Putin Drills Ground Troops At Ukraine’s Doorstep As U.S. Warns Against Intervention

MOSCOW, Russia -- President Vladimir V. Putin ordered a surprise exercise of ground and air forces on Ukraine’s doorstep Wednesday, intending to demonstrate his country’s military preparedness at a time of heightened tensions with Europe and the United States over the turmoil gripping Russia’s western neighbor.

Scuffles erupted outside in Crimea as thousands of pro-Russia demonstrators confronted Muslim Crimean Tatars backing the new Ukrainian leadership.

The Obama administration said any Russian military intervention in Ukraine would be a costly and “grave mistake.”

Russia’s military put tens of thousands of troops in western Russia on alert at 2 p.m. for an exercise scheduled to last until March 3.

The minister of defense, Sergei K. Shoigu, also announced unspecified measures to tighten security at the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

The orders came as thousands of ethnic Russians gathered outside the regional parliament in Crimea’s capital, Simferopol, to protest the political upheaval in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, that felled the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovych over the weekend and turned him into a fugitive.

Crimea was a part of Russian territory until the Soviet Union ceded it to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine in 1954, and Russians there have already pleaded for the Kremlin’s intervention to protect the region and its population from Ukraine’s new leadership.

“Crimea is Russian!,” some of the protesters screamed as brawls erupted with rival demonstrations by Crimea’s ethnic Tatars supporting the new interim authorities. 

While the military maneuvers were largely seen as saber-rattling and not a precursor to armed intervention, they elicited new warnings from Western governments, notably the United States, which reminded Russia of its own admonishments to the West about big-power military adventurism.

 Speaking to a small group of reporters in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry said it was important for the Russians “to heed those warnings as they think about options in the sovereign nation of Ukraine and I don’t think there should be any doubt whatsoever that any kind of military intervention that would violate the sovereign territorial integrity of Ukraine would be a huge - a grave mistake.”

Mr. Kerry did not specify what the United States was prepared to do in response to a Russian military intervention, focusing instead on what he said the Russians would sacrifice.

“I think it would cost them hugely in the world where they are trying to assert a sort of greater legitimacy with respect to their diplomacy,” he said.

“That would blow it into shreds.”

But Mr. Kerry asserted that the United States did not see Ukraine a East-West battleground, saying:"This is not Rocky IV.”

Mr. Kerry also said the United States was considering a $1 billion package of loan guarantees to Ukraine to help address the deepening economic crisis there, as the interim leaders scrambled on Wednesday to form a new government able to find ways out of an impending default.

They chose as prime minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, a veteran public official who has served as Parliament speaker, foreign minister, economics minister and acting head of the central bank.

The leaders also announced the dissolution of the country’s widely despised riot police force, the Berkut, whose officers were blamed for shooting demonstrators last week in Kiev’s central Independence Square.

“Berkut is gone,” the acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, announced in a posting on Facebook.

General Shoigu announced the snap exercise during a meeting of Russia’s general staff, citing the need to test the readiness of Russia’s armed forces to respond to a “crisis situation,” including a terrorist attack involving biological or chemical weapons.

Senior defense and government officials later said the exercise was not related to the events in Ukraine, which officials here have watched with growing alarm, but they also said there was no reason to postpone them either, and the geopolitical message was clear.

“I think it is flag waving, but it’s more than that also,” Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said after the announcement of the exercise.

“It’s a message to Kiev not to impose its rule in Crimea by force.”

Mr. Trenin warned that the exercise could have the opposite effect, rallying Ukrainians against Russia if the country’s territorial integrity appeared threatened. 

Russia has refused so far to recognize the legitimacy of the new political powers in Ukraine’s parliament, and denounced their actions since Mr. Yanukovych’s flight as inflammatory and divisive, including what the Foreign Ministry described on Wednesday as discrimination toward Russian Orthodox believers.

Two days earlier Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev said the turmoil posed “a real threat to our interests and to our citizens’ lives and health.”

The Crimea has been a particular focus of concern among Russian lawmakers, many of whom share the sentiment that the region is culturally and historically Russian, not Ukrainian.

The Black Sea Fleet maintains its headquarters in the port of Sevastopol under a lease that Mr. Yanukovych’s government extended until 2042 after a riotous debate in Ukraine’s parliament in 2010.

Mr. Yanukovych, the object of a nationwide manhunt in Ukraine, had been believed to be in hiding in Crimea after he bolted from Kiev on Saturday.

Two Russian news agencies, citing unidentified sources, reported Wednesday night that he had arrived in Moscow.

Other officials dismissed the reports.

“I know definitely that Yanukovych is not in Russia,” said Mikhail V. Margelov, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of Parliament.

Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said he had no information on Mr. Yanukovych’s whereabouts.

Mr. Putin himself has yet to make public remarks on the crisis in Ukraine, but senior officials have vowed not to interfere directly and called on the United States and Europe to do the same.

Even so, the public clamor of ethnic Russians in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine has raised fears that Russia could be provoked to intervene.

“Such a scenario is impossible,” Valentina I. Matviyenko, the chairman of Russia’s upper house of Parliament, said on Wednesday, according to the Interfax news agency.

Russia’s military exercise will involve nearly 150,000 troops, including the entire Western Military District, one of four across the country, as well as hundreds of tanks and artillery batteries, and dozens of aircraft and ships, the deputy defense minister, Anatoly I. Antonov, said, according to Interfax.

The district, headquartered in St. Petersburg, stretches along the border of northeastern Ukraine and includes the 6th and 20th Armies.

The exercise will also involve the 2nd Army in the Central Military District, as well as airborne, aerospace and military transport commands.

Mr. Antonov informed the military attachés of several nations of the exercise, including the United States, as required by an agreement negotiated in 2011 and known as the Vienna Document.

Aleksandr Golts, an independent military analyst in Moscow, said that the exercise theoretically could — and he emphasized the word “theoretically” — disguise a more general mobilization of Russia’s military in case a conflict erupted over Ukraine.

“In my view it’s very bad, even if there are no plans to use the military, that maneuvers are being held with the goal of testing the nerves of others,” he said.

“That these maneuvers will increase the tenseness of this situation — that is not even a question.”

Since Mr. Putin returned to the presidency for a third term in 2012, he has sought to refurbish and modernize the country’s military, which remains reliant on conscripts despite proposed reforms over the years, by increasing spending for weapons and benefits.

Russia conducted a similar exercise last year in the Eastern Military District, which extends across Siberia to the Pacific Coast; it was described as the largest single military drill since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.

The military also held smaller exercises in southern Russia ahead of the Olympic Games in Sochi.

General Shoigu, in his remarks, made clear that Russia’s military ambitions extended beyond its borders.

He said that Russia intended to expand its military operations and presence globally by holding negotiations with Nicaragua, Venezuela, Singapore and the Seychelles to provide logistical support for strategic air patrols.

“We need refueling bases either in the area of the Equator or elsewhere,” he said, according to Interfax.

Source: The New York Times