Alarm in Ukraine as Putin puts armed forces on alert

Kremlin’s most powerful gesture yet after days of sabre rattling in wake of Yanukovich being toppled

An anti-government protester mans a guarding position at a makeshift memorial for demonstrators who were killed in clashes with police in  Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine. Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered a surprise military exercise of ground and air forces today, intending to demonstrate the country’s military preparedness amid tensions with Europe and the US over the turmoil in Ukraine. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/The New York Times

An anti-government protester mans a guarding position at a makeshift memorial for demonstrators who were killed in clashes with police in Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine. Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered a surprise military exercise of ground and air forces today, intending to demonstrate the country’s military preparedness amid tensions with Europe and the US over the turmoil in Ukraine. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/The New York Times

Wed, Feb 26, 2014, 19:41

President Vladimir Putin put Russian combat troops on high alert f today, the Kremlin’s most powerful gesture yet after days of sabre rattling since its ally Viktor Yanukovich was toppled as president in Kiev.

Thousands of ethnic Russians, who form the majority in Ukraine’s Crimea region, demonstrated for independence for the peninsula that hosts part of Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet.

They scuffled with rival demonstrators, mainly from the Tatar minority, who support the new authorities in Kiev. With the political turmoil hammering Ukraine’s economy, the hryvnia currency tumbled 4 per cent today, with ripples spreading to Russia where the rouble fell to five-year lows and bank shares took a hit.

Ukraine’s central bank, which has been rapidly spending its hard currency to protect the hryvnia, said it had abandoned a managed exchange rate in favour of a flexible currency. Moscow denounced what it described as the rise of “nationalist and neo-fascist sentiment” in Ukraine’s mainly Ukrainian-speaking western areas, where it said Russian speakers were being deprived of rights.

It has repeatedly expressed concern for the safety of Russian citizens in Ukraine.

“In accordance with an order from the president of the Russian Federation, forces of the Western Military District were put on alert at 2pm today,” Interfax news agency quoted Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu as saying, announcing a drill. The western district borders on Ukraine.

Mr Shoigu also said Russia was “carefully watching what is happening in Crimea” and taking “measures to guarantee the safety of facilities, infrastructure and arsenals of the Black Sea Fleet,” in remarks reported by state news agency RIA.

In the latest of a series of increasingly strident statements, 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.

Western governments have repeatedly urged Moscow not to intervene.

Asked about the Russian army drill, British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said London was watching any Russian military activity.

“We would urge all parties to allow the Ukrainian people to settle their internal differences and then to determine their own future without external interference.”

Since Yanukovich’s downfall on Saturday, all eyes have been on Mr Putin, who ordered an invasion of neighbouring Georgia in 2008 to protect two self-declared independent regions with many ethnic Russians and others holding Russian passports.

Moscow recognised the regions as independent states, effectively seizing control of the territory from its neighbour.

Any military action in Ukraine, a country of 46 million people that has close ties with European powers and the United States, would be far more serious - the closest the West and Russia have come to outright confrontation since the Cold War.

Agencies