Nato to beef up eastern defences
Nato foreign ministers have agreed to beef up the defences of front-line alliance members feeling menaced by a more assertive Russia.
The move came as Secretary of State John Kerry stressed the US commitment to their security is "unwavering".
The ministers from Nato's 28 member nations also ordered suspension of all "practical civilian and military co-operation" with Vladimir Putin's Russia, though they made sure a line of communication with the Kremlin remains open at the ambassadorial level.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, keystone of US and European security since the end of the Second World War, is facing its most acute geopolitical crisis in years.
The fallout from Moscow's unilateral annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula has been condemned by the Obama administration and its allies as a brazen, illegal land grab.
Yesterday, an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 Russian troops equipped with tanks, other armoured vehicles and fixed and rotary wing aircraft remained positioned near the border with Ukraine, a Nato military official told The Associated Press.
The official described the Russian build-up as "a complete combat force" that was highly threatening to Ukraine.
Those troops, and future aggressive moves that Mr Putin's Kremlin may make, have become a troubling concern for Nato countries, especially the alliance's eastern-most members - the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania, all of which were once in Moscow's orbit.
To reassure those allies, Mr Kerry told a news conference that the US has already sent six F-15 fighters to perform air patrols over the Baltic and deployed a dozen F-16s to Poland.
He noted that the US had previously dispatched the USS Truxtun, a guided-missile destroyer, to the Black Sea.
The Truxtun has already left the Black Sea after taking part in naval exercises with Nato allies Romania and Bulgaria that had been scheduled before the Ukraine crisis.
A senior US defence official said the US is likely to send another warship to the Black Sea, but there was no decision on which ship and when it would be sent.
Despite annexing Crimea, Mr Putin and other Kremlin officials have said that Russia has no intention of invading other areas of Ukraine.
Defence minister Sergei Shoigu insisted yesterday the Kremlin wants a "political settlement that would take interests and rights of the entire Ukrainian people into account".
While Nato ordered the suspension of "all practical civilian and military co-operation" with Russia, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said later he thought some mutually beneficial co-operation programmes with the Russians might continue, such as the project to train anti-narcotics personnel in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.
In other developments, Russia sharply hiked the price for natural gas to Ukraine and threatened to reclaim billions in previous discounts, raising the heat on Ukraine's cash-strapped government.
The move is expected to eventually hit Ukrainian consumers hard. Household gas prices in Ukraine are set to rise 50% beginning on May 1.
The Russian discount was part of a financial lifeline that Mr Putin offered Ukraine's now fugitive president, Viktor Yanukovych, after his decision to ditch a pact with the EU in favour of closer ties with Moscow.
The move fuelled three months of protests that sent Mr Yanukovych fleeing to Russia in February.
In Kiev, Ukrainian police moved to disarm members of a radical nationalist group after a shooting spree.
Such groups played a key role in ousting Mr Yanukovych, but quickly fell out with the new government in Kiev.
Many activists are still encamped on Kiev's Independence Square, known as the Maidan, and have signalled their intent to remain until the May 25 presidential election.