Russia reports missile test-fire as Ukraine tensions rise
Moscow ‘looking for a pretext to invade Ukraine’ says John Kerry
Russia said it had successfully test-fired an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) today, with tensions high over its seizure of control in the Crimea and its threat to send more forces to its neighbour Ukraine.
The Strategic Rocket Forces launched an RS-12M Topol missile from the southerly Astrakhan region and the dummy warhead hit its target at a proving ground in Kazakhstan, defence ministry spokesman Igor Yegorov told state-run news agency RIA.
The launch site, Kapustin Yar, is near the Volga River about 450 km east of the Ukrainian border.
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Kazakhstan, a Russian ally in a post-Soviet security grouping, is further to the east.
A US official said the United States had received proper notification from Russia ahead of the test and that the initial notification pre-dated the crisis in Crimea.
Russia conducts test launches of its ICBMs fairly frequently and often announces the results, a practice seen as intended to remind the West of Moscow’s nuclear might and reassure Russians that president Vladimir Putin will protect them.
“The United States reaffirms our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity according to international law. We condemn the Russian Federation’s act of aggression,” Mr Kerry told a news conference during a visit to Kiev intended to show support for Ukraine’s new leaders.
“It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further,” he said.
Visiting Kiev to show support for Ukraine’s new leaders after Russian forces took control of Crimea, Mr Kerry said there was no evidence to support Moscow’s version of events - that Russian speakers are in danger in Ukraine.
“Russia has talked about Russian-speaking ordinary citizens that are under siege. They are not. And in fact this government has acted remarkably responsibly.”
Russian forces have taken over military installations and other buildings in Crimea, a peninsula where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has a base.
President Vladimir Putin says he reserves the right to use force as a last resort to protect compatriots.
Washington and its Western allies are exerting pressure on Moscow to pull back its troops or face economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
After talks with acting president Oleksandr Turchinov, prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk and Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia, Mr Kerry praised the leaders installed since Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich was deposed as president last month.
Criticising the Russian leadership, he said: “It is not appropriate to invade a country and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve.”
He added: “What we are looking for here is a responsible way to meet the needs of the parties ... of Ukraine.”
During his visit, Mr Kerry announced an economic package and technical assistance for Ukraine.
A senior US administration official said president Barack Obama’s administration would work with Congress to approve $1 billion in loan guarantees to help reduce the impact on Ukrainians of proposed energy subsidy cuts as Kiev seeks international financial assistance to avert bankruptcy.
Mr Putin said there was no need yet to send Russian troops into Ukraine, but has not ruled out doing so.
He told a news conference said Russia reserves the right to use “all means” to protect its citizens in Ukraine and described the toppling of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich as an “unconstitutional coup and armed seizure of power”.
Mr Putin “militants” had driven Ukraine into “chaos” and claimed Ukrainian “nationalists” and “anti-Semites” were roaming the streets of Kiev and other cities and said he would send in Russian troops into the country in “an extreme case”.
The statement is the first by Mr Putin since Russian troops effectively took over the Crimea.
Ukrainian prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk said today both governments had begun high-level contacts on the crisis.
“Consultations have started at the level of ministers,” he told reporters but gave no details.
Mr Yatseniuk reiterated that Russia should withdraw forces back to bases in the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea and hald actions which he said threatened to destabilise the region.
Earlier Mr Putin ordered troops involved in military exercises in western Russia near the Ukraine border to return to their permanent bases.
A spokesman for the president told the Interfax news agency this morning that the premier had ordered the troops to return to their usual stations.
Dmitry Peskov said the military exercises, which Moscow denied were linked to events in Ukraine, had been a success. The exercises took place across western Russia, an area which borders Ukraine.
Ukraine claimed Russia had set a deadline for its forces in Crimea to surrender by 3am (Irish time). The supposed deadline passed without a shot being fired.
Russia has denied issuing any ultimatum.
Additional reporting: Agencies