(CNSNews.com) – Unidentified armed men seized the airport in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, Russia’s Interfax reported in the early hours of Friday morning, signaling a deepening in the Ukraine crisis hours after Secretary of State John Kerry said Moscow had promised to respect its neighbor’s “territorial integrity.”
Citing eyewitnesses, Interfax said at least three Russian-built KAMAZ trucks, bearing no license plates and ferrying about 50 men in military fatigues, had arrived at the airport and cordoned off its domestic flight terminal.
A day earlier, a similarly-described group of men had seized the parliament building in Simferopol, hoisting a Russian flag. Russian media are referring to the armed men as a pro-Russia militia.
Troubled by the fall of its ally, former President Viktor Yanukovich, Russia says Ukraine’s new Western-leaning leaders are “extremists” and that ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine face an uncertain future.
The Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, home to an important Russian Navy base at Sevastopol, has a majority ethnic Russian population and a long Russian history, and some inhabitants have been demonstrating in demand of independence from Ukraine.
On Thursday the Crimean parliament, convening with the complex under the control of the gunmen, installed a pro-Russian official and voted to hold a referendum in May on greater autonomy from Kiev.
Russia has been conducting military “preparedness” exercises in a region near its border with Ukraine and on Thursday the Russian defense ministry said fighter planes had been scrambled to patrol the border.
In Washington, Kerry told reporters that in a phone call to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, he urged Russia to work with the U.S. and allies to support Ukraine, and “discussed the very tense situation in Crimea.”
Kerry said Lavrov had told him that the military exercise underway “is not related to the Ukraine and was previously scheduled.”
Lavrov had also reaffirmed President Vladimir Putin’s statement, made in a phone conversation with President Obama on Friday, “that Russia will respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
Kerry said it was important for Russia to back up its statements with actions.
In response to a question, Kerry said Lavrov had “disclaimed” that the seizure of the parliament building in Simferopol “had anything to do with any formal Russian initiative.”
“I think they [the Russians] understand that to keep faith with their affirmation about protecting the territorial integrity, you can’t be encouraging a separatist movement or some other effort,” he added.
‘Wrong signal’ from NATO
The message was reinforced at a NATO summit in Brussels, where defense ministers from the Western alliance voiced support for “Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, territorial integrity, democratic development, and the principle of inviolability of frontiers.”
NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen also spoke out about the events in Crimea.
“This morning’s action by an armed group is dangerous and irresponsible. I urge Russia not to take any action that could escalate tension or create misunderstanding. I urge the new Ukrainian leadership to continue its efforts to establish an inclusive political process that reflects the democratic aspirations of the entire Ukrainian people.”
Ukraine earlier sought a NATO membership action plan – a path to full membership – but in 2008 opposition from European countries leery of Russia’s strong objections saw the move placed on hold for both Ukraine and Georgia.
NATO has since then reaffirmed that Ukraine and Georgia will become members at some future point, provided they still wish to and they meet certain reform criteria. But after his election in 2010 the pro-Moscow Yanukovich put Ukraine’s NATO membership bid on the shelf.
NATO’s stance on Thursday brought a chilly reaction from Moscow.
“When NATO starts giving a consideration the situation in Ukraine, it sends out the wrong signal,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
In Brussels, Russia’s ambassador to NATO said the alliance has no role, and should have no role, in Ukraine.
“Any attempt [by NATO] to raise its profile, or, moreover, intervene will only bring about additional strain and heat up the situation,” Alexander Grushko told Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency.
In his media appearance in Washington, Kerry responded cautiously when asked about Ukraine’s NATO aspirations.
The question of NATO membership was obviously a decision for the people of Ukraine, he said, but advised that in the run-up to presidential elections, scheduled for May 25, “it would be good for all the parties concerned to allow some space here.”
“This should not be solely about NATO or consolidation or association. This should be about the democratic process, the economy, the ability to protect minorities, the ability to pull Ukraine together,” he said.
“And I think they would be well served to hold off on those other issues until that choice has been made by the people and they have a government chosen by the people that is ready to move forward on those kinds of choices.”