The United States warned Russia against "provocative" actions in Ukraine last night, as fears mounted that a pro-Russian separatist movement in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea could plunge the region into open conflict.
We strongly support Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. We expect other nations to do the same," Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said in Washington.
In comments that welcomed a new government approved by the acting president of Ukraine yesterday, Mr Carney added that the White House no longer considered Viktor Yanukovych – ousted by protesters last week – to be president, saying he "abdicated his responsibility".
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, urged Russia to join America and its allies in a concerted effort to stabilise the near bankrupt country.
Speaking after Russian defence officials put attack aircraft on what they called "combat alert" as part of military exercises across a region close to Ukraine, he cautioned: "We believe that everybody now needs to step back and avoid any kind of provocations."
His comments came at the end of a day in which dozens of pro-Russian gunmen occupied regional government and parliamentary buildings in Simferopol, the Crimean capital, and raised Russian flags over them. At the same time, the regional assembly voted to hold a referendum on greater autonomy within Ukraine, in an attempt to defuse the mounting crisis on the peninsula.
Russia's military manoeuvres, involving 150,000 troops, 90 aircraft, more than 120 helicopters and 880 tanks, appeared designed to ratchet up pressure on the new government in Kiev, which came to power after pro-European protesters forced Mr Yanukovych to flee.
Mr Yanukovych confirmed that he had fled to Russia, issuing a statement in which he requested Moscow's protection and declaring himself still to be the "legitimate head of the Ukrainian state".
Russia's foreign ministry declined to comment on his whereabouts, but was fiercely critical of events in Kiev. "The fighters have failed to hand in arms, they have not freed administrative buildings and they talk of their intentions to 'bring order' to all Ukrainian regions," the statement said.
Mr Kerry said he had spoken to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, by telephone about tensions in the region, and Russian military forces on the border. Mr Lavrov told him that the military exercises were not related to Ukraine and had been previously scheduled, he said.
The US plea was echoed by other Western leaders.
Oleksander Turchynov, Ukraine's acting president, warned that any attempt by Russian forces to leave their naval base in Sebastopol would be viewed as an act of "military aggression".
Tensions in the Russian-majority Crimea soared after ethnic Russians established checkpoints on roads and raised vigilante defence groups in response to what many there see as an illegitimate coup by far-right forces in Kiev. (© Daily Telegraph, London)