Ukraine accused Russia yesterday of pouring extra troops and military planes into Crimea as world leaders grappled with the worst standoff between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov said the troops were needed in the flashpoint Black Sea peninsula until “the stabilization of the situation” in Ukraine, and criticized 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 Russian President Vladimir Putin won parliament’s authorization on 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 G8 for menacing its ex-Soviet neighbor.
However, Europe and Washington appear to have limited options in dealing with Putin, 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.
“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,” Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center said.
Germany offered a rare glimmer of hope by announcing that Putin had agreed in talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday to set up a contact group.
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 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe deployed in the nation of 46 million “immediately.”
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 EU after replacing the regime of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
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 White House on Sunday released a statement symbolically signed by the G7 biggest industrialized nations condemning “the Russian Federation’s clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”