As I suspected, Russia isn't going to let Ukraine leave its sphere of influence so easily. The Guardian reports:
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.
... 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.
Moscow has denied launching a military offensive in the region.
Journalists and the Ukrainian border guard have reported a fleet of more than 10 Russian military helicopters entering Ukrainian air space over Crimea, flying from Russia.
... In Simferopol, groups of armed men arrived overnight at the main airport serving the region. They wore military fatigues with no insignia and refused to talk, though one told news agencies they were part of a self-defence unit who wanted to ensure that no "fascists" arrived in the region from Kiev.The BBC also has confirmed some movement of Russian vehicles into Ukraine.
At Sevastopol airport, a military airport that handles few commercial flights, a man who said he was a captain in the tactical aviation brigade but declined to give his name, told the Guardian there were about 300 people of unknown identity inside the airport. "We don't consider it any invasion of our territory," he said without elaborating.
He said the men looked like military, were wearing two different types of uniform and were armed with sniper rifles and AK-47s. "We don't know who they are, nor where they've come from."
He added that there were two large trucks inside. "They [the vehicles] looked like they could contain 50 people at a push, so how they got 300 people inside I don't know," he said
A Major Fidorenko, from the Ukrainian military based at the airport, said the Ukrainians had been in touch with the unknown gunmen, who said they were there "to prevent unwanted landings of helicopters and planes".
The Daily Beast is reporting that the "troops" which took over the airports are not Russian military, but, rather, Russian "security consultants":
Private security contractors working for the Russian military are the unmarked troops who have now seized control over two airports in the Ukrainian province of Crimea, according to informed sources in the region. And those contractors could be setting the stage for ousted President Viktor Yanukovich to come to the breakaway region.
... but the troops are being directed by the Russian government. Although not confirmed, informed sources in Moscow are telling their American interlocutors that the troops belong to Vnevedomstvenaya Okhrana, the private security contracting bureau inside the Russian interior ministry that hires mercenaries to protect Russian Navy installations and assets in Crimea. Other diplomatic sources said that the troops at the airport were paramilitary troops but not specifically belonging to Vnevedomstvenaya Okhrana.
“They don’t have Russian military uniforms and the Russia government is denying they are part of the Russian military. But these are people that are legally allowed to perform services to the Russian fleet.”
“They don’t have Russian military uniforms and the Russia government is denying they are part of the Russian military. Actually most of them may be Ukrainian citizens. But these are people that are legally allowed to perform services to the Russian fleet,” said Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest.
A Russian Foreign Ministry statement Friday did not address the troops at the airport but did acknowledge that armored elements of the Black Sea Fleet had been moved in Crimea, “associated with the need to ensure the protection of locations of the Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine, what is happening in full accordance with the basic Russian-Ukrainian agreements on the Black Sea Fleet.”That the Russians have made some movement of troops into Ukraine (specifically, Crimea) is to be expected because of their need to safeguard their naval base. Certainly, if there was a revolution in Cuba, the U.S. would probably airlift troops to protect Guantanamo without necessarily having any intention of "invading" the rest of the country.
The Daily Beast article raises a secondary purpose, as well:
Second, the forces could be paving the way for Yanukovich to travel to Crimea, where he will maintain that he is still the president of all Ukraine. In fact, Yanukovich was involved in the decision to deploy the security contractors to the airport, he said.
“They are providing an extended perimeter of security. Yanukovich certainly has the authority (in Moscow’s view) to allow these units to extend their service wherever it is appropriate,” said Simes. “I am told by informed sources in Moscow that this is what it happening.”
... But the private security forces provide a loophole for Vladimir Putin; he can claim there is no Russian “military” intervention while using Russian-controlled forces to exert influence inside Ukraine. The plan would be to give the new Crimean government a space to hold a referendum and then elections, thereby establishing a province with some autonomy from Kiev.Another article from the Daily Beast sums up the potential for war:
Demography may not be destiny, but in this case it’s trying like hell to be. According to Andrei Malgin, a writer for Ehko Moskvy, as of 2001, 58.3 percent of Crimea’s population was Russian. But Russians outnumber other ethnicities, such as the Tartars, in only a few raions or municipalities: Feodosiya, Simferopol and Yalta among them. Elsewhere throughout Crimea—Krasnoperekopsk, Dzhankoy, Pervomaysk—Russians are in a minority. If armed clashes were to break out in a region-wide scale, the “victor” would by no means be predetermined. What the media has rather glibly been defining for months as a geographical or ethnolinguistic East-West split for Ukraine as a whole might actually be better applied to Crimea. But here it runs along a North-South divide, with pro-Russian concentrations more heavily distributed closer to the Black Sea.
Yesterday, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations broke in Simferopol, leading to at least one death, probably from heart attack. “Glory to Ukraine” (shouted by Tartars) competed with “Russia!” (shouted by Russians). Refat Chubarov, the Crimean Tartar leader, has even called on his people to form self-defense militias to guard against attack or provocations, as Ukrainska Pravda reported. Tartars have even asked Ankara for military intervention to protect them against the Russians: whispers, however deafly received, of another Balaclava campaign. Meanwhile, news emerged that the Russian military would now be conducting a large-scale “snap” exercise featuring 150,000 soldiers (as Naval War College Professor John Schindler points out, this is roughly the number that the United States dispatched into Iraq in 2003) for what Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called “action in crisis situations that threaten the nation’s military security.” This drill, running from February 28 until March 3, would encompass the entirety of Russia’s Western Military District, which spans from the Arctic to the borders of Ukraine and Belarus, as well as the Second Army of the Central Military District, the command of the Aerospace Defense, the Airborne Troops, and the Long-Range and Military Transport Aviations. The district that would theoretically invade Crimea isn’t involved in the exercise: both saber rattling and plausible deniability done right.