US warns Russia over 'gun barrel' strategy
Kerry visits Ukraine to show support for pro-EU leaders
The United States warned Russia to stop its "gun barrel" strategy in Ukraine last night as pro-Russian soldiers came their closest yet to firing on their Ukrainian counterparts.
On a visit to Kiev that sent a clear signal of support for the country's new pro-European government, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, accused Vladimir Putin of deliberately engineering the crisis as a pretext for a Russian invasion.
"It is not appropriate to invade a country, and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve," said Mr Kerry as he visited Kiev. "That is not 21st-Century, G8, major nation behaviour."
Mr Kerry arrived bearing the gift of a $1bn (€0.72bn) energy subsidy package for Ukraine, which is in emergency talks with the International Monetary Fund over a $35bn black hole in its finances.
Meanwhile, Russia's state- controlled natural gas giant, Gazprom, said it would cancel a price discount on gas it sells to Ukraine, which could effectively double gas prices.
A senior US official said that new economic sanctions against Russia – likely to be targeted at prominent individuals – were coming in "days, not weeks".
In a sombre show of support for Ukraine's new leadership, Mr Kerry walked the streets where more than 80 anti-government protesters were killed last month,
"We're concerned very much. We hope for your help, we hope for your assistance," a woman shouted, as Mr Kerry passed piles of tyres, plywood, barbed wire and other remnants of the barricades.
His visit came on another day of high tension in the former Soviet state, with pro-Russian troops firing shots over the heads of a group of 300 Ukrainian servicemen who approached them at the Belbek air base in Crimea in a bid to get back weapons compounded by the Russians five days ago.
Meanwhile, Mr Putin continued to strike a defiant tone, using a lengthy press conference to accuse the West of encouraging an "unconstitutional coup" against Ukraine's deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the capital on February 22.
President Barack Obama disputed Mr Putin's comments, accusing him of a clear violation of international law.
"President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations," Mr Obama said as he chaired an emergency meeting of the US national security council.
"But I don't think that's fooling anybody."
As if international relations were not already strained enough Russia said it had successfully test-fired an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).
The news came with nerves already taut over Moscow's seizure of control in the Crimea and its threat to send more forces to its neighbour Ukraine.
The Strategic Rocket Forces launched an RS-12M Topol missile from the southerly Astrakhan region and the dummy warhead hit its target at a proving ground in Kazakhstan, Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Yegorov told state-run news agency RIA.
The launch site, Kapustin Yar, is near the Volga River about 450km east of the Ukrainian border. Kazakhstan, a Russian ally in a post-Soviet security grouping, is further to the east.
Russia and the United States signed the latest in a series of treaties restricting the numbers of ICBMs in 2010.
But Moscow has indicated it will agree further cuts in the near future and is taking steps to upgrade its nuclear arsenal.
Mr Putin has emphasised that Russia must maintain a strong nuclear deterrent, in part because of an anti-missile shield the United States is building in Europe which Moscow says could undermine its security.
The 20 metre-long RS-12M, known in NATO parlance as the SS-25 Sickle, was first put in service in 1985, six years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is designed to carry a nuclear warhead. Its range is 10,500km. (© Daily Telegraph London)