Putin puts troops in W.Russia on alert in drill
Updated: 2014-02-26 20:35
MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an urgent drill to test the combat readiness of the armed forces across western Russia on Wednesday, flexing Moscow's military muscle amid tension with the West over Ukraine.
Putin has ordered several such surprise drills in different Russian regions since he returned to the presidency in 2012, saying the military must be kept on its toes, but the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine gave them added geopolitical resonance.
"In accordance with an order from the president of the Russian Federation, forces of the Western Military District were put on alert at 1400 (1000 GMT) today," the Interfax news agency quoted Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying.
The western district encompasses most of western Russia and borders Ukraine, which lies between NATO nations and Russia.
Forces must "be ready to bomb unfamiliar testing grounds" as part of the drill, Shoigu told a Defence Ministry meeting.
Putin has made no public comment on Ukraine since President Viktor Yanukovich was driven from power over the weekend after months of political turmoil sparked by his decision to spurn deals with the European Union and improve ties with Russia.
The United States and European nations have warned Russia against military intervention in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that Putin has called a "brother nation" and wants to be part of a Eurasian Union he is building in the region.
Russian officials have said Moscow will not interfere in Ukraine, while accusing the West of doing so, and Interfax cited the speaker of the upper parliament house, Valentina Matviyenko, as saying on Wednesday it would not use force.
But Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on Monday that Russia's interests and its citizens in Ukraine were under threat, language reminiscent of statements justifying Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008, when he was president.
Shoigu said the drill would be conducted in two stages, ending on March 3, and also involved the command centres of Russia's Air and Space Defence forces, paratroops and long-range aviation as well as some troops in central Russia.
In the two-day first stage, military units would be brought to "the highest degree of combat readiness" and would be deployed to testing areas on land and sea, Interfax quoted Shoigu as saying.
The second stage would include tactical exercises and involve warships from the Northern and Baltic Fleets, he said, and some warplanes would move to combat airfields.
No mention was made of the Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Sevastopol in Crimea, where tension over Ukraine's turmoil is high because of its presence and a large Russian-speaking population.
Shoigu said the drill would also test the counterterrorism measures in place at military units. Russian officials have referred to some of the Ukrainian opposition forces whose protests pushed Yanukovich from power as "terrorists".
(Writing by Steve Gutterman, editing by Elizabeth Piper and Jon Boyle)