Ukraine crisis: Putin puts Russian troops on alert
President Vladimir Putin put 150,000 Russian combat troops on high alert for war games near Ukraine today, the Kremlin's boldest gesture yet after days of sabre rattling since its ally Viktor Yanukovich was toppled as president in Kiev.
Moscow denied that the previously unannounced drill in the western military district near Ukraine was linked to events in its neighbour but it came amid a series of increasingly strident statements about the fate of Russian citizens and interests.
With the political turmoil hammering Ukraine's economy, the central bank said it would no longer intervene to shield the hryvnia currency, which tumbled 4 percent today and is now down a fifth since January 1. Today's abrupt abandonment of Ukraine's currency peg sent ripples to Russia where the rouble fell to five-year lows and bank shares fell.
Thousands of ethnic Russians, who form the majority in Ukraine's Crimea region, demonstrated for independence. They scuffled with rival demonstrators supporting the new Kiev authorities. The Crimea is home to part of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, which Moscow said it was taking steps to secure.
One person died in the Crimea protest, apparently of a heart attack during a crush of the crowd, Interfax news agency reported. A Reuters correspondent on the scene reported surging crowds and scuffles but no major violence.
NATO defence ministers, meeting in Brussels, issued a statement supporting "Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, territorial integrity, democratic development, and the principle of inviolability of frontiers". Their statement made no direct mention of the Russian war games.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia should respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and be "very careful" in its judgments toward its neighbour.
"What we need now to do is not get into an old, Cold War confrontation," he said on MSNBC television.
Russia's foreign ministry said Ukrainian extremists were "imposing their will", and a Ukrainian church affiliated with the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church had faced threats.
Meanwhile, the United States warned Russia it would be a "grave mistake" to embark on a military intervention in Ukraine and said Washington was considering $1 billion in US loan guarantees for Kiev.
"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 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," US Secretary of State John Kerry told a small group of reporters.