At Senior Center, She Learns ‘Nobody Can Compete With Putin’


Until recently, Nadia Luzina gave lectures on culture and politics to her fellow elderly Russians at a senior center in Mar Vista. 

In one talk about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his role in the takeover of the Crimea region in Ukraine, she called him “dictator.”

The audience quickly became annoyed with her and accused her of anti-Putin sentiments. One woman warned Luzina, an 84-year-old Russian Jew, that her anti-Putin comments might offend ethnic Russians. Someone called Luzina a traitor. The following week, not a single person showed up at her lectures.

“Everyone turned away from me that day,” she said.

In recent weeks, there has been much talk of the mutual admiration between Putin and Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president of the United States. The annexation of Crimea and prosecution of opposition leaders turned some world powers against Putin and many Americans have expressed dismay at Trump’s laudatory remarks about the Russian president, but not everyone shares that skepticism. 

Among many Russian-Jewish expatriates in Los Angeles, the second most populated Russian-speaking community in the United States, Putin gets high marks.

“Nobody can compete with Putin,” said Leonid Ivanov, who moved to L.A. from Belarus 15 years ago and now lives in West Hollywood. “With him, the unemployment rate went down and many people got a job.”

For decades, the fate of Russian Jews depended on the czar’s will. Before the Bolshevik revolution, they were segregated in the western part of the Russian Empire, known as the Pale of Settlement, terrorized by Cossacks’ pogroms.

Under Soviet control, synagogues were shut down and Jews were banned from any administrative positions. But in recent years, Jews have seen anti-Semitism weakening in Russia, a change many attribute to Putin’s peacemaking efforts.

“With Putin, there is less anti-Semitism,” said Victor Petrov, a West Hollywood resident who emigrated from the Black Sea port city of Odessa 25 years ago. Of course, that could be due to changing demographics, too. “Maybe it’s because there are not that many Jews left,” he added. 

For many Russian Jews who remember economic hardships of the post-Soviet era, Putin symbolizes times of economic stability and growth, when Russia finally got up from its knees.

The country hit rock bottom in the 1990s in the time of financial collapse, political crisis, war in Chechnya, and the bombing of residential buildings in Moscow.

“It’s mind-blowing that someone would want a dictator until you lived through 1990s in Moscow,” said Robert English, director of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. “If you lived through a decade of President Boris Yeltsin and his efforts to make democracy work, it would make sense. Those efforts produced crime, corruption and criminals.”

Those turbulent times also made many Russians reluctant to support building a Western-style democracy.

“They had such a bad experience in the 1990s that they gave up on democracy,” English said. “A lot of people said, ‘If I have to choose between democracy and freedom of press or stable society with less crime and steady income, I choose the stability.’ ”

Russian-Jewish expatriates also believe Putin protected Russia’s sovereignty by taking over the Crimean Peninsula, historically populated by Russians. 

“Crimea belongs to Russia because everyone speaks Russian there,” said Victor Tankelevich, who moved to Los Angeles from Moscow in the late 1990s, fleeing economic turmoil. “Ukrainians are trying to eliminate Russian culture in Crimea. So why would we need to give it to Ukraine? Crimea has always belonged to us.”

Since the day of the heated discussion, Luzina has stopped giving lectures at her Mar Vista senior center, but has continued the political debates with her 94-year-old Russian Jewish boyfriend, who is a big supporter of Putin.

“He saved Russia from destruction, and I respect him for that,” said Isaac, who asked that his last name not be used. Isaac moved to Los Angeles from St. Petersburg 24 years ago. “Putin was able to keep the country together.”  

Luzina came here from Moscow in 1990 with her husband Lev, who passed away a few years ago. To distract herself from the grief of losing her husband, she started spending hours at her laptop digging into Russian history and politics. A friend suggested she give lectures on politics and culture at the Universal Adult Day Healthcare center.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Luzina sat at a table covered with a clear tablecloth, along with four fellow seniors. Sitting next to Isaac, she wore a long black skirt. Her pearl necklace matched white sandals and a white top with large blue leaves and sparkling buttons. 

Their square table was in a long auditorium, and as the group waited for breakfast, their conversation shifted toward Russian politics.

“Putin is a dictator and Russia needs the dictator because it has the slave mentality,” said Anna Z., who declined to give her last name. “Russia needs a person like Putin to keep the country together.”

A woman wearing a brown apron served, and the group started breakfast. Black-and-white plastic jars with signs “coffee” and “tea” sat on the table next to bowls of steamy oatmeal and a glass vase with artificial roses.

A large painting of a fountain decorated the yellow walls. On the opposite wall, a sign that read “Happy Birthday” hung next to an American flag. 

Luzina has been coming to the senior center for several years, but since the beginning of the Crimean crisis, she said, she has had trouble connecting with fellow Russians. 

“I read news on the internet, and those old fools watch Russian channels, which is nothing but propaganda,” she said. 

Russia to hold war games in show of strength near Ukraine


Russia announced military exercises near the border with Ukraine on Monday in a show of strength as the Ukrainian army recaptured more territory from pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.

The Russian air force said more than 100 aircraft, including fighter jets and bombers, were taking part in the manoeuvres this week in the central and western military districts.

The move could alarm Western powers which have accused Russia of beefing up its troops along its border with Ukraine and arming the rebels in eastern Ukraine, although Moscow denies the accusations.

The manoeuvres include missile-firing practice and will assist “coordination between aviation and anti-missile defence”, Interfax news agency quoted an airforce spokesman as saying.

He said Russia's latest bomber, the Su-24, was taking part, as well as Su-27 and MiG-31 fighter jets.

Russia upset the West by staging military exercises near Ukraine in March after the conflict with Ukraine flared. Moscow said in May it had pulled back its forces but NATO military commander General Philip Breedlove said last week it still had more than 12,000 troops and weapons along the frontier.

The crisis has pushed relations between Russia and the West to their lowest level since the Cold War, with each side accusing the other of orchestrating events in Ukraine, and the United States and European Union imposing sanctions on Russia.

Russia has a firm grip on the Crimea peninsula, which it annexed in March after Ukraine ousted a pro-Moscow president, but the rebels who wanted Moscow to also annexe east Ukraine have been losing ground in the past few weeks.

UKRAINIAN ARMY ADVANCES

Government forces said they had recaptured an important rail hub in the latest fighting near Donetsk, the biggest of the two large cities the rebels still hold after almost four months of fighting.

“Units taking part in the 'anti-terrorist operation' yesterday took the town of Yasynuvata, which is an important hub of the region's railway system,” Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Kiev's military operation in the east, told a briefing.

The separatists had seized the Yasynuvata railway control centre in May as their rebellion spread in eastern Ukraine. It sits just north of Donetsk near a main road leading to Luhansk, another remaining rebel stronghold.

Five government soldiers were killed and 15 wounded over the previous 24 hours, Lysenko said. There were no new casualty figures for the rebels in a conflict the United Nations said had killed more than 1,100 people from mid-April to late July.

Fighting has intensified since the West accused the rebels of shooting down a Malaysian airliner last month, killing all 298 people on board. Russia and the rebels blame the disaster on Kiev's military offensive.

In a sign that not all the fighting is going the Ukrainian army's way, Russian border guards said 438 Ukrainian soldiers had crossed into Russia during the night seeking asylum.

“They were tired of the war and wanted no further part in it,” Vasily Malayev, spokesman for the borders guards in the Rostov region of Russia, told Reuters by telephone.

He said they had been treated well, and 180 were being returned to Ukraine later on Monday, but it was not clear what the rest wanted to do.

Lysenko said the soldiers and border guards had crossed into Russia in search of safety after being blocked between the Russian border to the east and pro-Russian rebel positions in the west for more than three weeks.

He gave no numbers but said Kiev was trying to negotiate their return.

The fighting had prevented Dutch and Australian experts reaching the wreckage of the downed airliner in rebel-held territory for several days but they have managed to recover some human remains and belongings in the past few days. The victims included 196 Dutch, 27 Australians and 43 Malaysians.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Polina Devitt and Tatiana Ustinova in Moscow and by Gabrieal Baczynska and Natalia Zinets in Kiev; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Will Waterman

Rebels likely downed Malaysian jet ‘by mistake,’ U.S. officials say


U.S. intelligence officials said on Tuesday they believe pro-Russian separatists likely shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 “by mistake.”

Last week's downing of the airliner, in which all 298 people aboard were killed, has sharply deepened the Ukrainian crisis, in which separatist gunmen in the Russian-speaking east have been fighting government forces since pro-Western protesters in Kiev forced out a pro-Moscow president and Russia annexed Crimea in March.

Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Jason Szep and Peter Cooney

Divided eastern Ukraine city calm after battle, rebels seek Russian help


An uneasy calm returned to the streets of Donetsk on Wednesday after the biggest battle of the pro-Russian separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine, a conflict transformed by the landslide election of a pro-European leader who vowed to crush the revolt.

Government forces killed dozens of rebel fighters on Monday and Tuesday in an assault to retake Donetsk International Airport, which the rebels had seized the morning after Ukrainians overwhelmingly elected Petro Poroshenko as president.

Pro-Moscow gunmen have declared the city of a million people capital of an independent Donetsk People's Republic. On Wednesday their leader appealed anew for Russia's help.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of pushing Ukraine into “the abyss of fratricidal war”, and reiterated his call for an end to Kiev's military offensive. Russia's Foreign Ministry urged Kiev to let it send humanitarian aid to civilians trapped by the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

“The residents of the Donetsk People's Republic are on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe,” said separatist leader Denis Pushilin in his appeal. “We are Russians and this is precisely why they are killing us. We want to become part of Russia.”

The rebels' plight puts pressure on President Vladimir Putin to act, even though he has reduced the number of forces he has massed on Ukraine's eastern border and has said he would recognise the outcome of Sunday's election in Ukraine.

Rebel fighters were strengthening their barricades with sandbags on the road to the airport near the hulk of a truck where many of them were killed by government fire on Monday.

The government assault in Donetsk on Monday and Tuesday was the first time Kiev has unleashed its full military force against the fighters after weeks of restraint. Morgues were filled on Tuesday with bodies of rebel gunmen. Some were missing limbs in a sign of the massive firepower used against them.

The separatist authorities say as many as 50 died, including a truckload of wounded fighters blasted apart as they were driven away from the battlefield. The government said it suffered no losses in the operation, which saw its aircraft strafe the airport and paratroops land to reclaim it.

Poroshenko, 48, a billionaire confectionary magnate who became the first Ukrainian since 1991 to win the presidency outright in a single round of voting, repeated his promise to restore government control rapidly over secessionist-held areas.

“We are in a state of war in the east. Crimea is occupied by Russia and there is great instability. We must react,” he told Germany's Bild newspaper.

“We will no longer permit these terrorists to kidnap and shoot people, occupy buildings or suspend the law. We will put an end to these horrors – a real war is being waged against our country,” said Poroshenko, who is expected to be inaugurated within two weeks.

His swift offensive has thrown down a challenge to Putin, who made defending Russians in other parts of the former Soviet Union a pillar of his rule since declaring his right to use military force in Ukraine in March.

While calling for an end to Kiev's military campaign, Putin has also announced the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Russian troops he had massed on the frontier. A NATO officer said on Wednesday thousands of Russian troops had indeed been pulled out, although tens of thousands were still in place.

Moscow says it is willing to work with Poroshenko but has no plans for him to visit for talks. It denies accusations by Kiev and Western countries that it is behind the rebellion.

“I have no doubt that Putin could end the fighting using his direct influence,” Poroshenko said. “I definitely want to speak with Putin and hold talks to stabilise the situation.” 

FEAR AND DEFIANCE

In Donetsk, the main shopping mall remained closed for a third day and streets were mostly empty. The mayor, Oleksander Lukianchenko, renewed an appeal for people to stay at home and also reported some gunfire coming from the area of the airport.

Lukianchenko's municipal government has remained in place even as separatists have proclaimed themselves in power in the province, a sign of the confused loyalties in the area.

A young man in a helmet at the airport road barricade who gave his name as Yuri said: “I am doing what I can to help our fighters resist the advancing Ukrainian troops. They haven't slept for a third day now and are really nervous, expecting a renewed attack from Ukrainians at any moment.”

Around 1,000 miners bussed in from around the eastern Donbass coalfield staged a demonstration in support of the separatists in Donetsk.

“Kiev does not rule us any more, we will no longer accept that,” separatist leader Pushilin told the crowd. A Ukrainian fighter jet roared overhead and some gunfire could be heard in the distance, apparently from rebels in the vicinity of the security building shooting at the plane.

A miner from the state-owned Abakumova mine attending the demonstration who gave his name as Valery said: “I want peace and to be able to work and make money. I want the occupying soldiers to leave and return to their Kiev junta.”

Russia and its state media which broadcast into eastern Ukraine have consistently described the government in Kiev, which took power after a pro-Russian president fled in February, as illegitimate and led by “fascists”.

But Moscow's position was undermined by the scale of Poroshenko's election victory, and Kiev now appears emboldened to act with less threat of Russian retaliation.

Poroshenko, a former cabinet minister under both pro- and anti-Russian presidents, won 55 percent of the vote, preliminary results show, in a field of 21 candidates. He commanded support across the east-west divide that has defined Ukrainian politics since independence. His nearest challenger won just 13 percent.

The separatists blocked voting in Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk provinces, but the 10 percent of voters kept away from the polls would not have made a difference to the final outcome.

Although many in eastern Ukraine are sceptical of the government in Kiev, opinion polls have shown most favour some sort of unity with Ukraine, despite referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk staged by the rebels on May 11 that recorded a vote for independence. The majority in the east describe themselves as ethnic Ukrainians who speak Russian as their primary language.

“We live in Ukraine,” said Mikhail, 31, a theatre manager. “I work at the Ukrainian Theatre in Donetsk. Would I work at the Donetsk People's Republic Theatre? That doesn't sound so good. I think all this mess is only temporary.

“I didn't vote because we could not vote here, but Poroshenko seems decent,” he said. “We will see. Many were elected as decent and then turned into bribetakers as a general rule. I hope he will not let Ukraine down.”

There was no word about the fate of a four-man team of OSCE monitors missing after approaching a roadblock near Donetsk on Monday. Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said separatists had abducted them. Western security sources believe the monitors, from Denmark, Estonia, Switzerland and Turkey, are being held near Antratsit, a small town south of the city of Luhansk.

Additional reporting by Lina Kushch and Yannis Behrakis in Donetsk, Gareth Jones and Richard Balmforth in Kiev and Stephen Brown in Berlin; Writing by Gareth Jones and Peter Graff; Editing by Peter Graff

Putin seeks better ties with West but blasts U.S. over Ukraine


President Vladimir Putin said on Friday he wanted better ties with the West but fiercely criticized U.S. policy on Ukraine and the global economy – and acknowledged that sanctions were hurting Russia.

In a speech to foreign and Russian businessmen gathered at Russia's answer to the Davos World Economic Forum, Putin sent mixed messages, signaling he would work with whomever is elected Ukraine's president on Sunday and trying to woo foreign investors by promising reforms.

But, describing the situation in Russia's neighbor as civil war, he accused the United States of fomenting unrest in Ukraine and aggravating global economic problems, and reiterated concerns that Ukraine would one day join NATO.

“We are not planning any self-isolation,” Putin told the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, an annual conference that is meant to showcase Russia as a place to do business but has this year been boycotted by many American bosses.

“We hope that common sense … will prompt our European and U.S. partners to work with Russia,” he said, looking pale after a trip this week to China in which he concluded a $400-billion gas supply deal.

But reverting to the anti-U.S. rhetoric that has been a hallmark of his third term as president since May 2012, he appeared to try to drive a wedge between the United States and the European Union over the sanctions they have imposed over Russia's annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine.

He said Washington had “crapped” in Ukraine by encouraging the removal of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich, but that European businesses had shown a more pragmatic approach – the European Union has been reluctant to impose tough sanctions because of its heavy reliance on Russian natural gas supplies.

“The world has changed,” Putin said. Indirectly criticizing Washington, he added: “The unipolar vision of the world … has failed.”

“REAL IMPACT” OF SANCTIONS

A senior government official said at the forum in Russia's second-biggest city on Thursday that the sanctions, mainly ivisa bans and asset freezes on individuals and companies close to Putin, were having a serious effect.

Putin acknowledged this more openly than previously, saying: “The sanctions … are having a real impact.”

Russia is sliding into recession and capital flight has accelerated this year as the crisis in Ukraine caused the biggest East-West standoff since the Cold War.

Russia seized and annexed Crimea in March and has since then massed tens of thousands of troops on the frontier. Kiev and its Western allies say Moscow is behind an uprising in eastern Ukraine by armed separatists who have declared independence and called for Russian military support.

Ukraine will hold a presidential election on Sunday, and Washington and Brussels have threatened to impose much tougher sanctions if Moscow interferes with the vote.

Attempting to end doubts that Moscow will not recognize the legitimacy of the next president, Putin said: “We will treat the choice of the Ukrainian people with respect.”

He called for better relations with Ukraine but said it must halt military operations against the separatists in east Ukraine, pay off its gas debt to Russia and release Russian journalists held in detention.

Addressing the decline of Russia's $2 trillion economy, he said his country must reduce its reliance on energy exports which provide about 25 percent of gross domestic product, and said Russia must boost major domestic banks and industries.

Putin also said there was a plan to create a state fund to help replace imports from Western countries with domestic production.

Reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Lidia Kelly and Giles Elgood

Putin marks Victory in Crimea as Ukraine violence flares


President Vladimir Putin flew in to Crimea on Friday for the first time since it was annexed by Moscow, proclaiming as he marked the Soviet victory in World War II that incorporating the former Ukrainian territory had made Russia stronger.

In east Ukraine, where pro-Moscow rebels plan a referendum on Sunday to follow Crimea in breaking from Kiev, at least seven people were killed and dozens were wounded in chaotic fighting in the center of the port of Mariupol.

One of the most serious clashes yet between Ukrainian forces and separatists, it edged the former Soviet republic closer to civil war.

The head of NATO, locked in its gravest confrontation with Russia since the Cold War, condemned Putin's visit to Crimea, whose annexation in March has not been recognized by Western powers. He also renewed doubts over an assurance by the Kremlin leader that he had pulled back troops from the Ukrainian border.

The pro-Western government in Kiev, labeled “fascist” by Moscow, said Putin's visit was intended to escalate the crisis.

Watching a military parade in Sevastopol on the Black Sea, Putin said: “There is a lot of work ahead but we will overcome all difficulties because we are together, which means we have become stronger.”

Earlier in the day, he had presided over the biggest Victory Day parade in Moscow for years. The passing tanks, aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles were a reminder to the world – and Russian voters – of Putin's determination to revive Moscow's global power, 23 years after the Soviet collapse.

“The iron will of the Soviet people, their fearlessness and stamina saved Europe from slavery,” Putin said in a speech to the military and war veterans gathered on Red Square.

The United States said the trip to Crimea was provocative, the European Union said Putin should not have used the World War Two commemoration to showcase the annexation and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the visit “inappropriate”.

The head of the U.S.-led defense pact was speaking in formerly Soviet Estonia, one of a host of east European nations that joined after the collapse of communism, seeking refuge from the power of Moscow, which many in the region regarded as having enslaved them following its victory in World War Two.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, in office since an uprising overthrew the Kremlin-backed elected president in Kiev in February, rejects Russian allegations that his power is the result of coup backed by neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists.

“Sixty-nine years ago, we, together with Russia, fought against fascism and won,” he said after a Victory Day church service in the capital. Now, he added, “history is repeating itself but in a different form”.

Where Russia and Ukraine stood shoulder to shoulder in the past against Germany, now Germany was “standing shoulder to shoulder with us”, along with the United States and Britain.

Ukraine's SBU security service accused Russian saboteurs of setting a fire that briefly disrupted state broadcasts.

FIGHTING, BLAZE


A man jumps over a burning barricade outside the city hall in the southeastern port city of Mariupol on May 9. Photo by Marko Djurica/Reuters

In Mariupol, eastern Ukraine's main port on the Sea of Azov, regional authorities said seven people had been killed and 39 wounded in the course of an “anti-terrorist operation” – the term Kiev uses for its fight against the separatists.

Journalist Tetyana Ignatchenko said there was fierce fighting outside the police headquarters and video showed armored cars smashing barricades and soldiers exchanging fire with a gunman on the street while crowds milled around.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said about 20 “terrorists” were killed when pro-Russian militants tried to seize the city's police headquarters. A figure he gave earlier this week of 30 rebel dead in another city was not confirmed.

A member of Ukraine's parliament, Oleh Lyashko, gave a different account of Friday's events, saying eight rebels had been killed in clashes when Ukrainian forces attacked Mariupol's police headquarters to try to drive out pro-Russian militants.

A local photographer in Mariupol told Reuters the building was ablaze and that two bodies were lying in the street outside.

“One of them is definitely a police officer,” he said.

Ukrainian forces later withdrew from the town, a major industrial center with a population of about half a million.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after a telephone call with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday that Moscow hoped Washington would work with Kiev to end Ukraine's military operation against the separatists.

CRIMEAN DELIGHT

In Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea Fleet previously had to lease its base from Ukraine, servicemen and veterans marched in a parade before Putin's arrival that also included armored vehicles and anti-aircraft missiles. Banners read “Sevastopol without Fascists” and “It's our duty to remember”.

“I'm here to prevent any provocations from the fascists. I served in a self-defense unit during March, and I consider it my duty to be here,” said Natalya Malyarchuk, 52.

The ethnic Russian majority among Crimea's two million population broadly welcomed the Russian takeover that came in the wake of the Kiev uprising. Given by Soviet leaders to Ukraine only in the 1950s, many Russians long saw it as rightfully theirs. Western powers have imposed sanctions against Russia in response, but reactions have been muted.

Moscow says it has no direct control over the armed rebels in eastern Ukraine running Sunday's referendum on secession from Kiev for the mainly Russian-speaking region.

The European Union is likely to strengthen its targeted sanctions against Russia on Monday, Janusz Lewandowski, a member of the EU's governing commission, said on Friday. Diplomats said they would target about 15 people and several Crimean branches of Ukrainian companies taken over by Russians.

While Putin's redrawing of European borders has sparked great alarm across the continent, U.S. and European leaders are concerned not to harm their own economies by isolating Moscow.

And there is little popular support in the West for an armed conflict with Russia on behalf of Ukraine, a country that is not a member of NATO and where successive leaders have left a legacy of corruption, poverty and feeble state institutions.

In Sevastopol, factory worker Vasily Topol, 31, wearing a white T-shirt with an image of Putin in sunglasses and the words “Russia's Army”, said life was better since Crimea became Russian.

“We have the greatest admiration for Putin, we are morally and materially better off since Crimea became part of Russia,” he said, speaking on an embankment overlooking Russian warships.

EASTERN PARADE


Russian servicemen march during the Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square on May 9. Photo by Grigory Dukor/Reuters

In Slaviansk, the military stronghold of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, separatist “people's mayor” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov and a guard of militiamen led a march of around 2,000 people to lay flowers at a memorial to the World War Two dead.

Veteran Anatoly Strizhakov said: “Look at all these people – the children, the women, the pensioners… Today shows we've got the spirit to stand up to whatever the Ukrainians are planning.”

Ponomaryov, who fired a pistol three times in the air during the ceremony, reassured people it would be safe to vote on Sunday. Voters in the two regions, with a combined population of over 6 million, will be asked to vote Yes to the secession of self-styled “People's Republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Opinion polls in recent months have indicated that support for such a move is far from solid and it is unclear how many people will actually take part in voting. A referendum in Crimea in March, which many boycotted, backed secession by 97 percent.

Additional reporting by Nigel Stephenson and Katya Golubkova in Moscow, David Mardiste in Tallinn, Ralph Boulton, Pavel Polityuk, Aleksandar Vasovic and Elizabeth Piper in Kiev and Alessandra Prentice in Slaviansk; Writing by Alastair Macdonald and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Giles Elgood

Political fever rises as Ukraine breaks apart


Cross the Crimean sparkling wine off the list. The lingerie from Luhansk and felt boots from Donetsk could be next.

Financial journalist Yulia Sarotsyna spent a year living only off products made in Ukraine for a relentlessly upbeat blog to promote local brands. On the road for five months, she found toothbrushes from Kharkiv, sausage in the north, and even snails in the capital Kiev: “I discovered that Ukraine produces absolutely everything for a comfortable life,” she wrote.

But two weeks after she finished her project, an uprising forced Ukraine's pro-Russian president to flee the country. Moscow responded by seizing and annexing the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea. Pro-Russian separatists have declared an independent “People's Republic of Donetsk” in the east and seized towns and cities while police were helpless to stop them.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops are massed on the frontier, with President Vladimir Putin openly threatening to invade to protect Russian speakers. A nation of 45 million people on a territory the size of France is falling apart.

Sarotsyna shelved around 20 of her product reviews because the tone seemed inappropriate when people were getting killed.

“We could not even agree whether it was right to write cheerful pieces about our latest offering because it may offend those people who are fighting for the right to live in a normal country and are suffering because of it,” she wrote.

Her later posts were given a more explicitly political slant. One is labeled: “Economic patriotism: How to defeat Russia without leaving the supermarket.”

EVERYTHING IS UNCERTAIN

Not only has Ukraine lost territory and found itself facing the threat of losing more, the crisis has undermined the entire concept of national unity in a country that has struggled to form an identity since emerging from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Questions that once seemed trivial now create intense political passion. Many Ukrainians describe a feeling of disorientation that has penetrated deeply into a young country that was still searching for its place in the world.

“Everything is uncertain now, and that gets to you,” said 42-year-old Oleksander Kleimenov, a television producer in the Ukrainian capital.

“It's hard to figure out who is speaking the truth and who isn't. Whether people are saying one thing but actually mean another, or say one thing to make you think they believe something else when actually they are doing a third thing. It is incredibly hard to know who to trust.”

Ukraine has a thousand-year history as a state, but spent centuries carved up by neighbors Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Austria. Its current borders were drawn by Bolshevik commissars out of provinces of the former Russian and Austrian empires.

It endured perhaps the worst 20th century of any place on earth. Millions perished in a famine engineered by Stalin in the 1930s, when Ukrainian peasants were forced into collective farms and shot for class crimes like owning a cow.

During World War Two, German occupiers wiped whole villages off the map, besieged Ukraine's cities and extinguished the entire culture of its Jews. Then, returning Soviet forces exacted revenge on suspected collaborators. New territories were annexed from interwar Poland and ethnically cleansed. Nationalist partisans kept fighting Soviet rule for decades.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, much of that grim history seemed to recede. Kiev became a pleasant capital city, with bars open late. Ukraine won the Eurovision song contest in 2004 and placed second twice since. In 2012 it co-hosted the European soccer cup jointly with Poland.

But the violent uprising that toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich in February and the loss of territory that followed have resurrected the animosities from its older history. People are now quick to describe their foes with the language of “treason”, “fascism” and “collaboration”.

In parliament debate is often reduced to cat-calling over who should take the blame for failing to crush the pro-Russian uprising in the east and for losing Crimea.

A security source said it was almost impossible to get direction from a chamber so deeply split. At a closed sitting last month to discuss Ukraine's flagging “anti-terrorist operation” in the east, the source said half the chamber supported bolstering it, while the other half wanted it eased.

After spending weeks avoiding the limelight, members of Yanukovich's Party of the Regions have regained confidence and are again asserting themselves as defenders of Russian speakers. While they do not support secession for the east, they blame Kiev for provoking separatism by ignoring legitimate demands.

“The authorities are dead to the demands of their own people,” Mykola Levchenko told a briefing on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, those who helped topple Yanukovich are growing increasingly angry at the government for failing to stop the east of the country slipping out of its grasp.

At Kiev's central square, where shrines memorialize the “heavenly hundred” killed during the final week of protests against Yanukovich, activists like Oleksei Kripkov call the Rada, or parliament, the “Zrada” – Ukrainian for “treason”.

A former miner, he said his house has been burned down in his native Luhansk, near the Russian border, because of his participation in the revolt against Yanukovich. He and other members of Ukraine's “self-defense force” will stand their ground, manning their green army tents and field kitchens until a presidential election due on May 25.

“If the new president is not to our liking we will get rid of him straight away,” the 39-year-old said. “They answer to us, we are the ones who turned things around, we got them in power.”

Two months after the fall of Yanukovich, the protest camp is starting to appear out of place as cafes along Kiev's main thoroughfare again put tables and chairs onto the pavements.

Some residents fear the activists' camp offers cover for criminals and thugs. One gay man, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, said he was attacked after talking to a man in an Internet chatroom. He later saw his attackers milling around the city center, carrying his rucksack and mobile phone.

The police said they had no information on the number of attacks in Kiev over the last two months.

MORE FRACTURES

Plans to hold an election for president on May 25 are likely to create more fractures in society, by pitting groups that had united to oppose Yanukovich against each other.

According to opinion polls, confectionary tycoon Petro Poroshenko, who briefly served as Yanukovich's economy minister but supported the pro-European uprising, is the frontrunner.

Yulia Tymoshenko, a divisive former prime minister who was imprisoned by Yanukovich, is a distant second. Some of her opponents suggest that she might try to prevent the election from taking place if she thinks she will lose, although her supporters deny she would do such a thing.

Both leading contenders are veteran oligarchs who became wealthy mixing business and politics in the chaotic post Soviet years. Ukrainians who hoped for new leadership are despairing.

“There is no choice. I just want to vote for someone who will take on the police and the courts. Without the rule of law there is no trust, and these are the most corrupt institutions,” Kleimenov said.

Sarotsyna, meanwhile, is still urging unity by promoting Ukrainian products. Last month she pitched domestic lingerie as a “pleasurable and patriotic” International Women's Day gift.

“Panties are our secret weapon in the struggle against the enemy,” Sarotsyna wrote.

Additional reporting by Sergei Karazy and Natalia Zinets in Kiev; Editing by Peter Graff

Obama, Merkel discuss Ukraine crisis in call


President Barack Obama spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel by phone on Thursday about the situation in Ukraine, the offices of both leaders said.

Obama and Merkel agreed during the call that Russia should use its influence on armed groups in eastern Ukraine to calm the situation, a German government spokeswoman said on Thursday.

“Both shared their worries given current developments in eastern Ukraine, so they called on Russia to help contribute to a de-escalation,” the spokeswoman, Christiane Wirtz, said in an email. “They said Russia in particular should use its influence on armed groups in eastern Ukraine to calm the situation,” Wirtz said.

Obama and Merkel spoke around 1400 GMT (10 a.m. EDT), before the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union issued a statement calling for an end to the violence in Ukraine.

Reporting by Mark Felsenthal and Michelle Martin in Berlin; Editing by Eric Beech

On Ukraine, Israel and Neocons not on same page


When it comes to Ukraine, Israel is parting ways with some of its staunchest American allies, namely neoconservatives — and it’s not the first time.

Israel’s reluctance to side too closely with the United States in its bid to isolate Russia is typical of an Israeli realpolitik that has led to past conflicts with the American neoconservatives, who prize humanitarian interventionism.

But Israel’s stance is not sufficiently consequential to set off a fight between friends, neoconservative scholars said.

“There’s generally, when it comes to the categories of differences of opinions between Israel and neoconservatives, two categories: the ones that directly impact U.S. policy and the ones that don’t,” said Seth Mandel, assistant editor at the neoconservative Jewish magazine Commentary.

Ukraine does not rise to the level of an Israeli policy that would rattle the relationship, Mandel said, as opposed to earlier examples of disagreements, including Israeli policy on the Arab Spring and the Israeli sale of arms to China.

An Israeli government official — one in regular contact with what he described as some of “Israel’s best friends” in Congress — agreed, saying that the Israelis had not heard complaints from neoconservatives, as they had in the past, such as when Israel opposed the 2011 ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

“Israel is wrong on Syria, wrong on Egypt, wrong on lots of things,” Danielle Pletka, vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, the flagship neoconservative think tank, wrote in an e-mail. “It doesn’t affect support for the democratic state of Israel among American friends. That’s not the way it works. They’re an independent country, and have the right to be foolish; I don’t think anyone devotes even a minute to considering the Israeli position on Ukraine.”

It took nearly a week for Israel to issue a response to the Feb. 28 Russian takeover of Crimea.

The March 5 statement by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, himself a Russian-speaking native of Moldova, was terse and did not mention Russia, whose leadership Lieberman has long favored cultivating.

“Israel is following with great concern the events in Ukraine, it is anxious for peace for all its citizens and hopes that the situation will not deteriorate to a loss of human life,” said the statement published in the Israeli media. “Israel expects the crisis in Ukraine will be handled through diplomatic means and will be resolved peacefully.”

Israel abstained from a March 27 United Nations General Assembly vote condemning a March 16 referendum in Crimea in favor of joining Russia; it was virtually alone among American allies in not voting for the resolution.

Republicans in Congress allied with the neoconservative movement have blamed what they say is the Obama administration’s fecklessness for fueling Russian President Vladimir Putin’s boldness.

“On the issue of Ukraine, my hero, Teddy Roosevelt, used to say talk softly but carry a big stick,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) chastised Secretary of State John Kerry at a congressional hearing this week. “What you’re doing is talking strongly and carrying a very small stick — in fact, a twig.”

The United States has led the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia, but Kerry at the hearing rejected proposals to arm Ukrainians against the possibility of further Russian incursions.

An aide to a Senate Republican who, like McCain, has been critical of Obama administration Ukraine policy, said it would not be fair to demand of a small country like Israel the confrontational posture that Republicans expect from the United States as a superpower.

The aide said Israel had to consider Russian cooperation in keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and in dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons capability.

“We just don’t know the underlying nature of the Israeli-Russia relationship,” the aide said. “It’s incredibly complex, with secret intelligence deals going on, trade-offs for what Russia will or won’t do with Iran. In the end, I’m sure that’s what this is all about for Israel — but America doesn’t have that luxury; we are the superpower.”

Neoconservatives have clashed openly with Israel in the past, particularly in the early 2000s over Israel’s sale of weapons to China, which was seen as an affront to a bedrock stance of the neoconservative movement — defending the interests of Taiwan.

The arms sales led the administration of then-President George W. Bush to suspend its strategic dialogue with Israel from 2002 to 2005, until Israel acquiesced to a U.S. demand that the Pentagon vet Israeli arms sales to China. Bush’s decision to suspend the dialogue was made on the advice of prominent neoconservatives in his administration, among them Douglas Feith, then the undersecretary for defense.

In 2011, Mandel said, neoconservatives were dismayed again when Ehud Barak, then Israel’s defense minister, made the case against backing rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Hafez Assad at a time when American neoconservatives were arguing that it would make sense to assess which rebels deserved more robust U.S. backing.

In each of those cases, Mandel said, Israel’s posture had U.S. policy consequences — for instance, in the case of Syria, Obama administration officials could cite Barak’s argument in pushing back against intervention.

“That was a situation that directly impacted American policy,” he said. “It’s not clear whether Russia gets to that point.

U.S. accuses Russian agents of stirring Eastern Ukraine unrest


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russian agents and special forces on Tuesday of stirring separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine, saying Moscow could be trying to prepare for military action as it had in Crimea.

Armed pro-Moscow protesters were still occupying Ukrainian government buildings in two cities in the largely Russian-speaking east on Tuesday, although police ended a third occupation in a lightning night-time operation.

Ukraine's security service said separatists occupying the security headquarters in Luhansk had planted bombs in the building and were holding as many as 60 hostages. Activists in the building denied they had explosives or hostages, but said they had seized an armory full of automatic rifles.

The Ukraine government says the occupations that began on Sunday are part of a Russian-led plan to dismember the country. Kerry said he feared Moscow might repeat its Crimean operation.

“It is clear that Russian special forces and agents have been the catalyst behind the chaos of the last 24 hours,” he said in Washington, and this “could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea.”

Moscow annexed the Black Sea peninsula last month after a referendum staged when Russian troops were already in control.

Earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed Western accusations that Moscow was destabilizing Ukraine, saying the situation could improve only if Kiev took into account the interests of Russian-speaking regions.

Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union will hold a ministerial meeting next week to discuss the Ukraine crisis, the EU said on Tuesday.

The meeting, to be held at a still unspecified location in Europe, will involve Kerry, Lavrov, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Ukraine's foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia.

The U.S. State Department said Kerry and Lavrov in a phone call on Monday discussed convening direct talks among the parties to try to defuse tensions.

PROTESTERS DEMAND REFERENDUM

Shots were fired, a grenade thrown and 70 people detained as Ukrainian officers ended the occupation in the city of Kharkiv during an 18-minute “anti-terrorism” action, the Interior Ministry said.

But elsewhere in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland, activists armed with Kalashnikov rifles and protected by barbed-wire barricades vowed there was no going back on their demand for a vote on returning to Moscow rule.

In the city of Luhansk, a man dressed in camouflage told a crowd outside the occupied state security building: “We want a referendum on the status of Luhansk and we want Russian returned as an official language.”

The Kremlin's standoff with the West has knocked investors' confidence in the Russian economy, and the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday cut its forecast of growth this year to

1.3 percent, less than half the 3 percent it had originally projected.

Britain expressed fears that Russia wanted to disrupt the run-up to presidential elections next month in Ukraine, which has been ruled by an interim government since the overthrow of Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich in February.

Ukraine, which was controlled by Moscow until the Soviet Union collapsed more than two decades ago, has been in turmoil since late last year when Yanukovich rejected closer relations with the European Union and tilted the country back toward Russia. That provoked mass protests in which more than 100 people were killed by police and which drove Yanukovich from office, leading to Kiev's loss of control in Crimea.

In Kiev, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov partly pinned responsibility for the Kharkiv occupation on Russian President Vladimir Putin. “All this was inspired and financed by the Putin-Yanukovich group,” he said.

An aide said police went in when the protesters failed to give themselves up and surrender their arms. Officers did not open fire, despite shooting and the grenade attack from the other side, he said. One police officer was badly wounded and some others less seriously hurt.

In Luhansk, a city of about 450,000, protesters have blocked streets leading to the state security building with barbed wire, tires, crates, metal police barriers and sandbags.

Andrei, who said he had stormed the building on Sunday but would not give his family name, said the protesters had 200 to 300 Kalashnikovs and some stun grenades, but there had been no shooting so far.

“Once you've taken up arms, there's no turning back. We will stay until the authorities agree to hold a referendum on the status of Luhansk,” he said.

A standoff also continued in the mining center of Donetsk, Yanukovich's home base, where a group of pro-Russian deputies inside the main regional authority building on Monday declared a separatist republic.

Unlike in Kharkiv, there was no clear sign that further police operations were imminent in the other two cities. “We hope the buildings occupied in Donetsk and Luhansk will soon be freed,” acting President Oleksander Turchinov said.

Russia has warned Kiev against using force to end the occupations, but authorities may have decided not to give Moscow an excuse to intervene, holding back in the hope that the protests will fizzle out.

MASS DISORDER

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the occupations bore “all the hallmarks of a Russian strategy to destabilize Ukraine.

The West has expressed concern about what it says has been a buildup of Russian forces along the border with Ukraine. Moscow has said the troops are merely taking part in exercises, but NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged caution.

“If Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine it would be a historic mistake,” he told a news conference in Paris. “It would have grave consequences for our relationship with Russia and would further isolate Russia internationally.”

Ukraine's ambassador to NATO, Ihor Dolhov, said on Tuesday that Kiev was counting on the United States and other NATO members to supply equipment ranging from uniforms to aircraft fuel, but was not asking for weapons.

Lavrov denied responsibility for the trouble in Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine. “One should not seek to put the blame on someone else,” he told a news conference in Moscow.

Unlike in Crimea, where ethnic Russians form a majority, most people in the east and south are ethnically Ukrainian, although they speak Russian as a first language.

Putin will meet his senior officials on Wednesday to discuss economic ties with Ukraine, including on energy, his spokesman said. He gave no details, but the Crimea dispute has raised fears Russia might cut off gas supplies to Ukraine's crippled economy, having nearly doubled the price it charges Kiev.

Kiev missed a midnight deadline to reduce its $2.2 billion gas debt to Russia, although producer Gazprom did not say whether it would take any action against Kiev.

In Brussels, Ukraine's energy minister, EU officials and industry representatives discussed how to reduce reliance on Russian gas.

An EU diplomat said the 28-nation body planned to set up a support group to help Ukraine stabilize its precarious economy and political situation.

Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Jason Bush, Lidia Kelly, Vladimir Soldatkin and Denis Pinchuk in Moscow; William James and Kylie MacLellan in London, Barbara Lewis and Adrian Croft in Brussels and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Richard Balmforth, David Stamp and Peter Cooney; Editing by Giles Elgood and Lisa Shumaker

Russia and Ukraine at war — among the Jews anyway


The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has pitted Jewish leaders from both countries against each other, touching off a discordant exchange between prominent rabbis on opposite sides of the border.

The discord had been brewing since the onset of the protests in Ukraine in November, but it turned public earlier this month after Russia deployed its military in Crimea in response to what President Vladimir Putin claimed was a “rampage” of anti-Semitic and nationalist groups.

Putin’s claim sparked angry reactions from Ukrainian Jewish leaders, many of whom said it was a false justification for aggressive Russian actions that were more dangerous to Jews than any homegrown nationalism.

On Monday, one of Russia’s chief rabbis, Berel Lazar, hit back, urging Ukrainian Jews to stay silent on matters of geopolitics and reiterating concerns about anti-Semitism in the post-revolutionary government — concerns that he further suggested Ukrainian Jews were too afraid to voice for themselves.

“The Jewish community should not be the one sending messages to President Barack Obama about his policy or to President Putin or to any other leader. I think it’s the wrong attitude,” Lazar told JTA.

The revolution in Ukraine, a country with bitter memories of Soviet domination but also a large population of Russian speakers, erupted last fall after President Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Svoboda, an ultranationalist political party that Ukrainian Jewish leaders consider both anti-Semitic and dangerous, played a prominent role in the uprising that eventually ousted Yanukovych from office last month.

Amid the revolutionary turmoil, several anti-Semitic incidents occurred, including the stabbing of a religious Jew in Kiev; several street beatings of Jews; the attempted torching of a synagogue and, at another synagogue, the spray-painting of swastikas and “Death to the Jews.”

At a March 4 news conference in Moscow, Putin said Russia’s “biggest concern” was “the rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and anti-Semitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine,” warning that Russia would make further incursions if minorities were endangered.

In response, Josef Zissels, chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities and Organizations of Ukraine, or Vaad, and 20 other leaders of the Ukrainian Jewish community sent Putin an open letter in which they disputed the existence of unusual levels of anti-Semitism in post-revolutionary Ukraine and accused Russia of threatening the security of Ukrainians.

“Your policy of inciting separatism and crude pressure placed on Ukraine threatens us and all Ukrainian people,” the letter said.

On Wednesday, Vaad placed the letter as a full-page ad in The New York Times and several other newspapers.

To Lazar, a senior Chabad rabbi who spoke to JTA this week at the biannual conference of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe in Budapest, the Vaad letter was a case of Jewish leaders involving themselves in issues that don’t directly concern the Jewish community.

It was a sharper version of previous calls for Jewish silence on the Ukraine crisis, including a March 17 statement co-signed by Lazar and 47 other Russian and Ukrainian rabbis, many of them affiliated with Chabad.

“Religious and community leaders should stay out of the political sphere,” the letter said. “Do not forget: Any thoughtless word can lead to dangerous consequences for many.”

But several Ukrainian Jewish leaders said that by using anti-Semitism to justify his actions, Putin had left them no choice but to speak out.

“We were not the ones who brought the Jews into the debate to make it a Jewish question,” said Yaakov Dov Bleich, one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis. “Putin did it by his cynical abuse of anti-Semitism as a justification for his actions.”

Meylakh Sheykhet, Ukraine director for the American Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, told JTA, “Jewish principles of justice and truth [compelled Jewish] Ukrainians to fight lies, falsifications, radical pro-Russian propaganda orchestrated by Putin.” Had Ukrainian Jews said nothing, Sheykhet said, “It would resonate as supporting Putin, and Jews would be seen as a fifth column in Ukraine.”

Ukraine’s interim government has a Jewish vice prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, but also three Svoboda ministers. One of them, Environment Minister Andriy Mokhnyk, in an interview last year accused Jews of destroying Ukrainian independence. Mokhnyk also defended party members’ insistence on using the word “zhyd” as the standard Ukrainian-language designation for Jews, despite complaints by Ukrainian Jewish leaders that the term is derogatory.

“This party, Svoboda, they are part of the government,” Lazar told JTA. “So you have ministers who are open anti-Semites, which are part of this interim government. This is a concern.”

Vyacheslav Likhachev, a Vaad spokesman and the organization’s researcher on anti-Semitism, said ultranationalists have little power in the interim government. The revolution, he added, has not resulted in a substantial increase in anti-Semitic attacks. Likhachev also suggested, as have other Jewish leaders in Ukraine, that some of the attacks may have been pro-Russian provocations, a suggestion brushed aside by Lazar.

“No one knows for sure,” Lazar said. “But in the last 15 years, I’ve never seen in Russia anything similar. And sadly, in Ukraine, and in certain parts of Ukraine especially, there is a history of anti-Semitism.”

Lazar is considered very close to Putin, leading the Russian president on a tour of the Western Wall in 2012 and attending receptions at the Kremlin, including an event on March 18 at which the formal process of annexing Crimea was begun. Several Ukrainian Jewish leaders dismissed Lazar’s statements as coming from a Kremlin mouthpiece.

“When Lazar speaks, it is as a person holding an official position, that of a religious leader in contemporary Russia. And as such, it is impossible for him or any other person in his position to express views that do not align with the Kremlin’s official line and propaganda,” Likhachev said.

Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, one of the main Ukrainian figures in Lazar’s own Chabad movement, declined to sign the March 17 letter. He suggested the difference between the Ukrainian and Russian leadership owes something to the varying goals of those countries’ respective Jewish communities.

“Rabbi Lazar takes very good care of Russian Jews,” Kamenetsky said. “What he says corresponds with their goals. His excellent ties with the government are very beneficial to Russian Jewry and to Jews in remote places who, thanks to those ties, are protected.”

Ukrainian Jews, Kamenetsky said, “want something different. We want a free, united and European Ukraine.”

Boruch Gorin, a spokesman for Lazar, told JTA that Lazar’s attendance at the March 18 event was ceremonial and did not imply the rabbi had any position on Russia-Ukraine relations.

In Crimea, a Karaite community carries on, and welcomes Russia


Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the strategically critical peninsula that dangles from Ukraine into the Black Sea, has drawn international condemnation.

But for the leader of the All-Ukrainian Organization of Crimean Karaites — a group with an unusual heritage that draws from Jewish traditions — joining Russia is a welcome development.

“In Crimea, the majority of Karaites support annexation to Russia, and voted for it,” Vladimir Ormeli, the group’s head, told JTA. “Culture and people connect us with Russia, more than Ukraine. But this is a complicated conversation.”

Complicated conversations are typical for the Crimean Karaites, a small group whose ethnic heritage and religious categorization has been disputed for hundreds of years. Not in dispute, however, is their long history in Crimea, a region they consider their homeland.

Karaites, from the Hebrew word “Kara” (to read), are members of a sect that adheres to the Torah without the addition of oral laws — distinguished from “Rabbinic” or “Talmudic” Judaism.

For centuries, Karaites have lived alongside mainstream Jewish communities in various countries. Currently, some 30,000 Karaites live in Israel, with much smaller communities in the United States and Eastern Europe.

In Crimea, around 800 Karaites remain, and their houses of worship are distinctive architectural monuments in several cities.

Unlike other Karaite groups, the Crimean Karaites (or Karaylar, as they call themselves), do not identify as Jews. Yet they consider the Torah their holy text and keep a religious calendar that includes Rosh Hashanah, Passover and Shavuot.

The oldest evidence of Karaite presence in Crimea dates back to 1278, and Karaite gravestones are scattered around Ukraine, in Crimea in particular. A pastry pioneered by the Karaites — the meat-stuffed kybyn — is sold all over Ukraine with its characteristic braided twist, and often called “Karaite dumplings.”

Ormeli’s enthusiasm for Russian annexation of Crimea stems from memories of a previous era of Karaite prosperity.

“Russia annexed Crimea in the 1700s,” Ormeli said, referring to Catherine II’s initial conquest of the peninsula in 1783. “Then, a Crimean Karaite intelligentsia appeared. There were rich Crimean Karaites, who lived in Moscow, [St.] Petersburg and worked in the tobacco industry. This all happened while Crimea was Russian.”

Such nostalgia for the Russian Empire may have something to do with the way Crimean Karaite self-conception changed under imperial rule.

In 19th-century Crimea, Karaites began to distinguish themselves from Jewish groups, sending envoys to the czars to plead for exemptions from harsh anti-Jewish legislation. These entreaties were successful, in large part due to the czars’ wariness of the Talmud, and in 1863 Karaites were granted the same rights as their Christian and Tatar neighbors. Exempted from the Pale of Settlement, which limited the mobility of Jewish counterparts, Karaite communities sprang up in Russian cities and gave rise to a substantial body of unique scholarship.

The same tactic of distancing themselves from their Jewish roots and emphasizing, instead, purported Turkic origins, also gave the Karaites of Crimea an advantage during the Holocaust. While other Jewish communities in Crimea — including the Turkic-speaking Krymchak Jews — were nearly wiped out, the Karaites survived largely unscathed, considered non-Jews by the Nazis.

Asked about the current political situation, Ormeli described fear of the “lawlessness” that descended on Kiev during the clashes between protesters and Viktor Yanukovych’s now-toppled government. 

“We were afraid of these wild events,” Ormeli said. “We were afraid that these would happen in Crimea.”

As Russian forces consolidate their control over Crimea, the region’s future remains in question. 

But Viktor Zakharovich, a proprietor of the Karaite house of worship and museum in Yevpatoria, Crimea, sounded a note of confidence.

“Our community has lived under five or seven different governments in Crimea,” he said. “But here, we are always in our land.”

The real threat to Ukraine’s Jewish community


After years of fighting against anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and later in an independent Ukraine, the Ukrainian Jewish community is now confronting a new threat. This threat comes from an unprecedented effort by the Russian government and others to paint a false impression of the state of anti-Semitism in Ukraine.

The recent claims of growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine, and of pervasive neo-Nazi ideology in the protest movement and the newly formed government, exaggerate the effect of the crisis in Ukraine on its Jewish community and misstate the facts.

The concerns about the safety of the Ukrainian Jewish community are real. Since the beginning of the unrest in the country in November, four members of the Kiev Jewish community have been assaulted, a synagogue in Zaporizhia was firebombed and a synagogue in Simferopol was vandalized with swastikas and other anti-Semitic symbols.

The two most recent incidents took place in Kiev in recent weeks. The director of the Ukrainian branch of Hatzalah emergency services was attacked by two unidentified men who shouted anti-Semitic slurs, stabbed him and inflicted other injuries. The next day a Jewish couple was assaulted close to the Great Choral Synagogue in the Podol district of Kiev.

Several local Jewish community leaders, however, suggest that these incidents were most likely provocations designed to incite unrest and discredit the new Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian Jewish community is as concerned about provocations by pro-Russian groups, and Russia’s destabilizing role in Ukraine as it is about homegrown anti-Semitic groups.

Contrary to the allegations of growing anti-Semitism in Ukraine, there is no pattern of violence against members of the Ukrainian Jewish community. Moreover, the Ukrainian authorities swiftly responded to the most recent incidents and pledged to bring the perpetrators to justice. Ukraine’s acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, met with the leadership of the Ukrainian Jewish community and vowed to increase security measures for Jewish institutions.

The Ukrainian government’s guarantees to the country’s Jewish community are important to help alleviate concern about the presence of some radical elements in the opposition movement and the new government. But while the presence of the Svoboda party, the Right Sector and Spilna Sprava is alarming, radical and neo-Nazi ideologies do not represent the Maidan movement as a whole.

Although the Jewish community had been divided in its opinion of the movement, many Ukrainian Jews participated in the protests against what they believed to be a corrupt and criminal government.

Ukraine has a complicated past, and an even more complex history of ethnic relations. Since Ukraine’s independence, anti-Semitic sentiments have been used during elections and crises as a political tool to influence public opinion.

Similar attempts to use the Ukrainian Jewish community as a pawn in the bigger political game are occurring now.

To respond effectively to the crisis in Ukraine, the international community needs to be well informed and rational, distinguishing facts from rumors and innuendo. It needs to impress upon Ukraine’s new government that it is responsible for guaranteeing the safety of Jewish institutions and preventing legitimation of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

It must also recognize that Russia’s attempts to undermine the Ukrainian government’s legitimacy not only undercut Ukraine’s ability to stabilize the domestic situation, and to address the looming economic crisis and general security concerns, but also affect the Ukrainian government’s ability to combat anti-Semitism and ensure the safety of Jewish institutions.

The efforts by the Russian government and others to perpetuate a myth that anti-Semitism is an integral part of the new Ukrainian government’s agenda are alarming. The United States and others need to send a strong message that just as anti-Semitism and xenophobia are unacceptable, the cynical exploitation of concerns about these issues in order to advance a political agenda also will not be tolerated.


Mark Levin is executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia.

U.S. hopes Ukraine crisis won’t harm work with Russia on Iran


The United States hopes the escalating crisis in Ukraine will not undermine cooperation with Russia to curb Iran's nuclear program, a senior U.S. administration official said on Friday.

Senior officials from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China are due to meet Iranian officials in Vienna next week for a new round of talks aimed at finding ways to limit Tehran's nuclear activities in exchange for ending sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Iran denies allegations from Israel, Western powers and their allies that it is developing the capability to produce atomic weapons under cover of a civilian nuclear energy programme. It has defied crippling U.S., EU and U.N. sanctions imposed on it for refusing to halt uranium enrichment.

“We all hope that the incredibly difficult situation in Ukraine will not create issues for this negotiation,” the U.S. official said in a conference call from Washington.

“We hope that whatever happens in the days ahead, whatever actions that we in the international community take depending upon the decisions and the choices that Russia makes, that any actions that Russia subsequently takes will not put the negotiations at risk,” the official said.

The United States and European Union have threatened to blacklist Russians involved in what Western governments say is an attempt by Russia to annex Ukraine's pro-Russian Crimea region in violation of Ukrainian and international law.

Russia shipped more troops and armour into the region on Friday, repeating its threat to invade other parts of Ukraine and showing no sign of heeding Western pleas to back off from the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War.

U.S. and European officials have told Reuters privately that the Ukraine situation has not impacted discussions with Russia on issues like Iran and Syria. But that may change if dozens of Russians are hit with U.S. and European sanctions because of Moscow's approach to the crisis.

Earlier in the conference call, the U.S. official had spoken positively about cooperation within the so-called “P5+1” group – the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany – when dealing with Iran.

“Even when there are differences (within the P5+1), which there are, we bridge those differences,” the official said. “We remain completely united when we have discussions with Iran.”

Tehran and the six powers agreed in November on an interim deal under which Iran stopped medium-level uranium enrichment and agreed to other constraints in exchange for modest sanctions relief.

The six powers and Iran have set a deadline of late July to reach a long-term agreement that would lead to the gradual lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions on Tehran.

Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

Ukraine appeals to West as Crimea turns to Russia


Ukraine's government appealed for Western help on Tuesday to stop Moscow annexing Crimea but the Black Sea peninsula, overrun by Russian troops, seemed fixed on a course that could formalize rule from Moscow within days.

With their own troops in Crimea effectively prisoners in their bases, the new authorities in Kiev painted a sorry picture of the military bequeathed them by the pro-Moscow president overthrown two weeks ago. They announced the raising of a new National Guard to be drawn from volunteers among veterans.

The prime minister, heading for talks at the White House and United Nations, told parliament in Kiev he wanted the United States and Britain, as guarantors of a 1994 treaty that saw Ukraine give up its Soviet nuclear weapons, to intervene both diplomatically and militarily to fend off Russian “aggression”.

But despite NATO reconnaissance aircraft patrolling the Polish and Romanian borders and U.S. naval forces preparing for exercises in the Black Sea, Western powers have made clear that, as when ex-Soviet Georgia lost territory in fighting in 2008, they have no appetite for risking turning the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War into a military conflict with Moscow.

Diplomacy seemed restricted to a war of words. The U.S. and Russian foreign ministers did speak by telephone. But the U.S. State Department said Moscow's position offered no room for negotiation and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning U.S. financial aid to the “illegitimate regime” in Kiev, which it calls ultra-nationalists with “Nazi” links.

That language echoed ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, who gave a news conference in Russia insisting that he was still the legitimate head of state. Toppled by protests sparked by his rejection of closer ties with the European Union in favor of a deal from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovich blamed his enemies for provoking Crimean secession.

Parliament in Kiev, whose position is backed by Western governments, dismisses plans for a referendum on Sunday to unite the region with Russia as illegitimate and resolved on Tuesday to dissolve Crimea's regional assembly if by Wednesday it had not scrapped the plebiscite. There seems no chance that it will.

Moscow, which to widespread scorn denies its troops have any role in the takeover of the once Russian-ruled region, says people in Crimea, a small majority of whom are ethnic Russians, should have the right to secede. It has made much of anti-Russian sentiment among some Ukrainian nationalists – though many native Russian speakers in Ukraine are wary of Putin.

SANCTIONS, REFERENDUM

U.S. lawmakers are preparing sanctions against Russia and European Union leaders could impose penalties, such as bans on visas for key officials, as early as Monday.

By then, however, Crimea could already have voted – in a referendum not recognized by Kiev or the West – to seek union with Russia. The ballot paper offers no option to retain the status quo of autonomy within Ukraine.

Voters among the two million population must choose either direct union with Moscow or restoring an old constitution that made Crimea sovereign with ties to Ukraine. On Tuesday, the regional assembly passed a resolution that a sovereign Crimea would sever links to Kiev and join Russia anyway.

The Russian parliament has already approved the accession in principle of Crimea, which was handed to Ukraine by Soviet rulers 60 years ago. Still, it is not clear whether or how soon Putin would formalize such a union as he engages in a complex confrontation with the West for geostrategic advantage.

In disputes with Georgia, Russia has granted recognition to small breakaway states on its borders, a process critics view as annexation in all but name. It fiercely criticized Western recognition of the independence of Kosovo from its ally Serbia – a process which Crimea's parliament nonetheless cited as a legal precedent for its own forthcoming declaration of independence.

There seems little chance that Crimea's new leaders, who emerged after Yanukovich's overthrow as Russian-backed forces took control of the peninsula, will fail to get the result they want. A boycott by ethnic Tatars, 12 percent of the regional population and deeply wary after centuries of persecution by Moscow, will have little effect as there is no minimum turnout.

In Sevastopol, the Crimean home port of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, Valery Medvedev, the chairman of the city's electoral commission, made no pretence at concealing his own preference:

“We're living through historic times. Sevastopol would love to fulfil its dream of joining Russia. I want to be part of Russia and I'm not embarrassed to say that,” he told reporters.

There is little sign of campaigning by those opposed to the government line. Billboards in Sevastopol urge people to vote and offer a choice of two images of Crimea – one in the colors of the Russian flag, the other emblazoned with a swastika.

UKRAINIAN TROOPS

It is unclear whether thousands of Ukrainian servicemen, many of whom are native Crimeans but are effectively trapped on their bases and ships by Russian troops and local militia allies, will take part in the referendum.

One sailor, who declined to be named, said he would only vote if he got the order from his commander to do so, a position echoed by many other servicemen spoken to by Reuters. They all said they would vote for Crimea to remain part of Ukraine.

Elena Prokhina, an ethnic Russian planning to vote for union with Moscow, said she feared the referendum could lead to conflict with others in Ukraine, notably nationalists in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country of 46 million.

“Knowing what I know about the fanaticism of the western Ukrainians, we will have to defend our rights after the referendum,” she said. “They won't just let us leave.”

Around Sevastopol, Ukrainian military facilities remained under virtual siege on Tuesday. At an air defense base outside Sevastopol, dozens of men who looked like Russian soldiers were camping outside the gate, while an armed Ukrainian serviceman could be seen pacing the base's roof keeping a wary eye on them.

In the port, two Ukrainian warships remained on alert but unable to set sail because of Russian vessels and a cable strung across the harbor by Russian forces. Relatives of the sailors come to the dockside every day to converse and provide food.

A Ukrainian officer said there was a fragile understanding between the two fleets not to escalate the situation, but he said nerves were frayed: “The Russians have not troubled us until now,” he said. “But all it takes is one order and they will open fire. We won't be able to hold out long”.

CALL FOR HELP

In parliament, the acting defense minister said that of some 41,000 infantry mobilized last week, Ukraine could field only about 6,000 combat-ready troops, compared to over 200,000 Russians deployed on the country's eastern borders. The prime minister said the air force was outnumbered 100 to one.

Acting president Oleksander Turchinov warned against provoking Russia, saying that would play into Moscow's hands, as he announced plans to mobilize a National Guard, though he gave little detail of its size or expected functions.

Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, who will visit the White House and United Nations Security Council this week, said the 1994 treaty under which Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet nuclear weapons obliged Russia to remove troops from Crimea and also meant Western powers should defend Ukraine's sovereignty.

“What does the current military aggression of the Russian Federation on Ukrainian territory mean?” he said.

“It means that a country which voluntarily gave up nuclear weapons, rejected nuclear status and received guarantees from the world's leading countries is left defenseless and alone in the face of a nuclear state that is armed to the teeth.

“I say this to our Western partners: if you do not provide guarantees, which were signed in the Budapest Memorandum, then explain how you will persuade Iran or North Korea to give up their status as nuclear states.”

Parliament passed a resolution he had proposed calling on the United States and Britain, co-signatories with Russia of that treaty to “fulfil their obligations … and take all possible diplomatic, political, economic and military measures urgently to end the aggression and preserve the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine”.

But Western powers have been careful to note that Ukraine, not being a member of NATO, has no automatic claim on their help and Ukrainian officials gave no details on what they hoped for. The wording of the 1994 treaty indicates that help is only required if Ukraine is threatened by a nuclear attack.

Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets, Pavel Polityuk, Richard Balmforth and Ron Popeski in Kiev; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Peter Graff

Putin rebuffs Obama as Ukraine crisis escalates


President Vladimir Putin rebuffed a warning from U.S. President Barack Obama over Moscow's military intervention in Crimea, saying on Friday that Russia could not ignore calls for help from Russian speakers in Ukraine.

After an hour-long telephone call, Putin said in a statement that Moscow and Washington were still far apart on the situation in the former Soviet republic, where he said the new authorities had taken “absolutely illegitimate decisions on the eastern, southeastern and Crimea regions.

“Russia cannot ignore calls for help and it acts accordingly, in full compliance with international law,” Putin said.

Ukraine's border guards said Moscow had poured troops into the southern peninsula where Russian forces have seized control.

Serhiy Astakhov, an aide to the border guards' commander, said there were now 30,000 Russian soldiers in Crimea, compared to the 11,000 permanently based with the Russian Black Sea fleet in the port of Sevastopol before the crisis.

Putin denies that the forces with no national insignia that are surrounding Ukrainian troops in their bases are under Moscow's command, although their vehicles have Russian military plates. The West has ridiculed his assertion.

The most serious east-west confrontation since the end of the Cold War – resulting from the overthrow last month of President Viktor Yanukovich after violent protests in Kiev – escalated on Thursday when Crimea's parliament, dominated by ethnic Russians, voted to join Russia. The region's government set a referendum for March 16 – in just nine days' time.

European Union leaders and Obama denounced the referendum as illegitimate, saying it would violate Ukraine's constitution.

The head of Russia's upper house of parliament said after meeting visiting Crimean lawmakers on Friday that Crimea had a right to self-determination, and ruled out any risk of war between “the two brotherly nations”.

Obama announced the first sanctions against Russia on Thursday since the start of the crisis, ordering visa bans and asset freezes against so far unidentified people deemed responsible for threatening Ukraine's sovereignty. Russia warned that it would retaliate against any sanctions.

Japan endorsed the Western position that the actions of Russia, whose forces have seized control of the Crimean peninsula, constitute “a threat to international peace and security”, after Obama spoke to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

China, often a Russian ally in blocking Western moves in the U.N. Security Council, was more cautious, saying that economic sanctions were not the best way to solve the crisis and avoiding comment on the legality of a Crimean referendum on secession.

GUERRILLA WAR?

The EU, Russia's biggest economic partner and energy customer, adopted a three-stage plan to try to force a negotiated solution but stopped short of immediate sanctions.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded angrily on Friday, calling the EU decision to freeze talks on visa-free travel and on a broad new pact governing Russia-EU ties “extremely unconstructive”.

Senior Ukrainian opposition politician Yulia Tymoshenko, freed from prison after Yanukovich's ouster, met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Dublin and appealed for immediate EU sanctions against Russia, warning that Crimea might otherwise slide into a guerrilla war.

Brussels and Washington rushed to strengthen the new authorities in economically shattered Ukraine, announcing both political and financial assistance. The regional director of the International Monetary Fund said talks with Kiev on a loan agreement were going well and praised the new government's openness to economic reform and transparency.

The European Commission has said Ukraine could receive up to 11 billion euros ($15 billion) in the next couple of years provided it reaches agreement with the IMF, which requires painful economic reforms like ending gas subsidies.

Promises of billions of dollars in Western aid for the Kiev government, and the perception that Russian troops are not likely to go beyond Crimea into other parts of Ukraine, have helped reverse a rout in the local hryvnia currency.

In the past two days it has traded above 9.0 to the dollar for the first time since the Crimea crisis began last week. Local dealers said emergency currency restrictions imposed last week were also supporting the hryvnia.

Russian gas monopoly Gazprom said Ukraine had not paid its $440 million gas bill for February, bringing its arrears to $1.89 billion and hinted it could turn off the taps as it did in 2009, when a halt in Russian deliveries to Ukraine reduced supplies to Europe during a cold snap.

In Moscow, a huge crowd gathered near the Kremlin at a government-sanctioned rally and concert billed as being “in support of the Crimean people”.

Pop stars took to the stage and demonstrators held signs with slogans such as “Crimea is Russian land”, “We don't trade our people for money” and “We believe in Putin”.

IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said no one in the civilized world would recognize the result of the “so-called referendum” in Crimea.

He repeated Kiev's willingness to negotiate with Russia if Moscow pulls its additional troops out of Crimea and said he had requested a telephone call with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

But Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov ridiculed calls for Russia to join an international “contact group” with Ukraine proposed by the West to negotiate an end to the crisis, saying they “make us smile”, Russian news agencies reported.

Despite the Kremlin's tough words, demonstrators who have remained encamped in Kiev's central Independence Square to defend the revolution that ousted Yanukovich said they did not believe Crimea would be allowed to secede.

Alexander Zaporozhets, 40, from central Ukraine's Kirovograd region, put his faith in international pressure.

“I don't think the Russians will be allowed to take Crimea from us: you can't behave like that to an independent state. We have the support of the whole world. But I think we are losing time. While the Russians are preparing, we are just talking.”

Unarmed military observers from the pan-European Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe were blocked from entering Crimea for a second day in a row on Friday, the OSCE said on Twitter.

A U.N. special envoy who traveled to the regional capital Simferopol was surrounded by pro-Russian protesters and forced to leave on Wednesday. The United Nations said it had sent its assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, to Kiev to conduct a preliminary humans rights assessment.

Ukrainian television was switched off in Crimea on Thursday and replaced with Russian state channels. The streets largely belong to people who support Moscow's rule, some of whom have become increasingly aggressive in the past week, harassing journalists and occasional pro-Kiev protesters.

Part of the Crimea's 2 million population opposes Moscow's rule, including members of the region's ethnic Russian majority. The last time Crimeans were asked, in 1991, they voted narrowly for independence along with the rest of Ukraine.

“This announcement that we are already part of Russia provokes nothing but tears,” said Tatyana, 41, an ethnic Russian. “With all these soldiers here, it is like we are living in a zoo. Everyone fully understands this is an occupation.”

Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Luke Baker and Martin Santa in Brussels, Steve Holland and Jeff Mason in Washington, Lina Kushch in Donetsk and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Giles Elgood and Philippa Fletcher

Merkel says planned referendum in Crimea ‘illegal’


German Chancellor Angela Merkel said a referendum announced by Crimea's parliament on Thursday on joining the Russian Federation was “illegal and incompatible with Ukraine's constitution.”

Speaking after an emergency meeting of European leaders in Brussels, Merkel said: “we condemn the violation of Ukraine's sovereignty with regard to Crimea and we consider its territorial integrity to be essential.”

EU leaders urged Russia to immediately withdraw troops from Crimea and said the EU had suspended bilateral talks on visas with Moscow.

Crimea's parliament voted to join Russia on Thursday and its Moscow-backed government set a referendum on the decision in 10 days' time in a dramatic escalation of the crisis over the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula.

Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum and Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Noah Barkin

Obama warns on Crimea, orders sanctions over Russian moves in Ukraine


President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered sanctions on people responsible for Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula, including travel bans and freezing of their U.S. assets, and said a referendum by the region to join Russia would violate international law.

U.S. officials said a list of people targeted by the sanctions had not yet been drawn up, but that Russian President Vladimir Putin was not going to be one of them.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said: “I'm not aware of a limit” on how many people could be listed.

In a separate demonstration of support for Ukraine, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill on Thursday backing loan guarantees for the new government in Kiev. The U.S. Senate is expected to consider a similar bill backing $1 billion in loan guarantees next week.

Obama signed an executive order aimed at punishing those Russians and Ukrainians responsible for the Russian military incursion into Ukraine's Crimea region, which has triggered the worst crisis in U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War.

Escalating the crisis, Crimea's parliament on Thursday voted to join Russia and its Moscow-backed government set a referendum on the decision in 10 days' time.

Obama, appearing in the White House press room hours after signing the order, said the U.S. sanctions were meant to impose costs on Russia for its actions. He said the international community was acting together and warned that a referendum in Crimea would violate international law as well as the Ukrainian constitution.

“Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine,” Obama said. “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.”

Obama and administration officials emphasized that the U.S. sanctions could be adjusted or additional steps taken as Russian behavior changed.

“While we take these steps, I want to be clear that there is also a way to resolve this crisis that respects the interests of the Russian Federation, as well as the Ukrainian people,” the president said, calling for international monitors to be allowed into Ukraine as well as talks to be held between Moscow and Kiev.

“Russia would maintain its (military) basing rights in Crimea, provided that it abides by its agreements and respects Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. And the world should support the people of Ukraine as they move to elections in May,” he said, calling that the “path to de-escalation.”

The White House called the order a “flexible tool” aimed at those directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine, noting that additional steps could be taken if necessary. Any Russian actions in eastern Ukraine would be a potential reason for further measures, a senior U.S. official said.

The State Department is also putting visa bans in place on a number of officials and individuals responsible for, or complicit in, threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

But Putin is not one of those to be singled out, a senior administration official said.

“It is an unusual and extraordinary circumstance to sanction a head of state, and we would not begin our designations by doing so,” the official said.

LEAVING ROOM FOR DIALOGUE

The Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea has an ethnic Russian majority and is home to a Russian naval base in Sevastopol.

Obama is attempting to rally global opinion against the Russian move, which Putin says was aimed at protecting ethnic Russians in Crimea. The intervention followed the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russian president last month.

Several hundred chanting demonstrators, many waving blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags, gathered outside the White House on Thursday to protest Russia's intervention in Crimea.

They carried signs that read: “Putin Sucks,” and “Putin is a war criminal,” and chanted: “Russia, hands off Ukraine!” and in Ukrainian: “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes of Ukraine!”

The United States wants Russian troops to return to their bases in Crimea and for Moscow to allow international monitors into the region to ensure the human rights of ethnic Russians there are protected.

Obama's order was announced as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Rome. Kerry, speaking in Rome, noted that the sanctions framework was designed to allow talks to go forward.

“We want to be able to continue the intense discussions with both sides in order to try to normalize and end this crisis,” he said. “We will absolutely consider if we have to additional steps beyond what we've done, but our preference … is to emphasize the possibilities for the dialogue that can lead to the normalization and defusing of this crisis.”

The Obama order targets any assets held in the United States by “individuals and entities” responsible for the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, threatening its territorial integrity or seeking to assert governmental authority over any part of Ukraine without authorization from the government in Kiev.

A senior State Department official said the United States informed the Europeans beforehand about the sanctions.

Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal, Patricia Zengerle and Lacey Johnson in Washington, and Lesley Wroughton in Rome; editing by Mohammad Zargham, Peter Cooney and G Crosse

Will Russia pay dearly for the invasion of Ukraine?


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intention is to spark a civil war in Ukraine, even though he acts under the guise of Russia’s right to protect ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens.  The Upper House of Russian Parliament gave Putin authority to move the armed forces of the Russian Federation into Ukraine “until the situation there is stabilized.” On the other hand, Duma (the Russian Parliament) is working on a new law that would allow incorporation of foreign regions and territories in to the Russian Federation. The current law required agreement on both sides — that is an agreement between a foreign country and Russia, before a new territory is incorporated. The idea of legitimizing the annexation of Crimea is solely based on the premise of alleged good will of Russian-speaking Crimeans. The majority of the Crimean population is ethnic Russians, although Tatars and Ukrainians also live in the peninsula. 

Russian imperial plans, however, go much further. In short, they include destabilization of Southeastern Ukraine, military intervention in the wake of the staged high-scale civil unrest and ultimately the restoration of the government of deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, or another pro-Russian government. Official Russian rhetoric has advanced from calling Ukrainian protesters radicals and nationalists to branding them Nazis, while the new government is regarded as illegitimate and anti-Russian. Appeals to a Russian-Ukrainian age-old kinship have been replaced by military orders to reinstate a subjugated status of Ukraine. 

Putin does not consider Russia bound by bilateral and international agreements with regard to Ukraine. He likes to justify Russia’s right to national security by comparing American and European military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. Putin learned well the lesson of Mikhail Gorbachev’s piety to the West, which resulted in the geostrategic debilitation of Russia. He also knows that the European Union and the United States are good with words but slow and indecisive with actions. In other words, his concept is simple: What is good for the might of Russia has to be done, and the victor gets all. International obligations are ambiguous and shall not be taken in earnest. Such a strategy has proven to work well for Putin’s Russia, at least so far. 

[How you can help the Jews of Ukraine
(The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles)
]

Whether it will work on Ukrainian soil is a function of multiple variables. Among the latter are a willingness within the international community to step forward and halt the Russian aggression against Ukraine; the degree of social mobilization of Ukrainian people; the competence of the new Ukrainian government; and, last but not least, the capability of Ukrainian armed forces to withstand the foreign invasion. Geopolitical priorities of the new Ukrainian government still remain to be seen, whether it is statehood, willingness to forsake territorial losses or territorial integrity owing to political compromises. 

There are some historical parallels between the new Ukrainian government and the government of the French Republic in the wake of the great French Revolution. Of course, I do not mean to refer to the French revolutionary terror, but rather, I draw parallels in relation to the geopolitical situations. Both governments enacted radical reforms that altered the balance of power. Then the powerful neighboring empires retaliated. In both instances, the military was either nonexistent (France) or not adequately prepared and lacking continuous buildup (Ukraine). It is also typical for a post-revolutionary government to be incoherent and to face critical decision-making under multi-vector pressure. For example, to the satisfaction of the radical parties, the parliament (Verkhovna Rada) denounced the former language law and enacted a new one. 

There is nothing wrong with making the only official language Ukrainian; this is one of the necessary preconditions of creating a viable national state. However, the timing of this move was not favorable, given that the ethno-national consensus in Ukraine is particularly thin. The Russian-speaking Southeast of Ukraine associates the mandatory Ukraine-ization with the ideology of Ukrainian nationalists, with fears, since the Soviet time, of Western Ukraine (Galicia). The new Ukrainian government also faces fundamental challenges in nation-building versus state-building, territorial integrity versus statehood, and a transformation of ethnic nationalism into civil nationalism. All these paradigms constitute the cornerstones of Ukrainian independence. 

Ukraine has been formally an independent state for 23 years, which came as a result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. During this time, ethno-national and cultural differences remain a significant obstacle in its nation building. The influence of the Russian Federation has always been a dominating factor in Ukrainian politics. Another issue is a façade-like concept of everlasting, undivided Ukraine (Sobornost), for it is taboo to suggest its modification or reversal. An option of federalization has been always dismissed. Admittedly, West Ukraine (Galicia) is a Ukrainian Piedmont, even as now a Russian Piedmont — Crimea — has gained momentum. Federalization by the modern German model should not be disregarded outright, as long as it is Ukraine’s own choice and not imposed from outside forces.

For Ukrainians, war is the last resort. The people of Ukraine believe in the mission of international institutions, but they are also aware of the possibility of repeating an Ossetian scenario of 2008, when the Republic of Georgia endured five days against the Russian military might. Ukraine’s government is doing everything possible to avoid a military conflict. The world’s leaders are on Ukraine’s side in the common effort to prevent a war. Total military mobilization in Ukraine may be declared soon, and the nation struggling for its independence for 23 years may become finally free.


Vladimir Melamed is director of Archive, Library and Historical Curatorship at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Ukraine Jewish leaders criticize Putin in open letter


A highly critical open letter to Vladimir Putin by leaders of Ukraine’s Jewish communities was published on the website of Ukraine’s Vaad yesterday.

The Vaad of Ukraine was established in 1991. Based in Kiev, it is an umbrella group that says it supports “265 Jewish organizations from 94 cities of Ukraine.”

The letter, written in Russian and co-signed by 21 Jewish leaders — including the Vaad leadership, an artist, an engineer, and others — excoriated Putin’s perceived hypocrisy and asserted the signers’ support of Ukrainian sovereignty “in the name of national minorities and Ukraine’s Jewish community.”

Since Russian troops invaded Crimea, a peninsula in southeastern Ukraine, on Saturday, Putin has justified his military action by claiming that he is acting to protect Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population.

In response to these allegations, the group spoke on behalf of a Ukrainian Jewish community that is historically “mostly Russian-speaking.”

In repeated statements from the Kremlin, Putin has asserted that Ukraine’s new government is composed of “fascists and neo-Nazis,” and he decried what he said was the anti-Semitism of Ukrainian protesters in his Tuesday press conference.

“Your certainty about the growth of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, which you expressed at your press conference, also does not correspond to the actual facts,” wrote the group. “Perhaps you got Ukraine confused with Russia, where Jewish organizations have noticed growth in anti-Semitic tendencies last year.”

Calling for Putin to cease his intervention in Ukraine and his calls for pro-Russian separatism within the country, the group stated that it does not wish “to be ‘defended’ by sundering Ukraine and annexing its territory.”

Instead, the authors wrote, “we are quite capable of protecting our rights in a constructive dialogue and in cooperation with the government and civil society of a sovereign, democratic, and united Ukraine.”

Among the cosigned are Josef Zissels, chairman of Vaad Ukraine; Alexander Gaidar, leader of the Union of Ukrainian Progressive Judaism Religious Communities; Grigoriy Pickman, “B’nei B’rith Leopolis” president; and Leonid Finberg, director of the Center for the Study of History and Culture of Eastern European Jewry at Kiev Mohyla National University.

Putin: military force would be ‘last resort’ in Ukraine


President Vladimir Putin delivered a robust defense of Russia's actions in Crimea on Tuesday and said he would use force in Ukraine only as a last resort, easing market fears that East-West tension over the former Soviet republic could lead to war.

But tension remained high on the ground. Russian forces fired warning shots in a confrontation with Ukrainian servicemen at an air base, and Russian navy ships were reported to have blockaded the strait separating the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula from Russia.

At his first news conference since the crisis began, Putin said Russia reserved the right to use all options to protect compatriots who were living in “terror” in Ukraine, but force was not needed for now.

His comments, coupled with the end of Russian war games near Ukraine's borders, lifted Russian bonds and stock markets around the world after a panic sell-off on Monday.

Putin denied the Russian armed forces were directly engaged in the bloodless seizure of Crimea, saying the uniformed troops without national insignia were “local self-defense forces”.

“As for bringing in forces, for now there is no such need, but such a possibility exists,” he said. “What could serve as a reason to use military force? It would naturally be the last resort. Absolutely the last.”

Western sanctions under consideration against Russia would be counter-productive, he said. A senior U.S. official said Washington was ready to impose them in days rather than weeks. The Russian Foreign Ministry warned that Moscow would retaliate.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged that Russia had legitimate interests in Ukraine but said that did not give Putin the right to intervene militarily.

“President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations,” Obama said. “But I don't think that's fooling anybody.”

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Tuesday after speaking to Obama over the weekend that the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations were considering meeting in the near future, a move that would pointedly exclude Russia. The G7 became the G8 in 1998 when Russia was formally included.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on his first visit to Kiev since the overthrow of Russian-backed President Victor Yanukovich, accused Moscow of seeking a pretext to invade more of the country.

Kerry laid flowers in Independence Square at a memorial to pro-Western protesters killed by police last month, describing the experience as “moving, distressing and inspiring”. He met Ukraine's interim leaders and announced a $1 billion economic package and technical assistance for the new government.

Putin said there had been an unconstitutional coup in Ukraine, and Yanukovich, who fled to Russia last week, was still the legitimate leader. No Ukrainian government elected “under such terror as we see now” would be legitimate, he said.

Kerry said the United States was not seeking a confrontation and would prefer to see the situation managed through international institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk told reporters in Kiev that the Ukrainian and Russian governments had begun consultations on the crisis “at the level of ministers”.

“LAST RESORT”

The Feb. 22 ousting of Yanukovich after months of street protests in Kiev and Russia's seizure of control in Crimea have prompted the most serious confrontation between Moscow and the West since the end of the Cold War.

Western governments have been alarmed at the possibility that Russia may also move into eastern and southern Ukraine, home to many Russian speakers, which Putin did not rule out.

“There can be only one assessment of what happened in Kiev, in Ukraine in general. This was an anti-constitutional coup and the armed seizure of power,” he said, looking relaxed as he sat before a small group of reporters at his residence near Moscow.

Earlier on Tuesday, Putin ordered troops involved in a military exercise in western Russia, close to the border with Ukraine, back to their bases. He said armed men who had seized buildings and other facilities in Crimea were local groups.

But in a sign of the fragility of the situation in Crimea, a Russian soldier fired three volleys of shots over the heads of unarmed Ukrainian servicemen who marched bearing the Ukrainian flag towards their aircraft at a military airfield surrounded by Russian troops at Belbek, near Sevastopol.

After a standoff in which the two commanders shouted at each other and Russian soldiers leveled rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers at the Ukrainians, the incident was defused and the Ukrainians eventually dispersed. No one was hurt.

The Ukrainian border guard service said Russian navy ships had blocked both ends of the Kerch Strait between Crimea and Russia, but Ukraine's infrastructure ministry said the 4.5-km (2.7-mile) wide waterway was still open for civilian shipping.

REBOUND

Russian dollar bond markets rebounded on Tuesday, encouraged by Putin's comments.

Russia had paid a heavy financial price on Monday for its military intervention in Ukraine, with nearly $60 billion wiped off the value of Russian firms on the Moscow stock market.

Despite Putin's more conciliatory comments, NATO said Russia had shown few signs of de-escalating matters, as members of the military alliance held emergency talks on the crisis. Other incidents showed tensions remained high.

Turkey on Monday scrambled eight F-16 fighter jets after a Russian surveillance plane flew along its Black Sea coast, the military said.

A senior U.S. administration official said Washington would work with Congress to approve $1 billion in loan guarantees to help lessen the impact on Ukrainians of proposed energy subsidy cuts.

In further pressure on Kiev, Russia's top gas producer Gazprom said it would remove a discount on gas prices for Ukraine from April.

Putin secured parliamentary backing at the weekend to invade Ukraine if necessary to protect Russian interests and citizens after Yanukovich's downfall. Russia's Black Sea Fleet has a base in Crimea, a peninsula with an ethnic Russian majority.

Putin is dismayed that the new leadership in Ukraine has plotted a course towards the European Union and away from what had been Moscow's sphere of influence during generations of Soviet Communist rule.

Ukraine said observers from the OSCE would travel at its invitation to Crimea in an attempt to defuse the military standoff there. It was not clear if Russia would let them into the peninsula.

WESTERN RESPONSE

Ukrainian officials say Moscow has poured additional troops into Crimea, which former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 when both republics were part of the Soviet Union.

The United States on Monday suspended all military engagements with Russia, including military exercises and port visits, and froze trade and investment talks with Moscow.

A Kremlin aide said that if the United States did impose sanctions, Moscow might drop the dollar as a reserve currency and refuse to repay loans to U.S. banks.

The European Union, which will hold an emergency summit on Thursday, has threatened unspecified “targeted measures” unless Russia returns its forces to their bases and opens talks with Ukraine's government.

Western leaders are not considering a military response, but NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the Western allies would intensify their assessment of how Russia's military moves in Ukraine affect the alliance's security.

“NATO allies stand together in the spirit of strong solidarity in this grave crisis,” he told reporters in Brussels after NATO ambassadors met at Poland's request.

Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini said Russia had agreed to meet NATO representatives on Wednesday to discuss Ukraine.

Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets and Lesley Wroughton in Kiev, Andrew Osborn in Sevastopol, Thomas Peter in Kerch, Mike Shields in Vienna; Writing by Timothy Heritage, Giles Elgood and Paul Taylor; editing by Anna Willard and Will Waterman

Explaining the situation in Crimea


As dinner conversations, news shows, and water-cooler talk have turned from Oscar selfies to, well, real news, one topic has dominated  the Twitterverse and the airwaves (Russia! Ukraine! Russia invaded Ukraine!). 

As often happens, though, with complex stories that become part of the national conversation (see: “>”greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Putin, along with, don't forget, many Russians, wax nostalgically for the days when Russia shared the world stage with the United States. It was just so fun! To further the aim of becoming as important as it wants to be in global affairs, Putin acts sttategically and pragmatically towards reaching that aim. 

A necessary ingredient for recapturing global prominence is a close relationship with Ukraine, which aside from having a wealth of mineral deposits and millions of ethnic Russians, serves as a geographic gateway to Western Europe, and comprises the northern edge of the Black Sea, which is the only body of water that gives Russia military and economic access to the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, and Syria, where Russia has a naval port. A non-allied, or worse yet, hostile, eastern neighbor, would make Russia's standing in the Black Sea trickier.

As Daniel Drezner Riot policemenare hit by fire caused by molotov cocktails hurled by anti-government protesters during clashes in Kiev on Feb. 18. Photo by Stringer/Reuters 

One word: Euromaidan. In late 2013, it looked almost certain that Ukraine's government was inching towards Western Europe's cozy economic umbrella, with its anticipated signing of an Association Agreement with the European Union. Well, that unnerved Putin, who lobbied hard to keep his ally, Ukraine's democratically elected Viktor Yanukovych, under a Russian thumb. Walter Russell Mead “>things turned bloody, with police using live ammunition, protestors using molotov cocktails and rocks, and dozens of civilians and police officers lying dead in the streets after the smoke cleared.

On Feb. 22nd, Yanukovych read the tea leaves and fled Kiev after his own guards abandoned him. Parliament declared him unable to fulfill his duties as president, and installed an interim government, scheduling elections for May 25th.

Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on Feb. 28. Photo by Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

3. And after all that happened, how did Crimea pop into the picture?

First, let's address the question you should have asked: “What and where is Crimea?” Good question.

Map from Global News

Crimea is an Ukrainian navy chief Denis Berezovsky swears allegiance to the pro-Russian regional leaders of Crimea in Sevastopol on March 2. Photo from Reuters TV

If, though, Russia invaded mainland Ukraine, the underdog would certainly use any means necessary to defend itself. 

6. What next? 

It's useless giving predictions, but there are a few options, with varying probabilities. A Russian invasion is unlikely, as is a Ukrainian counterstrike against Russian forces in Crimea. Matters will likely proceed as far as Russia is willing to take them. With the United States Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on  March 4. Photo by Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

Ukraine says Russia deployed 16,000 new troops to Crimea


[UPDATE – March 3 at 2:15 pm] Russia has deployed roughly 16,000 troops to Ukraine's autonomous region of Crimea since last week, Kiev's U.N. Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev said on Monday.

“Beginning from 24 February, approximately 16,000 Russian troops have been deployed in Crimea by the military ships, helicopters, cargo airplanes from the neighboring territory of the Russian Federation,” Sergeyev told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the crisis in his country.


[March 3 at 1:15 pm] Russian forces began moving troops into Ukraine's Crimea region by ferry on Monday after seizing control of the border post on the Ukrainian side of the waterway, Ukraine's border guards said.

Russians who seized the isolated Black Sea peninsula have been surrounding the ferry terminal for days but until now had not taken control of Ukraine's border guard station.

A border guard spokesman said Russian troops seized the checkpoint after the border guards tried to stop two buses carrying seven armed men, and the next ferry brought three truckloads of soldiers across.

Earlier on Monday, the Ukrainian border guards said they had seen Russia assembling an armoured column on its side of the 4.5 km (2.7 mile) wide Kerch strait that separates the Crimea peninsula from southern Russia.

Russian troops have seized Crimea and President Vladimir Putin has declared Moscow has the right to intervene in Ukraine to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine, sparking the biggest crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Editing by Janet Lawrence

Ukraine chief rabbi accuses Russians of staging anti-Semitic ‘provocations’


Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, a chief rabbi of Ukraine, accused Russia of staging anti-Semitic “provocations” in Crimea in order to justify its invasion of the former Soviet republic.

At a press conference in the Manhattan office of the United Jewish Communities of Eastern Europe, Bleich compared Russia’s behavior to that of the Nazis prior to the Anschluss invasion of Austria in 1938.

“Things may be done by Russians dressing up as Ukrainian nationalists,” he said, adding that it’s “the same way the Nazis did when they wanted to go into Austria and created provocations.”

Bleich, a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, also announced the creation of an aid effort, KievRelief.org, to fund security for synagogues and mosques and to provide humanitarian relief for all Ukrainians.

Bleich, who moved to Ukraine in 1989 from Brooklyn, was slated, along with other Ukrainian political and religious leaders, to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday. He said he will urge Kerry to be assertive with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to move the G8 Summit to Kiev, as a show of solidarity with Ukrainians, and to consider sending military support to Ukraine. While acknowledging that Americans are “war-weary,” he said Ukrainians need “boots on the ground to protect democracy” and to prevent “the cold war from getting hot.”

Asked about anti-Semitism among Ukrainian nationalists, particularly two far-right parties that have been included in the new government, Bleich acknowledged concerns but said the Jewish community has received assurances from top government leaders that their safety will be protected.

“The Russians are blowing this way, way out of proportion,” he said, referring to the issue of anti-Semitism among some Ukrainian nationalist factions.

He said that Ukrainians were united in response to the Russian intervention.

“There were many differences of opinion throughout the revolution, but today all that is gone,” he said. “We’re faced by an outside threat called Russia. It’s brought everyone together.”

‘Death to Jews’ graffiti sprayed on Crimean synagogue


Unknown individuals painted swastikas and the phrase “Death to the Jews” on a synagogue in the Crimea region of southern Ukraine.

The graffiti was found Friday on the door and facade of the Reform Ner Tamid synagogue in Simferopol in the Crimean peninsula, the Russian-Israeli news site izrus.co.il reported.

Anatoly Gendin, head of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Crimea, told the news site that the perpetrators needed to climb a 2-meter wall to reach the building.

“Clearly, it was important for the anti-Semites to commit this crime. Since the crisis began prices went up by 30 percent, pensions aren’t being paid. As usual, Jews are blamed [for] these disasters and Jews are held responsible. I am afraid to think how this will progress,” he wrote in a statement sent to media by the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

[Related: Ukraine warns Russia after gunmen seize Crimea parliament]

The attack took place as Ukrainian troops reported takeovers of two airports in the Crimea region by forces they said were Russian. The Crimea region is heavily populated by ethnic Russians.

Protests against Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovich, forced him to flee to the capital city of Kiev after scores died in bloody street clashes last week. The protest movement was spurred by his policy of privileging Ukraine’s ties to Russia integration with the European Union.

Earlier this week, firebombs hit the Chabad-run Orthodox Giymat Rosa Synagogue in Zaporizhia, located 250 miles southeast of Kiev. That attack caused only minor damage.

Obama warns Russia against intervention in Ukraine


President Barack Obama warned Russia on Friday that any military intervention in Ukraine would lead to unspecified “costs,” and expressed deep concern about reports of Russian military movements inside Ukraine.

Obama made a hastily arranged appearance in the White House briefing room to try to head off Russia after reports that armed men had taken over two airports in the Crimea region of southern Ukraine.

“We are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine,” he told reporters.

Obama said any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity would be “deeply destabilizing.”

“The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine,” he said.

It was unclear how Washington might respond to rapidly changing events in Ukraine days after pro-Western protesters prompted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovic to flee to Russia.

Armed men took control of two airports in the Crimea region in what the new Ukrainian leadership described as an invasion by Moscow's forces, and Yanukovich surfaced in Russia a week after he fled Kiev.

Ukraine fell into political crisis last year when Yanukovich spurned a broad trade deal with the European Union and accepted a $15 billion Russian bailout that is now in question.

The crisis has presented Obama with a difficult challenge.

Obama supports the pro-Western demonstrators who forced Yanukovich out of power, and his administration is working on an urgently needed aid package for Ukraine.

He is also engaged in a veiled struggle for influence in Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has wanted to keep Kiev in Moscow's orbit and for whom the Russian naval base at Ukraine's Black Sea port of Sevastopol is a vital asset.

Additional reporting By Arshad Mohammed, Lesley Wroughton, Patricia Zengerle, Mark Felsenthal and Jeff Mason; Editing by Alistair Bell and Mohammad Zargham

Ukraine warns Russia after gunmen seize Crimea parliament


Armed men seized the parliament in Ukraine's Crimea region on Thursday and raised the Russian flag, alarming Kiev's new rulers, who warned Moscow not move troops beyond the confines of its navy base on the peninsula.

Crimea, the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian majority, is the last big bastion of opposition to the new leadership in Kiev since President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted at the weekend and provides a base for Russia's Black Sea fleet.

Its regional parliament, meeting in another part of the building that was apparently still occupied by the gunmen, voted to stage a referendum on “sovereignty” for Crimea.

“I am appealing to the military leadership of the Russian Black Sea fleet,” said Oleksander Turchinov, Ukraine's acting president, who warned Russia not to move personnel beyond areas permitted by treaty for those using its naval base.

“Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this territory will be seen by us as military aggression,” he said.

Russia has repeatedly declared it will defend the interests of its citizens in Ukraine, and on Wednesday announced war games near the border involving 150,000 troops on high alert.

Although Moscow says it will not intervene by force, its rhetoric since the removal of its ally Yanukovich has echoed the runup to its invasion of Georgia in 2008, when it sent its troops to protect two self-declared independent regions and then recognized them as independent states.

Ukraine's leaders say they fear separatism in the Crimea.

In Washington, the White House warned Russia to avoid “provocative” acts. “We strongly support Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. We expect other nations to do the same,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and urged Moscow to work with the United States and its European allies to help stabilize Ukraine.

“We believe that everybody now needs to take a step back and avoid any kind of provocations,” Kerry said at a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry summoned Russia's acting ambassador in Kiev for consultations.

The face-off between Moscow and the West has revived memories of the Cold War. Ukraine has been in crisis since November, when Yanukovich abandoned a proposed trade pact with the EU and turned instead towards Russia. It escalated last week when scores of demonstrators were killed, many by police sharpshooters on rooftops, and Yanukovich was toppled.

The fresh turmoil in Crimea sent the Ukrainian hryvnia tumbling to a new record low of 11 to the dollar on the Reuters dealing platform. Ukraine's new central bank governor has abandoned a policy of propping up the currency which was rapidly draining its foreign reserves.

Yanukovich's overthrow will undoubtedly cost Kiev a $15 billion Russian bailout offered to Yanukovich as a prize by Moscow for spurning the EU trade pact. Ukraine urgently needs other sources of funding to stave off bankruptcy. The International Monetary Fund said it would send a team to Kiev in the coming days. [ID:nL1N0LW1KD]

New finance minister Oleksander Shlapak said he hoped the IMF would work on an aid package of at least $15 billion. Ukraine says it needs $35 billion over the next two years.

The minister also said he expected the hryvnia to strengthen soon at around 10 to the dollar.

GUNMEN

No one was hurt when government buildings were seized in Crimea's regional capital Simferopol in the early hours by Russian-speaking gunmen in uniforms without insignia.

“We were building barricades in the night to protect parliament. Then this young Russian guy came up with a pistol … we all lay down, some more ran up, there was some shooting and around 50 went in through the window,” Leonid Khazanov, an ethnic Russian, told Reuters.

“I asked them what they wanted, and they said 'To make our own decisions, not to have Kiev telling us what to do'.”

Acting interior minister Arsen Avakov said the attackers had automatic weapons and machine guns.

The regional prime minister said he had spoken to the people inside the building by telephone, but they had not made any demands or said why they were there. They had promised to call him back but had not done so, he said.

With the occupation apparently still under way, the regional parliament met in another part of the building and voted to hold referendum on May 25, the day Ukraine plans to elect a new president to replace Yanukovich. The referendum, if passed, would declare Crimea sovereign, with its relationship to the rest of Ukraine governed by treaty.

About 100 police gathered in front of the parliament, and a similar number of people carrying Russian flags later marched up to the building chanting “Russia, Russia” and holding a sign calling for a referendum on Crimea's status.

About 50 pro-Russia supporters from Sevastopol, where part of Russia's Black Sea navy is based, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder facing police. Gennady Basov, their leader, said: “We need to organize ourselves like this to maintain order while this illegal and unconstitutional government operates in Kiev.”

The crowd cheered at news that parliament had voted for the referendum.

However, elsewhere there was some anger at the invasion of the regional parliament and the flying of the Russian flag.

Alexander Vostruyev, 60, in a leather cap and white beard, said: “It's disgrace that the flag if a foreign country is flying on our parliament … It's like a man coming home to find his wife in bed with another man.”

By nightfall, the Russian flag still flew over the building, although crowd in front began to dwindle.

WESTERN CONCERN

The fear of military escalation prompted expressions of concern from the West, with NATO urging Russia not to do anything that would “escalate tension”, although the alliance said neither it nor the United States had drawn up plans for how they would respond if Russia did intervene militarily.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called the seizure of government buildings in Crimea a “very dangerous game”.

Russia has a history of using its military power to protect allies who declare self rule in parts of other ex-Soviet states, notably in Georgia and also tiny Moldova. Members of Crimea's Russian majority have periodically agitated for independence at times of tension between Kiev and Moscow.

Still, any move by Moscow to assist Crimeans in breaking away from Ukraine – a nation of 46 million people on the ramparts of central Europe – would be a more direct challenge to the West than any Russian act since the Cold War.

Germany would do everything to support the new Ukrainian government, Chancellor Angela Merkel said in London after talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said Russia must respect Ukraine's territorial integrity.

Ukraine's new rulers pressed ahead with efforts to restore stability to the divided country, approving formation of a national coalition government with former economy minister Arseny Yatseniuk as its proposed head.

Yatseniuk told parliament that Yanukovich had driven the country to the brink of collapse. He accused the deposed president of stripping state coffers bare and said $70 billion had disappeared into offshore accounts.

“The state treasury has been robbed and is empty,” he said.

Yanukovich issued a statement on Thursday declaring he was still president of Ukraine and warning its “illegitimate” rulers that people in the southeastern and southern regions would never accept mob rule.

Russian news agencies said he planned to hold a news conference on Friday (1300 GMT) in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.

Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets and Pavel Polityuk in Kiev; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Giles Elgood and Peter Graff