KIEV — Ukrainian and Western leaders tried Sunday to dissuade President Vladimir Putin of Russia from overplaying his hand and ordering an invasion of eastern Ukraine, even as Russian forces and their sympathizers in the Crimean Peninsula worked to neutralize any Ukrainian resistance there.
What began in Ukraine three months ago as a protest against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych has turned into a big-power confrontation reminiscent of the Cold War and a significant challenge to international agreements on the sanctity of the borders of post-Soviet nations.
Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Kiev on Tuesday to show US support for Ukraine, a senior American official said.
In a television interview Sunday, Kerry condemned Russia for what he called an “incredible act of aggression” and threatened “very serious repercussions,” which could include asset freezes for Russian businesses, visa bans, and trade restrictions. He suggested what many were saying as fact later in the day, that Russia was “trying to annex Crimea.”
Britain, France, and Germany joined the United States in suspending participation in preparatory meetings for the summit of the industrialized nations known as the Group of Eight that Putin was to host in June in Sochi. Kerry said Russia could be expelled from the G-8 if it did not halt its aggression.
In Moscow, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, responded dismissively.
“It’s not a minus for Russia,” he said. “It will be a minus for the G-8.”
The Russian incursion poses a new crisis for the Obama administration, which embraced the new government in Kiev but now finds itself confronted with an ever more thinly veiled invasion of Ukraine. Putin has left little doubt that he intends to force Ukraine’s new government to make concessions or face de facto partition of areas dominated by ethnic Russians, such as Crimea and Odessa.
US intelligence agencies tracked thousands of additional Russian troops arriving in Crimea on Sunday, bolstering the Russian forces already in the area, a US official said. The official gave no further detail about the types of forces and did not say whether the Obama administration believes Putin will send even more troops in the days to come.
A senior Obama administration official said Russian troops now have “complete operational control” of the Crimean Peninsula, with some 6,000 airborne and naval forces there. The official confirmed that the Russians were flying in additional reinforcements to Ukraine on Sunday, adding that the Russian military is “settling in” as an occupying force.
For the most part, Ukrainian military forces have stayed in their barracks and in some cases their weapons have been stored in an attempt to avoid an escalation, the official said.
After the newly appointed Ukrainian navy chief, Rear Admiral Denis Berezovsky, swore allegiance to the people of Crimea, who are decidedly pro-Russian, an embarrassed government in Kiev immediately removed him and said it would investigate him on grounds of treason.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who spoke with Putin in a telephone call Sunday evening, accused Russia of violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine and breaking the Budapest Agreement of 1994 to respect the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine, according to a statement from Merkel’s office.
Putin, the statement said, agreed to Merkel’s suggestion to send a “fact-finding mission,” possibly led by the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to open a political dialogue.
The chancellor has maintained strong, if not always warm, ties with the Russian president and has often taken a leading role in Europe’s dialogue with Russia. However, Germany, together with Poland, has also worked to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union.
The day began with Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, telling reporters in English, “This is the red alert — this is not a threat, this is actually a declaration of war to my country,” a reference to approval by Russia’s Parliament on Saturday of the deployment of troops to any part of Ukraine where Moscow deems Russians to be in danger.
Yatsenyuk warned that Ukraine was on the “brink of disaster” and asked the international community to stand by his government in Kiev.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius of France said on Europe 1 radio that Moscow must “realize that decisions have costs.” And Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said that “we are on a very dangerous track of increasing tensions” but that “it is still possible to turn around. A new division of Europe can still be prevented.”
Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, traveled to Kiev on Sunday evening to meet with the new government and express support, and he said he was urging restraint from all parties.
The NATO alliance held an emergency meeting in Brussels that was mostly designed to reassure members with Russian minorities, including the Baltic states, and allies of Ukraine, such as Poland, that NATO was ready to defend them.
Before the meeting, the NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told Russia to stop its military activity and threats against Ukraine.
“What Russia is doing now in Ukraine violates the principles of the United Nations Charter,” he said. “It threatens peace and security in Europe. Russia must stop its military activities and its threats.”
But it was difficult to see what immediate penalties would be put on the government in Moscow to retreat on Crimea or to not broaden its military moves into eastern Ukraine. Putin seems to have decided that undermining the new, pro-European government in Kiev was worth most any plausible price in economic or diplomatic isolation, judging that the West would not react militarily.
Eastern Ukraine was relatively calm on Sunday, with the Ukrainian government making plans to reinforce its control by naming some prominent businessmen, with thousands of people dependent on them for work, as regional governors.
Pro-Moscow demonstrators flew Russian flags Saturday and Sunday at government buildings in cities including Donetsk, Odessa, and Dneprotrovsk. In places, they clashed with anti-Russian protesters and guards defending the buildings.
In Karkiv, the eastern city that is the country’s second-largest, a sprawling pro-Russian protest camp occupied the central square. Many said they would prefer that Russian troops invade the city, just 20 miles from the border, instead of submitting to Kiev’s rule.
“I would welcome them with flowers,” said Alexander Sorokin, 55, a pensioner walking by a phalanx of riot police officers guarding the administration building. “We do not want to spill blood, but we are willing to do so.”
Even as Kiev’s government called up its army reserves and vowed to fight for its sovereignty, it mustered a mostly political response to demonstrations in the east.
The office of President Oleksandr V. Turchynov announced the appointments of two billionaires as governors — Sergei Taruta in Donetsk and Ihor Kolomoysky in Dneprotrovsk — and more were reportedly under consideration for such positions. The strategy is recognition that the oligarchs represent the country’s industrial and business elite and hold great influence over thousands of workers in the east.
In Crimea, where pro-Russian authorities have announced a referendum on autonomy on March 30, Ukrainian forces were under tremendous pressure.
Hundreds of troops acting in the name of the provisional pro-Russian government in Crimea fanned out to persuade the thin Ukrainian forces there to give up their arms or swear allegiance to the new authorities, while the new government in Kiev tried to keep their loyalty while ordering them not to shoot unless under fire.