By Dalton Bennett
and Maria Danilova
SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE: Masked gunmen stormed parliament in Ukraine’s strategic Crimea region Thursday as Russian fighter jets scrambled to patrol borders, the stirrings of a potentially dangerous confrontation reminiscent of Cold War brinksmanship.
While a newly formed government led by a pro-Western technocrat in Kiev pledged to prevent any national breakup, there were mixed signals in Moscow: Russia granted shelter to Ukraine’s fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, while pledging to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Yanukovych was said to be holed up in a luxury government retreat and to have scheduled a news conference today near the Ukrainian border.
As gunmen wearing unmarked camouflage uniforms erected a sign reading “Crimea is Russia” in the provincial capital, Ukraine’s interim prime minister declared the Black Sea territory “has been and will be a part of Ukraine.”
The escalating conflict sent Ukraine’s finances plummeting further, prompting Western leaders to prepare an emergency financial package.
Yanukovych, whose abandonment of closer ties to Europe in favor of a bailout loan from Russia set off three months of protests, finally fled by helicopter last week as his allies deserted him.
The humiliating exit was a severe blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been celebrating his signature Olympics even as Ukraine’s drama came to a head. The Russian leader has long dreamed of pulling Ukraine — a country of 46 million people considered the cradle of Russian civilization — closer into Moscow’s orbit.
For Ukraine’s neighbors, the specter of Ukraine breaking up evoked memories of centuries of bloody conflict.
“Regional conflicts begin this way,” said Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, calling the confrontation “a very dangerous game.”
Russia has pledged to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But the dispatch of Russian fighter jets Thursday to patrol borders and drills by some 150,000 Russian troops — almost the entirety of its force in the western part of the country — signaled strong determination not to lose Ukraine to the West.
Ukraine’s population is divided in loyalties between Russia and the West.
Crimea was once the crown jewel in Russian and then Soviet empires. It only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia — a move that was a mere formality until the 1991 Soviet collapse meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.