President Vladimir V Putin ordered a surprise military exercise of ground forces on Ukraine’s doorstep Wednesday, intending to demonstrate his country’s military preparedness amid tensions with Europe and the United States over the turmoil gripping Russia’s western neighbour.
Putin’s order applied to forces in western Russia and air forces across the country, and a separate order issued by Defense Minister Sergei K Shoigu included unspecified measures to ensure the security of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in southern Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, a region that was a part of Russia until 1954 and is still heavily populated by ethnic Russians.
The Russian muscle flexing came as thousands of ethnic Russians demonstrated in Crimea’s regional capital of Simferopol, protesting the political upheavals in Kiev that felled the pro-Moscow government of President Viktor F Yanukovych over the weekend and turned him into a fugitive. “Crimea is Russian!” some screamed, as brawls erupted with rival demonstrators from Crimea’s ethnic Tatar population who support Kiev’s new interim authorities created by the Parliament.
Facing increased signs of an impending economic default in the former Soviet republic of 46 million, those interim authorities hastened on Wednesday to accelerate the formation of a new government that could reach agreements for more cash and loans. The national currency, the hryvnia, a barometer of economic confidence, plunged to near a 2008 low of 10 cents.
The Russian military put scores of units on alert at 2 pm local time for an exercise that was scheduled to last until March 3, Shoigu announced, according to news agencies. Shoigu’s statement cited the need to test the readiness of the armed forces to respond to a “crisis situation,” including that of a terrorist attack involving biological or chemical weapons. Neither Shoigu nor the Kremlin mentioned the events in Ukraine, which officials here have watched with growing alarm, but the geopolitical message of the snap drill was unmistakable.