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Tension mounts in Ukraine

February 26, 2014

Ukraine's new pro-Western leadership has disbanded the feared riot police blamed for killing protesters. In a sign of tension with the West, Russia ordered a military drill to test the country's combat readiness.

Symbolbild Spezialeinheit Ukraine Berkut
Image: picture alliance/CITYPRESS 24

Newly-installed Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Wednesday that the controversial police unit Berkut, meaning eagle, had been disbanded. "Berkut no longer exists," he wrote on Facebook.

The move is part of the country's efforts to remove vestiges of Viktor Yanukovych's government.

The deposed president's whereabouts remain unknown.

Three months of protests in the capital city's Independence Square, also known as Maidan, forced Yanukovych from office last week. The unrest was sparked in November by his refusal to sign an EU trade deal in favor of strengthening ties with Russia. The protests culminated in a week of bloodshed that left nearly 100 people dead.

Later on Wednesday, Ukraine's new cabinet will be announced on the site of the protests, according to a lawmaker from former boxer turned opposition figure Vitali Klitschko's UDAR (Punch) party.

"At 7:00 p.m. (1700 UTC) we will take to the stage to present the new government to the square," Valeriy Patskan said in a statement posted in the UDAR website.

Russia orders military drill

The 46 million-strong nation's sudden shift to a pro-Western government has fueled United States and European Union tension with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered an urgent drill to test the combat readiness of his country's armed forces, according to Interfax news agency.

"In accordance with an order from the president of the Russian Federation, forces of the Western Military District were put on alert at 1400 (1000 UTC) today," Interfax quoted Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying. The district lies on the border with Ukraine.

Russia has ordered military drills in the past since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, but the latest order appears to have direct geopolitical implications. Shoigu said the drill would have two stages and end on March 3.

In a statement earlier on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov urged the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the continent's democracy watchdog, to condemn the rise of "nationalist and neo-fascist" sentiment that has emerged in Ukraine.

Far-right opposition protesters played a significant role in the protests that unseated Yanukovych. In particular, Lavrov cited 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'."

The change in power has also raised fears that the southern Crimea peninsula, a Russian-speaking region where Yanukovych is believed to have gone into hiding, could secede. The port city of Sevastopol has already seen pro-Russian protests and further demonstrations were held Wednesday. A Russian delegation is expected to fly to the Black Sea region, where they will meet with representatives of the new and old governments, according to the Interfax.

In the wake of the uprising, Russia has frozen payments on a large bailout package that Putin had promised to Yanukovych for rejecting the EU trade deal. The Ukrainian government has foreign debts of 13 billion euros ($18 billion) and less than 18 billion euros in its reserves, forcing it to seek as much as 35 billion euros from the West.

The US and Britain have thrown their support behind an economic deal for Ukraine that would be overseen by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In Kyiv on Tuesday, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton only mentioned a "short term" solution, and did not address the billions of euros requested by interim president Oleksandr Turchinov.

dr/hc (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)