A Russian military drill has raised fears of interference in Ukraine, where politicians are scrambling to stabilize the government and avoid bankruptcy. The crisis comes just ahead of the naming of an interim cabinet.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement of a military exercise in Russia's vast western region - part of which borders Ukraine - was met with concern on Wednesday. Defense ministers gathered in Brussels for a NATO summit pledged their support to Ukraine, while also making clear they had their eyes on Russia's intentions in the region.
"We will certainly, obviously, want to take proper cognizance of any activities by Russian forces," British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said in Brussels, where a meeting of NATO defense ministers was taking place.
Hammond added that the UK "would urge all parties to allow the Ukrainian people to settle their internal differences and then to determine their own future without external interference."
In a separate statement, NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen pledged support for Ukraine.
"We stand ready to continue assisting Ukraine in its democratic reforms," Rasmussen said in Brussels, adding that Ukraine's people must "determine what should be the future of their country."
Meanwhile, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen urged Western and Russian leaders to maintain peaceful ties and work together to help Kyiv.
"One thing is very clear: it is not only in the interest of Germany, but of NATO and Russia, too, that Ukraine finds its way back to stability," von der Leyen said. "The country must not fall apart. Russia needs to be involved, there won't be a solution without Russia."
Following the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Saturday, both Western and Russian leaders had agreed that Kyiv needed outside support to regain its footing, but that no party should try to meddle in its affairs. However, in the days since the dramatic shift in leadership, tensions have mounted in Ukraine's eastern Crimean region, where a large pro-Russian population lives. Russia, for its part, has criticized the protest movement and its new, pro-West leaders as being right-wing and nationalistic.
Earlier on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged the organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the continent's watchdog, to condemn the rise of "nationalist and neo-fascist" sentiment that has emerged in Ukraine.
Lavrov cited, in particular, the attempts of Ukraine's new leadership to ban the Russian language in the country, restore Ukrainian as the obligatory language in official documents and turn the "Russian-speaking population into 'non-citizens.'"
Turmoil in Crimea
Counter demonstrations in the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea became violent on Wednesday, where the leadership has refused to recognize the new leadership in Kyiv.
More than 10,000 pro-Ukrainian supporters rallied in the capital city Simferopol chanting "Ukraine is not Russia!" The pro-Russian contingency of roughly half as many people was also on the scene. Fistfights reportedly broke out between the two groups. It was not immediately clear how many people were injured.
News agency dpa reported that pro-Ukrainian protesters - largely made up of ethnic Tartars - stormed the parliament building in Simferopol.
The escalation in Crimea came just days after clashes between security forces and protesters in Kyiv left at least 82 people dead. The incident prompted the German, French and Polish foreign ministers to broker a peace deal between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition, who had been calling for his resignation. On Saturday, Yanukovych left Kyiv after parliament voted him out of office. His whereabouts remain unknown. Ukrainian authorities have since issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of "mass murder."
US-EU financial aid
Later on Wednesday, Ukraine's transitional cabinet was scheduled to be named. The quick establishment of a new government is a necessary step in order for the EU and the US to throw its financial support behind Ukraine, which is heavily endebted and is also struggling with a weakening national currency that is making repayment more difficult.
Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who helped broker the peace deal that led to the introduction of new leadership in Kyiv, was scheduled to meet US Foreign Secretary John Kerry and IMF chief Christine Lagarde on Thursday and Friday, respectively, to discuss a possible economic package.
"From Germany's perspective, it is appropriate for the international community to close ranks on this," Steinmeier's spokesperson told news agency AFP. "Political stabilization of [Ukraine]…goes hand in hand with a process of economic and financial stabilization…[which] won't be possible without outside help."
Interim President Olesandr Turchynov had pledged over the weekend to establish a government as quickly as possible, both to pave the way toward May 25 elections and to secure money from Western backers. The country's central bank had also reportedly begun working on measures to tackle the economic crisis, according to its chief, Stepan Kubyv.
kms/msh (AFP, Reuters, dpa)