SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine – Russia conducted new military maneuvers near its border with Ukraine on Thursday, and President Vladimir Putin said the world shouldn’t blame his country for what he called Ukraine’s internal crisis.
In Crimea, where the public will vote Sunday whether to break away from Ukraine and become part of Russia, jittery residents lined up at their banks to withdraw cash from their accounts amid uncertainty over the future of the peninsula, which Russian troops now control.
These people are afraid their bank will collapse and no one wants to lose their money, said resident Tatiana Sivukhina. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow.
In a last-minute bid to stave off a new chapter in the East-West crisis over Ukraine, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia that it faces immediate and very serious sanctions if it annexes Ukraine’s strategic Crimea region.
His comments echoed those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who hours earlier said Russia risks massive political and economic consequences if it refuses to soften its stance against the new government in Kiev.
During the Ukrainian crisis, the U.S. has sent additional fighter jets to Poland and Lithuania. Russian responded Thursday by deploying six fighter jets to Belarus, its ally.
At the United Nations, Ukraine’s prime minister told the U.N. Security Council that Russia had carried out military aggression in Crimea, and he dramatically switched from English to Russian to ask Russia whether it wants war.
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, gave him a direct answer: Russia does not want war, and neither do the Russians, and I’m convinced the Ukrainians don’t want that either.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Ukraine has had warm and friendly relations with Russia for decades, and he is also convinced that Russians do not want war.
And I hope that the Russian government and the Russian president will heed the wishes of their people and that we return urgently to dialogue and solve this conflict, he said.
Churkin did not respond to Yatsenyuk’s call to return to talks. Instead, he criticized the illegal and forceful overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich and asked why a European-mediated plan signed by Yanukovych and Ukraine’s protest leaders to form a new government and hold an early election wasn’t seized upon and implemented. Russia refused to sign the agreement but now supports it.
On Thursday, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that thousands of Russian troops in the regions of Rostov, Belgorod, Kursk and Tambov bordering Ukraine are involved in the exercises, which will continue until the end of the month.
Ukraine’s parliament voted Thursday to create a 60,000-strong National Guard to help protect the country as its understaffed and underfunded military was in disarray.