US president Barack Obama has said Moscow’s troop build-up on the Ukraine border was out of the ordinary and called on Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to pull back and begin talks to defuse tensions.
“You’ve seen a range of troops massing along that border under the guise of military exercises,” he said during a visit to the Vatican City. “But these are not what Russia would normally be doing.”
Mr Obama said the moves might be no more than an effort to intimidate but could be a precursor to other actions.
“It may be that they’ve got additional plans,” he said, without elaborating as to what may follow the build-up of tank divisions and heavily armed troops.
Late yesterday, Kiev authorities announced they had carried out checks on 526 urban bomb shelters in the capital, largely left over from the Cold War, to ensure they were in good working order. They are also working on a new early warning system for the population in the event of an invasion.
Mr Obama’s comments came as Ukraine’s deposed president Viktor Yanukovich called for each of its regions to hold a referendum on its constitutional status, in a move that could lead to further fragmentation of one of Europe’s largest states.
Pro-Russian Mr Yanukovich – who fled office after a popular uprising and a bloodbath on the streets of Kiev – said regions should hold their own polls instead of presidential elections planed for 25 May.
It follows the secession of Crimea from Ukraine earlier this month and its accession to the Russian Federation.
“As a president who is with you with all my thoughts and soul, I urge every sensible citizen of Ukraine: Don’t give in to imposters! Demand a referendum on the status of each region within Ukraine,” Mr Yanukovich, who fled to Russia last month, was quoted as saying in an address to the people of Ukraine.
His comments echo Moscow’s call for Kiev’s new regime to enact reforms that may grant more autonomy to Ukraine’s regional governments.
“Only an all-Ukrainian referendum, not a snap presidential election, can, in a significant way, stabilise the political situation and preserve sovereignty and Ukraine’s [territorial] integrity,” he said.
The removal of Mr Yanukovich has left many Russian-speaking regions, largely in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, sceptical over the policies of the new government in Kiev.
Russia claimed ethnic minorities in Ukraine were living in fear after the coming to power of interim authorities that include right-wing nationalists. The statement from Russia’s foreign ministry was in line with Mr Putin’s frequent contention that Ukraine’s large ethnic Russian community faces repression under the new government that Moscow characterises as “fascist”.
The United States and the European Union regard the new regime, led by prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, as moderate, though the ultra-nationalist Right Sector were involved in the recent uprising and yesterday demonstrated outside parliament in Kiev demanding a larger say in government.
Russia’s claims raise the stakes on the issue, alleging that ethnic Germans, Hungarians and Czechs in Ukraine also felt under threat. “They are unsettled by the unstable political situation and are seriously afraid for their lives,” the statement said.
Russia has sent large numbers of troops to areas near the Ukrainian border and speculation is strong that Moscow could use protection of ethnic Russians as a pretext for a military incursion.
Tensions between Ukraine’s ethnic Russians and Ukrainian speakers continue to rise in the wake of Mr Yanukovich’s removal. His biggest rival, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, attacked his latest claims, accusing him of being “a tool aimed at destroying the independence of Ukraine”.