Russia’s order for 150,000 troops to test their combat readiness near Ukraine’s border has prompted a blunt warning from the United States that any military intervention in the crisis-torn nation would be a “grave mistake”.
Vladimir Putin’s announcement of huge new war games came as Ukraine’s protest leaders named a millionaire former banker to head its new government after the country’s pro-Russian president went into hiding.
The new government, which is expected to be formally approved by parliament today, will face the hugely complicated task of restoring stability in a country that is not only deeply divided politically but on the verge of financial collapse. Its fugitive president Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital last week.
In Kiev’s Independence Square, the heart of the protest movement against Mr Yanukovych, the interim leaders who seized control after he disappeared proposed Arseniy Yatsenyuk, 39, as the country’s new prime minister. He served as economy minister, foreign minister and parliamentary speaker before Mr Yanukovych took office in 2010 and is widely viewed as a technocratic reformer who enjoys the support of the US.
Across Ukraine, the divided allegiances between Russia and the West were on full display as fistfights broke out between pro and anti-Russia protesters in the strategic Crimea peninsula.
Amid the tensions, President Putin put the military on alert for massive exercises involving most of the military units in western Russia and announced measures to tighten security at the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
The manoeuvres will involve some 150,000 troops, 880 tanks, 90 aircraft and 80 navy ships and are intended to “check the troops’ readiness for action in crisis situations that threaten the nation’s military security”, defence minister Sergei Shoigu said.
But the move prompted a sharp rebuke from US secretary of state John Kerry. “Any kind of military intervention that would violate the sovereign territorial integrity of Ukraine would be a huge, a grave mistake,” he said. “The territorial integrity of Ukraine needs to be respected.”
Mr Kerry also announced that the Obama administration was planning one billion dollars (£602m) in loan guarantees for Ukraine and would consider additional direct assistance for the former Soviet republic.
He insisted however, that US policy was not aimed at reducing Russia’s influence in Ukraine or other former Soviet republics, but rather to see their people realise aspirations for freedom in robust democracies with strong economies.
“This is not Rocky IV,” Mr Kerry said, referring to the 1985 Sylvester Stallone film in which the American boxer takes on a daunting Soviet opponent.
“It is not a zero-sum game. We do not view it through the lens of East-West, Russia-US or anything else. We view it as an example of people within a sovereign nation who are expressing their desire to choose their future. And that’s a very powerful force.”
Russia denied the military manoeuvres had any connection to the situation in Ukraine, but the massive show of force appeared intended to show both the new Ukrainian authorities and the West that the Kremlin was ready to use all means to protect its interests.
While Russia has pledged not to intervene in Ukraine’s domestic affairs, it has issued a flurry of statements voicing concern about the situation of Russian speakers in Ukraine, including in the Crimea.
The strategic region, which hosts a major Russian naval base and where the majority of the population are Russian speakers, has strong ties to Moscow. It only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia – a move that was a mere formality until the 1991 Soviet collapse meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.
Igor Korotchenko, a former colonel of the Russian military’s general staff, wrote a commentary in a Russian online newspaper, slon.ru, saying: “If illegal armed formations attempt to overthrow the local government in Crimea by force, a civil war will start and Russia couldn’t ignore it.”
In Crimea, fights broke out between rival demonstrators in the regional capital of Simferopol when some 20,000 Muslim Tatars rallying in support of Ukraine’s interim leaders clashed with a smaller pro-Russian rally.
The protesters shouted and attacked each other with stones, bottles and punches, as police and leaders of both rallies struggled to keep the two groups apart.
At least 20 people were said to have been injured, while the local health ministry said one person died from an apparent heart attack. Tatar leaders said there was a second fatality when a woman was trampled to death by the crowd.
The Tatars, a Muslim ethnic group who have lived in Crimea for centuries, were brutally deported in 1944 by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but have since returned.
One of the first jobs for Mr Yatsenyuk and other members of his new cabinet will be seeking outside financial help from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.
Economists say Ukraine is close to financial collapse, with its currency under pressure and its treasury almost empty. The acting finance minister has said Ukraine will need £21 billion in bail-out loans to get through the next two years.
Any such deal will require a new prime minister to take unpopular steps, such as raising the price of gas. The state company charges as little as one-fifth of what it pays for imported Russian gas. The IMF unsuccessfully pressed Ukraine to halt the practice under two earlier bail-outs, and halted aid when Kiev would not comply.
European Commission chiefs held a meeting in Brussels yesterday to discuss how the 28-nation bloc could provide rapid financial assistance to Ukraine.