KIEV, Ukraine â€” The United States urged Russia on Wednesday to avoid provocative actions after President Vladimir Putin ordered troops to conduct combat-readiness drills near Ukraine, where pro-Russian protesters are fighting with rivals in the south.
Secretary of State John Kerry said it was urgent that Russia and the world “move forward” to help the new Ukrainian government weather an economic crisis, and that the U.S. would provide $1 billion in loan guarantees.
Speculation that Russia could intervene in Ukraine has grown since last week’s violent clashes in Kiev led to the ouster of president Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Moscow who left the capital and has not been seen since Saturday.
Moscow has warned that it has “interests” in Ukraine, a former republic under the Soviet Union that declared independence in 1991. Putin ordered an invasion of the republic of Georgia in 2008 when the government there tried to crack down on Russian-speaking separatists.
Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev said Russia can act to protect Russia-speaking citizens in south Ukraine, such as in Crimea.
Many in Kiev said they weren’t worried Russia would come in but were not thrilled with the West’s lack of support for their struggle under a repressive regime that looted the country’s treasury.
“People made this revolution when they realized they would get no help from Europe and the U.S. last December,” said Roman Bondarchuk, who took part in the demonstrations in Kiev. “That was when they realized that everyone could be a hero.”
In Crimea, ethnic Russians calling for closer integration with Russia had fistfights in dueling street protests with a pro-Ukrainian group that included Crimean Tatars, who are Muslim. Some Ukrainians in extremely pro-Russian cities such as Sevastopol, where Moscow has a fleet of ships on the Black Sea, have demanded that they be allowed to secede to Russia.
Crimea was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made it part of Ukraine, which, like Russia, was a part of the Soviet Union until its demise in 1991.
On Wednesday, Putin made a point of ordering military forces deployed in the western part of the country to test their “battle readiness,” just days after the West warned him not to intervene in Ukraine.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the order was issued “in case of a crisis situation that threatens the security of Russia,” according to Interfax Russian news agency.
Shoigu said the decision to put about 150,000 troops on high alert in its western military district had nothing to do with Ukraine. Not everyone in Russia saw it that way.
Alexander Konovalov, head of the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Assessments, said Putin’s announcement is a signal to Ukraine but it did not mean Russia had plans to invade its neighbor.
“There is a connection (to Ukraine), it’s a psychological, demonstrative signal that Russia would protect its countrymen in the Crimea,” he said. “I don’t think these drills mean that Russia is going to invade. … It wants to show that it does have the strategic capability to deploy troops, that it’s militarily prepared.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that “outside actors” should “end provocative rhetoric and actions” in an apparent reference to Russia. Kerry said it was “urgent to move forward” to establish a democratic government, curb corruption and prepare free and fair elections.
“We do not believe this should be an East-West, Russia-United States,” Kerry told MSNBC. “This is not Rocky IV, believe me.”
Kerry said the U.S. loan offer could be followed with another $1 billion in aid as part of an international assistance package from European and global financial institutions. Ukraine says it needs $35 billion to pay salaries, pensions and debt, much of it owed to Russia for gas.
Contributing: Jabeen Bhatti in Berlin; Arutunyan reported from Moscow