A common thread in a slew of conflicting reports from Ukraine suggests heavily armed troops, likely Russian, could be converging on two airports in Crimea. It is unclear whether these troops have taken over the airports or whether the airports are still under the control of the Ukrainian authorities. But the troops' equipment, demeanor and vehicles strongly indicate that Russian military forces are staging outside their principal naval base in Sevastopol, an act that from Kiev's perspective would constitute a Russian intervention on Ukrainian soil.
Reports say that early Feb. 28 approximately 50 armed men in uniforms lacking identification seized the Simferopol airport. Morning activities at the airport continued as normal, but there were reports that Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov was prevented, along with protesters, from deplaning in Crimea. According to Avakov, Russian forces also took over a second airport near the port of Sevastopol. The Russian Black Sea Fleet, while admitting it had taken measures to protect areas where the fleet was located and the living quarters of service personnel and families, denied it had taken action at the airports.
A statement from Avakov indicated that Kiev believes Russian troops are involved. Avakov called the activity "an armed invasion and occupation" that directly violated international treaties. "This is a direct provocation to armed bloodshed on the territory of a sovereign state," he added. The Ukrainian parliament then voted on a resolution calling on the United States and United Kingdom to guarantee its sovereignty in accordance with the terms of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. The parliament also called on the U.N. Security Council to discuss the matter.
According to the terms of the Budapest Memorandum, the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom expressed a commitment to seek U.N. Security Council action to provide "assistance" to Ukraine should it fall victim to an act of aggression. However, Russia, a permanent Security Council member with veto power, could argue that Crimea became a victim from the events in Kiev.
If Russia is indeed attempting to take over the airports in Crimea, a key motivation would be to prevent Ukrainian forces from rapidly flying in to reinforce local security forces. The seizure of airports would also help Moscow if it decided to quickly deploy additional forces to Crimea by air. At the same time, former members of the Ukrainian Berkut interior ministry unit sympathetic to Russia have allegedly moved to block the causeways into the Crimean Peninsula. By isolating the key transport nodes in and out of the Crimea, the Russians can better control the pace of events while preventing Ukrainian forces from rapidly intervening in the crisis.
Video has also emerged of a dozen or so Mi-24 type Hind gunships flying over what is purportedly Crimea. The Ukrainians and Russians both operate such helicopters, so it is not clear which side they belong to, nor is it certain when or where the video was recorded. However, shuttling troops by helicopter obviously provides a faster reaction and transport time than other vehicles. Given their attempts to defuse the situation and not provoke the Russians, the Ukrainians will likely try to be careful about their military movements in Crimea at this time and will prefer to draw on the international community for support.