John Kerry tells Moscow to be ‘very careful’ as it flexes military muscle with war games in western Russia, near Ukraine’s border
By Hannah Strange, and Roland Oliphant in Simferopol
Vladimir Putin puts troops in western Russia on alert and orders drill to test combat readiness
Protesters are involved in a confrontation outside the regional city in the Crimean capital of Simferopol
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The US warned Moscow to be “very careful” in its judgements after Vladimir Putin put armed forces in western Russia on alert, as tensions mounted in the pro-Russian Crimea over the overthrow of Moscow ally Viktor Yanukovych by pro-European protesters.
Amid fears the country could fragment in the struggle between its pro-Russian and pro-European regions, Mr Putin flexed his military muscle by ordering war games involving 150,000 troops along the Ukrainian border.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, raised the spectre of an East-West standoff as he insisted the US and Russia did not need to get into an “old cold war confrontation” over the country. He called on the Kremlin to “keep its word” over the unity of Ukraine, as the White House urged “outside actors” in the region to respect the country’s sovereignty.
NATO also turned up the pressure on Russia, saying it would continue to support “Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, territorial integrity, democratic development and the principle of the inviolability of frontiers”.
The Russian military exercises further raised the temperature in the heavily pro-Russian Crimean peninsula where supporters and opponents of the revolution were today locked in an ugly stand-off.
Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, said Moscow was “carefully watching what is happening in Crimea” and that measures were being taken to ensure the security of the facilities and arsenals of its Black Sea naval fleet, which is based in the fiercely pro-Russian Crimean city of Sebastopol.
He denied that the drill was, “generally speaking”, linked to events in Ukraine. But he said it would include military exercises “on Russia’s borders with other countries, including Ukraine”.
Forces must “be ready to bomb unfamiliar testing grounds” as part of the drill, Mr Shoigu told a Defence Ministry meeting.
A historical flashpoint, the autonomous eastern region of Crimea was part of Russia until 1954 and remains home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and a heavily ethnic Russian population who have been deeply angered by events in Kiev.
In the Crimean capital of Simferopol, supporters of Ukraine’s revolution and their pro-Russian opponents were today embroiled in a confrontation outside the regional assembly, where members were holding an emergency session to discuss the crisis gripping the country.
A crowd of several thousand people shouting pro and anti-revolutionary slogans have gathered outside the assembly, which pro-Russian protesters claim they are defending from the “fascists” who have taken power in the rest of the country. Small scuffles broke out as the two sides pushed and shoved each other, wielding pepper spray and batons. An elderly man reportedly died of a heart attack in the melee.
Pro-European demonstrators, most of them ethnic Tatars, rallied under a pale-blue flag, shouting: “Ukraine! Ukraine!” and the Maidan’s refrain of “down with the gang!”
The pro-Russian crowds, some of them cossacks in silk and lambswool hats, shouted back “Crimea is Russian!”.
Activists hold Crimean Tatar (C-L) and Ukrainian national flags (C-R) as they shout slogans such as ‘Crimea is not Russia, Glory to Ukraine’ during a rally in Simferopol, Crimea (EPA)
But the head of the regional assembly rejected demands to discuss a possible split from Ukraine at today’s emergency session, saying such a move would be a “provocation”.
Earlier, Cossack protesters hung the Russian flag across the assembly’s facade, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency, calling on the government to ignore what they regard as illegal resolutions by the new authorities in Kiev.
Moscow has denounced the removal of Mr Yanukovych as tantamount to a coup, and has become increasingly concerned by swift moves by Ukraine’s parliament to break away from the Russian sphere of influence.
The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement today that extremists were “imposing their will” and whipping up religious tension in the country – where there are deep-running rivalries between Orthodox Christian churches - threatening to tear “an even bigger schism in Ukrainian society”.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister has said that Moscow’s “policy of non-intervention” will continue, a stance reaffirmed today by the speaker of the upper parliament, Valentina Matviyenko.
But the combat drills in the western district bordering Ukraine are likely to inflame tensions.
“They wouldn’t have done it now unless they wanted to have a political effect. If they had a planned exercise at this time in that command they would have cancelled it – if they wanted to de-escalate the situation,” a former British Army commander said. “The converse is obviously true.”
The Telegraph’s David Blair in Kiev said: “Russia’s decision to place its forces near the Ukrainian frontier on high alert sends another pointed signal to its western neighbour. The Kremlin wants no-one to misunderstand its strength of feeling over the downfall of a friendly pro-Russian regime in Kiev, and the possible emergence of a new pro-Western government in Ukraine.
“But military alerts of this kind have been ordered before – and the term itself means little. What exactly will the armed forces in western Russia be doing today that they weren’t doing yesterday?
“Vladimir Putin’s latest decision is best viewed in the same light as the withdrawal of Russia’s ambassador from Kiev. The goal is to send a pointed message, perhaps timed to coincide with the possible formation of Ukraine’s new government. But the alert probably means nothing more than that. In particular, it emphatically does not suggest that Russian tanks are about to start rolling over the border.”
The United States has warned Russia against interference in the crisis, saying military intervention by Moscow would be a “grave mistake”.
Today three of Ukraine’s post-Soviet leaders – who included former Moscow ally Leonid Kuchma – issued a joint statement accusing Russia of “resorting to direct intervention in the political life of Crimea”.
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Tags: John Kerry warns Russia, Lavrov, Leonid Kuchma, Putin, Russia, Russian foreign minister condemns "rise of fascism" in western Ukraine, Russian military, Russian troops on alert, Ukraine, Valentina Matviyenko, Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych