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February 28, 2014

Russian moves raise stakes in Ukraine conflict

NORMAN — SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine, Ukraine — Masked gunmen stormed the parliament of Ukraine’s strategic Crimea region as Russian fighter jets screamed above the border, while Ukraine’s newly formed government pledged to prevent a national breakup with the strong backing of the West — the stirrings of a potentially dangerous confrontation reminiscent of Cold War brinksmanship.

Moscow reportedly granted shelter to Ukraine’s fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was said to be holed up in a luxury government retreat and to have scheduled a news conference today near the Ukrainian border. As gunmen wearing unmarked camouflage uniforms erected a sign reading “Crimea is Russia” in the provincial capital, Ukraine’s interim prime minister declared that the Black Sea territory “has been and will be a part of Ukraine.”

The escalating conflict sent Ukraine’s finances plummeting further, prompting Western leaders to prepare an emergency financial package.

Yanukovych, whose approach to Moscow set off three months of pro-Europe protests, finally fled by helicopter last weekend as his allies deserted him. The humiliating exit was a severe blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been celebrating his signature Olympics even as Ukraine’s drama came to a head. The Russian leader has long dreamt of pulling Ukraine closer into Moscow’s orbit.

Russia has pledged to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But the dispatch of Russian fighter jets Thursday to Ukraine’s borders and drills by some 150,000 Russian soldiers signaled strong determination not to lose Ukraine to the West.

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