's ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych have spread.

Military units, which Putin insists are "local self-defense forces" but witnesses and reporters say are Russian troops, have seized key locations across the Crimean Peninsula and surrounded Ukrainian military bases. Putin says Russia needs to protect the ethnic Russians in Crimea, who make up a majority of the population there. So far, no shots have been exchanged and Ukrainian forces have stayed mostly on their bases.

Secretary of State John Kerry and other Western diplomats have been pressing Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to accept a diplomatic solution to the crisis — likely involving foreign monitors on the ground in Crimea. Kerry met with Lavrov on Wednesday in Paris and they are expected to talk again today in Rome on the sidelines of a conference about Libya.

Meanwhile, European Union officials are huddling in Brussels for an emergency meeting about the situation in Ukraine. On Wednesday, the EU offered the new leaders in Ukraine a $15 billion package of loans and grants to shore up that nation's crippled economy.

Also Thursday, the White House said President Obama has signed an executive order that "blocks the property and interests in property and suspends entry into the United States of any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State" to have been involved in "actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine."

According to NPR's Michele Kelemen, "U.S. officials say that Russian and Ukrainian officials or individuals that are complicit in violations of Ukraine's sovereignty won't be able to get visas to travel to the U.S. The administration is also paving the way for financial sanctions against people the U.S. believes are threatening peace and stability and undermining democracy in the former soviet republic." (We added this news about the White House actions at 7:42 a.m. ET.)

Summing up the history and importance of Crimea to Russia and Ukraine isn't possible in just a few sentences, of course. The Parallels blog, though, has published several posts that contain considerable context:

-- Crimea: 3 Things To Know About Ukraine's Latest Hot Spot

-- Crimea: A Gift To Ukraine Becomes A Political Flash Point

-- Why Ukraine Is Such A Big Deal For Russia

We've previously summed up what set off months of protest in Kiev and ultimately led to Yanukovych's dismissal by his nation's parliament last month:

"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."

It was after Yanukovych left Kiev and headed for the Russian border that troops moved to take control of strategic locations in Crimea. That peninsula is important to Russia not only because of the large ethnic Russian population, but also because it's home to Russia's strategically significant warm-water naval base on the Black Sea.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.