By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered a test of the “battle readiness” of military forces deployed to the western and central areas of the country, a likely show of Kremlin muscle to reassure ethnic Russians in Ukraine that their rights and interests will be defended.
The announcement of the “immediate and thorough” readiness exercises was made by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and reported by the Interfax news agency.
“Putin ordered confirmation of troop capabilities for action in the event of a crisis situation that presents a threat to the military security of the country,” as well as anti-terrorism and emergency response readiness, Shoigu was quoted as saying by Interfax.
The readiness test was ordered amid growing tensions in Ukraine between the Russian-allied eastern areas of the restive country and pro-Western political forces now in control of the capital, Kiev, following a rebellion that drove deposed-President Viktor Yanukovich to flee his office.
Acting Ukrainian President Olexandr Turchynov was to address a public rally in Kiev’s Independence Square late Wednesday to announce proposed appointments to an interim Cabinet to govern Ukraine until a presidential election to replace Yanukovich on May 25 and parliamentary elections expected over the summer.
The current parliament, now largely devoid of lawmakers from Yanukovich’s Party of Regions who defected to the opposition or retreated to their home bases, was to vote on the nominations on Thursday.
Russia had been backing Yanukovich with a promised $15-billion package of loans and energy subsidies after he angered liberal and nationalist politicians in late November by scrapping an association agreement with the European Union. That pact would have enhanced Ukrainian economic ties with the West and opened a path to eventual membership in the bloc.
Yanukovich’s rejection of the EU deal in favor of strengthening ties with Russia, for centuries the dominant political force in Ukraine, set off three months of demonstrations that escalated into rioting last week and a bloody crackdown by security forces. At least 82 people died in the confrontations before an EU-brokered peace accord and agreement on early elections.
Pro-Western opposition politicians who led the rebellion have filled the power vacuum in Kiev, which triggered demonstrations in Russian-speaking areas of eastern and southern Ukraine, where industry remains elaborately entwined with Russia’s economy and Moscow keeps its Black Sea fleet based in Sevastopol.