Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered a test of combat readiness for troops stationed in a region that touches Ukraine’s northern border as tensions continued to escalate in the strife-torn Eastern European country.
The Wall Street Journal reported early Wednesday that the move comes as the situation deteriorates between Russia and Ukraine, whose pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted by European-leaning protesters at the weekend following violence in which more than 80 people were killed.
A warrant for the ousted president's arrest was issued this week but he remains at large and is believed to be hiding in Crimea, a pro-Russian region on the Black Sea.
“In accordance with the decree of the president, today at 1400 [1000 GMT] troops were put on alert in the Western Military District as well as units stationed with the 2nd Army Central Military District Command involved in aerospace defense, airborne troops and long-range military transport aircraft,” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said, according to the Journal.
The Western District is based in St. Petersburg and stretches from Russia’s western arctic to its border with Ukraine and Belarus. The central district is based in Yekaterinburg and stretches from Siberia to just west of the Ural Mountains.
Meanwhile, thousands of pro-Russia separatists and supporters of Ukraine's new leaders confronted each other on Wednesday outside Crimea's regional parliament before a debate on the political upheaval that swept away Yanukovich.
About 2,000 people, many of them ethnic Tatars who are the indigenous group on the Black Sea peninsula, converged on the parliament building to support the 'Euro-Maidan' movement which overturned Yanukovich in Kiev after three months of protests.
They were met by a similar number of pro-Russia demonstrators who bellowed loyalty to Moscow and denounced the "bandits" who had seized power in the Ukrainian capital.
The two sides, who were held apart by police lines, rallied in a noisy cacophony outside the parliament which, under pressure from pro-Russia forces, had called an emergency session for later on Wednesday to discuss the crisis.
Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 in the Soviet-era by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. With a part of Russia's Black Sea fleet based in the port of Sevastopol, it is the only region of Ukraine where ethnic Russians dominate in numbers, although many ethnic Ukrainians in other eastern areas speak Russian as their first language.
With Crimea now the last big bastion of opposition to the new post-Yanukovich political order in Kiev, Ukraine's new leaders are voicing alarm over signs of separatism there.
Ethnic Tatars, who accounted for most of the pro-Maidan demonstrators, rallied under a pale-blue flag, shouting: "Ukraine! Ukraine!" and the Maidan's refrain of "down with the gang!"
The pro-Russian crowds, some of them cossacks in silk and lambswool hats, shouted back "Crimea is Russian!".
More pro-Russia loyalists were brought in by bus from other parts of the peninsula and soon outnumbered the crowds of Tatars and 'EuroMaidan' supporters. They began playing Russian songs and religious choral music from amplifiers set up in the portico of a church.
Tension over Crimea is likely to escalate further on Wednesday after Putin put Russian troops on high alert for a drill. Since Yanukovich's downfall, all eyes have been on Putin, who in 2008 ordered an invasion of Georgia to protect self-declared independent regions with many ethnic Russians, which he then recognised as independent states.
Rudik Asmanov, a 42-year-old Tatar businessman, said: "We need to show our support for Kiev, to honour 'Heaven's Hundred'," he said, referring to casualties on the protesters' side in Kiev.
Alexei, 17, part of the pro-Russia crowd, who was wearing a bandana over his face and carrying a baseball bat in a backpack, said: "The Tatars are our enemy now. They're siding with the bandits in Kiev. We need to defend ourselves or it will be chaos."
The Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group, were victimised by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in World War Two and deported en masse to Soviet Central Asia in 1944 on suspicion of collaborating with Nazi Germany.
Tens of thousands of them returned to their homeland after Ukraine gained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.
Tatar leader Refat Chubarov, who came to address the crowd but was shouted down by pro-Russians supporters, told Reuters: "We have a long memory of what the Russians did to us Tatars.
"We are now a minority in our own homeland because of them ... We have fought alongside the Ukrainians more often than against them - our loyalty is with them," he said.
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