ISTANBUL, Turkey – A day after claiming to have withdrawn thousands of Russian troops from Ukraine’s border, Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin presided over Eastern bloc military maneuvers Thursday that included tests of Russia’s nuclear forces and live firing of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
NATO leaders said they had yet to see any evidence of Russia having moved the 40,000-plus troops amassed on Ukraine’s border. And despite Putin’s claim that Thursday’s exercises had been planned since November, unexpected display of the former Soviet empire’s surviving destructive powers was likely to ratchet up tensions in the region.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said via Twitter that alliance officials “haven’t seen any – any – indication of troops pulling back.”
On Wednesday, Putin appealed to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone their planned Sunday referendum on whether to demand greater autonomy within Ukraine or secede and be annexed by Russia.
But a separatist leader in Donetsk, capital of the restive region with a large Russian-speaking population, said the referendum would be held despite Putin’s “respected” advice.
Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed head of the declared People’s Republic of Donetsk, told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that the separatist leadership had met and voted unanimously to go ahead with the vote Sunday because the people demanded it.
Poll results released Thursday by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center suggested otherwise. The April 5-23 survey of 1,659 Ukrainian citizens found 77 percent in favor of retaining the country within its current borders and 75 percent describing Russia’s role in the political turmoil as negative.
The poll also found lukewarm support for the Kiev leadership, a group of opposition figures who took power after Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country in February after a three-month rebellion. Only 41 percent of those surveyed said they had confidence in those running the country until a May 25 presidential election.
Yanukovych was closely allied with the Kremlin, and Russian officials have cast the government turnover as a coup d’etat.
At the joint military operations observed by the presidents of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Tajikistan, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the readiness tests were necessary to ensure Russia and its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization were capable of responding to any threat.
“Present-day challenges and threats to the nation’s security make it imperative to maintain the army and navy in a state of readiness for quick and efficient counteraction under any circumstances,” Shoigu told Putin at Russia’s National Defense Center, the Kremlin news service reported.
The maneuvers included the launch of a Topol intercontinental ballistic missile from the Plesetsk range in northwestern Russia, as well as missiles fired from the nuclear submarines Tula and Podolsk.
The Kremlin news agency also reported that Putin sent congratulations to former Soviet republics, including Ukraine, on the occasion of Friday’s 69th anniversary of the Allied Forces victory in World War II.
Celebrations of the May 9 joint triumph over fascism by the Soviet Union, the United States and Western Europe are expected to raise tensions in Ukraine, where the Kremlin and Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority contend the interim leaders in Kiev harbor right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis.
But the shared war experiences also opened an avenue of reconciliation. On Thursday, French President Francois Hollande confirmed that Putin was expected as a guest at 70th anniversary events commemorating the opening of the Western Front in Normandy with the June 6, 1944, Allied invasion.
Hollande said in an interview with French TF1 television that his criticism of Putin’s role in the Ukraine crisis doesn’t mean that France “has forgotten or will ever forget the millions of lives the Russian people have given” in the cause of world peace.