Ukraine: Russia Approves Military Action

Russian President Vladimir Putin has got the go-ahead from parliament to use the country's military in Ukraine in a marked escalation of the crisis.

The Kremlin has already been accused of sending 6,000 troops into Crimea despite calls by Britain and the US for Moscow to back off.

Two Russian anti-submarine warships have also appeared off the Crimea coast, violating an agreement on Moscow's lease of a naval base, Interfax news agency quoted a Ukrainian military source as saying.

The source said the two vessels, part of Russia's Baltic Fleet, had been sighted in a bay at Sevastopol, where Moscow's Black Sea Fleet has a base.

In a phone call on Saturday Mr Putin told US president Barack Obama that Russia reserves the right to protect the interests of Russian-speakers if there is violence in east Ukraine or Crimea.

As a result, the US has announced it will suspended participation in preparatory meetings for the G8 summit in Sochi.

The White House says Mr Obama told Mr Putin that he had violated international law and faces political and economic isolation.

France and Germany have also raised concerns over the developments.

Mr Putin said the use of armed forces was needed in the southeastern region to protect its majority ethnic Russian population.

In response, Ukraine's Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov has called an urgent meeting of security chiefs.

European foreign ministers are also to hold emergency talks in Brussels on Monday.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was "deeply concerned" at the escalation of tensions and the decision of the Russian parliament to authorise military action.

"This action is a potentially grave threat to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. We condemn any act of aggression against Ukraine," he said.

Mr Hague is due to visit the country on Sunday and hold talks with Ukraine's new leaders.

Sky's Alex Rossi, in Simferopol, Crimea, said: "It has been a very fluid day of developments. It seems there are thousands of unidentified troops on the streets here in the Crimean peninsula.

"The people that we've spoken to, around the parliament building, they welcome those troops, seeing them as liberators - liberating this region from the tyrannical government that is now in place in Kiev.

"That new unity government that was only voted in this week, though, sees it very differently indeed.

"It sees the presence of these troops as an act of aggression and a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty."

Meanwhile, pro-Russian demonstrations were held in major cities in the east and south of the country, which remain loyal to Moscow, where supporters of the new Ukrainian government in Kiev were beaten up.

Tensions continue to rise amid reports that Russian and Ukrainian troops are trying to gain control of key sites in Crimea.

The autonomous republic has a prime minister loyal to Moscow but the government in Kiev has vowed to maintain the country's territorial integrity.

Reports suggest that Russian troops are trying to occupy an anti-aircraft missile base and have taken control of airports on the peninsular.

Ukraine's border guard service said about 300 armed men were attempting to seize its main headquarters in the port city of Sevastopol.

Russian helicopter gunships have also been seen in Ukrainian airspace.

But there were claims by Russia that gunmen from Kiev had been sent overnight to seize the offices of Crimea's interior ministry.

There was grainy footage of an unidentified armed group breaking into a building, with smoke rising and reports that people had been "wounded".

Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement: "As a result of the treacherous provocation, there are wounded."

The pro-Moscow Prime Minister of Crimea, Sergei Aksenov, has appealed to Russia for help in keeping the peace there.

He has confirmed service personnel from Russia's Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol, were guarding key buildings.

In what appears to be an orchestrated move, a referendum on whether residents in Crimea want greater independence from Ukraine has been brought forward by two months to March 30.

Russia's Lower House of Parliament, the Duma, has called on President Vladimir Putin "to take measures to stabilise the situation in Crimea".

And in a further ratcheting up of pressure on Ukraine, Russia said it saw "no reason" to extend a previously agreed gas discount due to unpaid debts.

To add to Ukraine's financial woes, the country's finance minister said it is unlikely to receive financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund before April due to the continuing turmoil.

Ukraine's Prime Minister said his country would not be drawn into a military conflict by Russian "provocations", and appealed to Moscow to halt military movements in the region.

Arseny Yatseniuk said: "It is unacceptable when armoured Russian military vehicles are out in the centre of Ukrainian towns."

Crimea has become a flashpoint for tensions between Russia and Ukraine after the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow ally, following months of protests which escalated into deadly violence.

Ukraine's population is divided in loyalties between Russia and the West, with much of western Ukraine advocating closer ties with the European Union while eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support.

Crimea has 2.3 million inhabitants, most of whom identify themselves as ethnic Russians and speak Russian.

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