Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday harshly criticised threats of “sanctions and boycotts” over his country’s role in the spiralling crisis in Ukraine, as Western powers ponder whether to kick Moscow out of the G8.
“Those who try to interpret the situation as a type of aggression and threaten sanctions and boycotts, are the same who consistently have encouraged [Ukrainians to] refuse dialogue and have ultimately polarized Ukrainian society,” he told the opening of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“I call upon them to show responsibility and to set aside pure political calculations and put the interest of the Ukrainian people above all,” he added.
Since Putin won the Russian parliament’s blessing Saturday to use force in Ukraine, including in Crimea – a strategic Black Sea peninsula with a majority ethnic Russian population – outraged Western powers have threatened to expel Russia from the Group of Eight leading industrial countries it joined with great fanfare in 1997 as it returned to global respectability after years lost in post-Soviet chaos.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who was scheduled to meet Lavrov for a “working lunch” on Monday, also chimed in, urging Russia “to refrain from any acts and rhetoric that could further escalate the situation.”
“It is critical to ensure full respect for and the preservation of Ukraine’s independence, unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Ban told reporters in Geneva.
Amid reports on Monday that Russian troops were pouring into Crimea, Lavrov meanwhile insisted that the Russian military presence was needed, insisting the lives of ethnic Russians in the country were in danger.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had asked the country’s Federation Council for the authority “to use armed forces of Russia in the Ukraine until the normalisation of the social and political situation in that country,” he said.
He insisted that ultra-nationalists control many areas of the ex-Soviet country and that the country’s new leaders were attacking minority rights.
“The victors intend to make use of the fruits of their victory to attack human rights and fundamental freedoms ... of minorities,” he said.
“The radicals continue to control the cities” and “limit the rights of linguistic minorities.”
“Violence of ultra-nationalists threatens the lives and the regional interests of Russians and the Russian-speaking population,” he insisted.
“This is a question of defending our citizens and compatriots and ensuring human rights and the right to life,” he said, pointing out that the “legitimate authorities of Crimea” had requested Russian assistance “to help reestablish peace in that autonomous republic.”
UN chief Ban meanwhile said: “It is now of the utmost importance to restore calm and to de-escalate tensions immediately through dialogue.”
Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, whose country holds the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s rotating presidency, also met with Lavrov in Geneva on Monday.
Ukraine accused Russia on Monday of pouring extra troops and military planes into Crimea as world leaders grappled with the worst stand-off between Moscow and the West since the cold war.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the troops were needed in the flashpoint Black Sea peninsula until “the stabilisation of the situation” in Ukraine, and criticised the West for its threats of “sanctions and boycotts”.
Crimea – a strategic Black Sea peninsula with a majority ethnic Russian population – has been under de facto occupation by pro-Kremlin troops since President Vladimir Putin won parliament’s authorisation Saturday to use force in Ukraine.
The price of oil surged on fears of an all-out conflict as the Kremlin looked set to send troops into eastern Ukraine – a vast industrial region with close ties to Russia that Putin has vowed to protect from “ultranationalist forces”.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Russia of “consequences and costs” as he met Ukraine’s Western-backed but untested interim leaders in Kiev.
Already, the world’s richest nations have threatened to strip Moscow of its coveted seat at the Group of Eight for menacing its ex-Soviet neighbour.
But Europe and Washington appear to have limited options in dealing with Putin – a veteran strongman with mass domestic appeal who has cracked down on political freedoms and appears more interested in rebuilding vestiges of the Soviet Union than repairing relations with the West.
Ukraine has soared to the top of the global agenda even as the brutal conflict in Syria rages and talks on Iran’s nuclear drive enter their most sensitive stage.
“This cannot be a way in the 21st century to conduct international affairs,” Hague told reporters. “It is not an acceptable way to behave and there will be consequences and costs.”
The crisis on the eastern edge of Europe threatens to blow up into the biggest test to global diplomacy since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It first erupted in November when protests began against the pro-Kremlin regime over its scrapping of an EU pact and culminated in a week of carnage last month that claimed nearly 100 lives and saw the downfall of president Viktor Yanukovych.
“There was the  Cuban missile crisis and the Soviet Union’s decision to send tanks into Prague [in 1968]. But in that era, we were effectively in a state of war,” said Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
Germany offered a rare glimmer of hope by announcing that Putin had agreed in telephone talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel Sunday to set up a contact group on Ukraine.
Western allies in Nato also said they wanted to send international observers to Ukraine while engaging Moscow in direct talks.
Washington added it would like to see a mission from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) deployed in the nation of 46 million “immediately”.
‘Attacking human rights’
Russia offered no immediate response to any of the proposals – all backed by Kiev’s interim leaders who are trying to pull Ukraine closer to the European Union after replacing the regime of Yanukovych, who surfaced last week in Russia.
Lavrov said Kiev’s new leaders “intend to make use of the fruits of their victory to attack human rights and fundamental freedoms ... of minorities.”
Crimea – host to tsarist and Kremlin navies since the 18th century – is now almost under complete control of Russian forces and local pro-Moscow militia who patrol both government buildings and the perimeters of Ukrainian barracks on the rugged Black Sea peninsula.
The precarious situation for Kiev’s new leaders was underscored Sunday when Ukrainian navy commander Denis Berezovsky announced just a day after his appointment that he was switching allegiance to the pro-Russian authorities in Crimea after troops surrounded his building and cut off the electricity.
Crimea’s pro-Kremlin government chief Sergiy Aksyonov -- appointed on Thursday after an armed raid on the region’s government building but who is not recognised by Kiev -- immediately named Berezovsky as head of the peninsula’s own independent navy.
Ukraine’s Prime Minster Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned at the weekend that Ukraine was “on the brink of a disaster” and said any invasion by its vast eastern neighbour would mean “war”.