Massive political unrest in Ukraine threatens to boil over into military action, following reports that economic aid from the U.S. and European Union has been met with increased alerts from Russian troops massing across the border.
The Russian government has proceeded with military exercises at its land border with Ukraine as well as in the waters off Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The move comes just days after protesters toppled the pro-Russian government in Ukraine and began to establish a leadership more allied with Europe and the West.
Interim Ukrainian President Olexander Turchynov has warned the Russian government against using what he calls “military aggression” in the Crimean peninsula, which juts out into the Black Sea and closely borders Russia.
"We ask our Russian partners to...stick to their obligations, we believe Russia would never intervene into Ukrainian domestic affairs and will refrain from any steps that would split Ukraine,” he told the BBC Thursday.
“Any movement, particularly with weapons, outside official residences regulated by our agreement will be interpreted by us as military aggression,” Turchynov said, according to Russia state news service RIA Novosti.
The day before, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a drill to test combat readiness among his troops in central and western Russia close to the border it shares with Ukraine.
Angry mobs outside the Crimean parliament have descended into fistfights over allegiances to the new Ukrainian government and those who support Russia. Reports have emerged that unidentified masked men with machine guns seized the Crimean Supreme Council building.
NATO called on Russia to stand down its troops, saying it plans to continue engagement and support for the Ukrainian government and “stands ready to support democratic development, [defense] reforms, military cooperation and democratic control over the security sector,” according to a statement from Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
“I urge Russia not to take any action that could escalate tension or create misunderstanding,” he said. “I urge the new Ukrainian leadership to continue its efforts to establish an inclusive political process that reflects the democratic aspirations of the entire Ukrainian people. And I urge all parties to step back from confrontation, refrain from provocative actions and return to the path of dialogue.”
The Russian military maintains that any military movement is in accordance with pre-existing agreements with Kiev.
“Movement of individual armored vehicles of the Black Sea Fleet was conducted in full accordance with basic agreements and did not require any approvals,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych – his whereabouts still unknown – issued a statement Thursday blasting all actions of the Ukrainian parliament, saying “everything that is happening now...is illegitimate,” according to RIA Novosti, which received a copy of the statement.
"All decisions will quickly show their ineffectiveness and will not be fulfilled.”
Civil unrest in Ukraine began over its floundering economy, and Yanukovych’s decision to accept a multibillion dollar bailout from Russia instead of signing new economic accords with the EU.
“It’s becoming obvious now that people in southeast Ukraine and in the Crimea will not accept anarchic and de facto lawlessness in the country when the heads of ministries are elected by crowds in the street,” Yanukovych said.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement late Wednesday saying it would consider “a range of options” to support Ukraine and its fragile economy, including loan guarantees.
“No decision has been made and the next step is the formation of a multiparty, technical government,” said spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “Once that government is formed we will begin to take immediate steps, in coordination with multilateral and bilateral partners, that could compliment an IMF package, to support Ukraine.”
The U.S. has not publicly discussed any military options in and around Ukraine, including plans to evacuate Americans working at the embassy and elsewhere.
Navy vessel the USS Mount Whitney was last reported to be in the Black Sea, where it was deployed for routine operations and could have been used to support a crisis situation at the Sochi Olympics, the Pentagon says. Another ship there, the USS Taylor, ran aground earlier in February and was last reported undergoing repairs at the Turkish port of Samsun.
Multiple calls and emails to the office of the Secretary of Defense and the U.S. Navy were not returned in time for this report.