150,000 troops are on high alert with 880 tanks, 90 aircraft and 80 ships
It comes as anti- and pro-Russian protesters clashed in Crimea, Ukraine
Yet Russia, whose Naval fleet is near Crimea, denied there was any link
Vladimir Putin mobilised more than 150,000 troops and an armada of ships yesterday for a drill to test the combat readiness of forces in western Russia as tensions over Ukraine continue to grow.
In addition to the soldiers – nearly twice the British Army’s manpower after planned cuts – 880 tanks, 210 aircraft and 80 warships will take part in the operation.
The manoeuvres raised fears that the Russian president may be planning to send forces into Ukraine after the toppling of its Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said unspecified measures were also being taken to protect the country’s Black Sea fleet in Crimea, southern Ukraine.
He claimed the operation was not linked to the crisis in Ukraine, insisting it was intended to ‘check the troops’ readiness for action in crisis situations that threaten the nation’s military security’.
At first, military units will be brought to ‘the highest degree of combat readiness’ and deployed to land and sea positions.
The second stage will include tactical exercises involving warships from the northern and Baltic fleets, while some warplanes will move to combat airfields. Mr Shoigu said the forces must ‘be ready to bomb unfamiliar testing grounds’.
The change of government in Kiev has raised questions over the future of Russia’s naval bases in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, the lease for which was extended until 2042 by Mr Yanukovych. Most observers believe the new leadership will not push for the withdrawal of the Russian fleet, as this could create further tensions.
The drill comes 48 hours after Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said the country’s interests and citizens in Ukraine were under threat in language that echoed his statements justifying Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 when he was president.
The US and EU nations have warned Russia against military intervention in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that Mr Putin wants to be part of a Eurasian union he is creating. The crisis began three months ago after Mr Yanukovych ditched closer ties with the EU in favour of Mr Putin’s scheme.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, who is overseeing the reduction of the Army to around half the size of the Russian mobilisation, said yesterday: ‘We will obviously want to take proper cognizance of any activities by Russian forces. We urge all parties to allow the Ukrainian people to settle internal differences and determine their future without external interference.’
He was speaking as Nato defence ministers, meeting in Brussels, issued a statement ahead of a two-day summit supporting Ukrainian sovereignty and independence. US secretary of state John Kerry said Russia should respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and be ‘very careful’ in its behaviour.
In a TV interview, he added: ‘What we need now to do is not get into an old Cold War confrontation.’
Yesterday, thousands of protesters took part in rival rallies in Crimea’s administrative capital Simferopol ahead of a planned session of the region’s parliament.
The tensions in Crimea highlight the divisions that run through the nation of 46million, and underscore fears that the country’s mainly Russian-speaking east and south will not recognize the interim authority’s legitimacy.