Tensions on the Crimean peninsular soared have after Vladimir Putin put the Russian army on high alert and Nato officials warned they would back the “inviolability of [Ukraine’s] frontiers”.
The flurry of sabre rattling over the future of post-revolutionary Ukraine brought tensions between Russia and the West to a height not seen since the 2008 war between Russian and Georgia.
It came as there were unconfirmed reports that Viktor Yanukovych, the former president ousted from power by protesters last weekend who is now wanted by Ukraine’s authorities for mass murder, had taken refuge at a luxury sanatorium just outside Moscow.
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, ordered units in Russia’s Western military district - which borders Ukraine - to begin a series of snap combat readiness drills, beginning on Wednesday afternoon.
The drill would “check the troops’ readiness for action in crisis situations that threaten the nation’s military security”, he said in a statement.
It would involve around 150,000 army, air force and navy personnel.
Moscow also said it was “carefully watching what is happening in Crimea”, taking measures to ensure the security of the facilities and arsenals of its Black Sea naval fleet, based in the city of Sebastopol.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, quickly responded by warning Russia “to be very careful in the judgements that it makes”, adding:
“We are not looking for confrontation. But we are making it clear that every country should respect the territorial integrity here, the sovereignty of Ukraine.
“Russia has said it would do that and we think it’s important that Russia keeps its word.”
Later he added it would be a “grave mistake” for Russia to intervene militarily in Ukraine.
“For a country that has spoken out so frequently ... against foreign intervention in Libya, in Syria, and elsewhere, it would be important for them to heed those warnings as they think about options in the sovereign nation of Ukraine,” he said.
“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,” he added.
“If there were any kind of decision like that, I do not think that’s a cheap decision. I think it’s a very expensive decision.”
Mr Kerry also held out the possibility of providing $1 billion in US loan guarantees for Ukraine, as well as US budget support for the former Soviet republic but said no decisions had been made.
Meanwhile Nato defence ministers warned that they considered Ukraine’s future to be “key to Euro-Atlantic security” and assured the new government in Kiev that the alliance would back its “sovereignty, independence [and] territorial integrity.”
“A sovereign, independent and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is key to Euro-Atlantic security,” they said in a statement.
The comments appear to be a direct response to sabre rattling by high-ranking Russian officials, including Dmitry Medevedev, the prime minister, who said earlier this week that the revolution in Ukraine posed “a real threat to our interests”.
Tensions have been building since Ukraine’s pro-European protest movement ousted the Moscow-friendly Mr Yanukovych as president on Saturday.
While many throughout the country see the revolution as an uprising against a corrupt and discredited elite, Russian-speaking Ukranians and ethnic Russians - many of whom live in the south and east of the country - are alarmed by what they see as nationalist and Russo-phobic elements among the groups that have seized control in Kiev.
Russia has warned it may act to protect its citizens in the Russian-majority region of Crimea, where it maintains a Navy base and a 25,000-strong garrison.
The new government in Kiev continued to consolidate its grip on power, with the acting president Oleksandr Turchynov assuming command of the armed forces.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former foreign minister, was proposed as the country’s new prime minister.
A list of suggested cabinet members was read out to a crowd of revolutionaries in Independence Square, allowing them to voice their approval or disapproval of each name.
It will go before Parliament for formal confirmation on Thursday.
Mr Yatsenyuk, 39, is the parliamentary leader of the Fatherland party loyal to Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who was defeated at the last election and subsequently imprisoned.
However, he was discredited in the eyes of many protesters because he tried to negotiate a settlement with Mr Yanukovych and signed an agreement with him last week.
Late on Tuesday night parliament disbanded the Berkut, a special riot police unit that is blamed for much of the violence against protesters during the two-and-a-half months of street confrontations that led to Mr Yanukovych’s overthrow.
That move heightened fears in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, however.
The anti-revolutionary mayor of Sebastopol in the Crimea region has promised to retain the unit as part of his municipal police force.
Tensions in Crimea itself reached new heights when at least one person died and seven were injured in a stampede after rival demonstrators clashed in Simferopol, the regional capital.
Several thousand supporters of the new government, almost all male, waved light-blue Crimean Tatar flags and chanted “Crimea is not Russia” and “Bandits out” as they converged on the regional parliament on Wednesday to protest at what they said was an attempt by the assembly to vote for secession from Ukraine.
They faced off with thousands of other demonstrators bearing Russian tricolours who cried “Crimea is Russia” and “Glory to the Berkut”.
Although leaders of both sides shared a podium to appeal for calm, they struggled to control the crowds as the gathering descended into an ill-tempered pushing match.
Several Tatar protesters forced their way into the ground floor of the parliament building to demand a meeting with pro-Russian law makers.
The pro-Russian speaker of the regional parliament denied that secession was under discussion, and accused members of the regional government of spreading rumours about secession “aimed at discrediting the assembly and undermining its legitimacy”.
Many Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority descended from the Mongol armies that conquered the region in 13th century, have allied with pro-revolutionary Ukrainians loyal to the new authorities in Kiev.
Tatar resentment of Moscow dates back to the Second World War, when Stalin deported the entire nation to Central Asia as punishment for allegedly allying with the invading Germans, and sent Russians to live there instead.
Zevdjet Kurtumerov, a Tatar protester, said:
“Moscow’s attitude is complete imperialism: wherever they put their boots, it is Russia. But this is our Ukraine, and we want to keep it.”
But ethnic Russians, who account for about 60 per cent of the population on the peninsula, see Russia as a guarantor of stability and see the Tatars as a pushing an essentially racist agenda.
“They want Crimea to be a Tatar republic. Why not Greek, or Ukrainian, or Russian? No, they want it to be Tatar, and kick out everyone else who lives here,” said Yuri Tomshki, 50, a former soldier and taxi-driver who was wearing the orange and black ribbon of St George, a symbol of the Russian military valor.
“I am Ukrainian by citizenship, but Russian by nationality, and personally I think Crimea should be part of Russia. The minority cannot rule the majority.”
Source: The Telegraph