President Vladimir Putin ordered an urgent drill to test the combat readiness of armed forces across western Russia on Wednesday, news agencies reported, flexing Moscow’s military muscle amid tension with the West over Ukraine.
“In accordance with an order from the president of the Russian Federation, forces of the Western Military District were put on alert at 1400 (1000 GMT) today,” Interfax quoted Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying.
Putin has ordered several such surprise drills in various parts of Russia since he returned to the presidency in 2012, saying the military must be kept on its toes, but the geopolitical overtones could hardly have been clearer this time.
International arrest warrant for Yanukovich
Ukraine has requested an international arrest warrant for ousted president Viktor Yanukovich, the country's interim prosecutor-general Oleg Makhnitski said Wednesday. The prosecutor's office said it believed the fugitive former leader was still in the country.
The western district borders Ukraine, which lies between NATO nations and Russia. Shoigu said the drill would be conducted in two stages, ending on March 3, and also involved some forces in central Russia.
Putin has made no public comment on Ukraine since deposed president Viktor Yanukovich was driven from power over the weekend after months of political turmoil sparked by his decision to spurn deals with the European Union and improve ties with Russia.
The United States and European nations have warned Russia against military intervention in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that Putin has called a “brother nation” and wants to be part of a Eurasian Union he is building in the region.
Russian officials have said Moscow will not interfere in Ukraine, while accusing the West of doing so, and Interfax cited the speaker of the upper parliament house, Valentina Matviyenko, as saying on Wednesday it would not use force.
But Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday that Russia’s interests and its citizens in Ukraine were under threat, language reminiscent of statements justifying Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, when he was president.
Scuffles in Crimea
Meanwhile in Ukraine's largely pro-Russian Crimea region where the regional parliament was to hold a crisis session on the turmoil that has gripped the country, police struggled to keep apart rival groups holding competing rallies.
In the regional capital of Simferopol, 10,000 Muslim Crimean Tatars rallied in support of Ukraine's interim leaders, waving Ukrainian flags and chanting “Ukraine is not Russia” and “Allahu Akbar”,' while a smaller pro-Russian rally nearby called for stronger ties with Russia and waved Russian flags.
Protesters shouted and punched each other in ongoing scuffles, as police and leaders from both sides struggled to keep the two groups apart.
The tensions in Crimea – a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea that is strategically critical because it is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet – highlight the divisions that run through this country of 46 million after months of protests that ultimately forced the pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovich to flee the capital.
It also underscores fears that the country's mainly Russian-speaking east will not recognise the interim authorities' legitimacy.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)
Date created : 2014-02-26