KIEV, Ukraine – Russia ordered 150,000 troops to test their combat readiness Wednesday in a show of force that prompted a blunt warning from the United States that any military intervention in Ukraine 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 a new government after the 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 Yanukovych, the interim leaders who seized control after he disappeared proposed Arseniy Yatsenyuk as the country’s new prime minister. The 39-year-old served as economy minister, foreign minister and parliamentary speaker before Yanukovych took office in 2010, and is widely viewed as a technocratic reformer who enjoys the support of the U.S.
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, 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 maneuvers 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,” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies.
The move prompted a sharp rebuke from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who warned Russia against any military intervention in Ukraine.
“Any kind of military intervention that would violate the sovereign territorial integrity of Ukraine would be a huge, a grave mistake,” Kerry told reporters in Washington. “The territorial integrity of Ukraine needs to be respected.”
In delivering the message, Kerry also announced that the Obama administration was planning $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine and would consider additional direct assistance for the former Soviet republic.
Still, Kerry insisted that U.S. policy was not aimed at reducing Russia’s influence in Ukraine or other former Soviet republics, but rather to see their people realize aspirations for freedom in robust democracies with strong economies.
“This is not ‘Rocky IV’,” Kerry said, referring to the 1985 Sylvester Stallone film in which an aging American boxer takes on a daunting Soviet muscleman. “It is not a zero-sum game. We do not view it through the lens of East-West, Russia-U.S. 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 maneuvers 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.
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