KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine disbanded the elite security police force that spearheaded most of the attacks on protesters in Kiev last week, the acting interior minister announced Wednesday, and neighboring Russia said it was launching urgent military exercises to test the readiness of its forces bordering the turbulent nation.
Members of the dissolved police force were immediately offered sanctuary in the pro-Russian Crimean Peninsula, further stoking concerns about divided loyalties in Ukraine. Russia backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted over the weekend and fled the capital following last week’s bloody crackdown on protesters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered surprise military exercises Wednesday and put troops in the area on high alert starting at 2 p.m. Moscow time. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the drills were aimed at checking preparedness “for action in crisis situations that threaten the nation’s military security.”
The exercises, due to start Friday and last four days, will also involve elements of the Russian navy and air force, Shoigu said. He made no mention of Ukraine in his announcement and later said the maneuvers were not related to the country’s turmoil, the Interfax news agency reported. Russia has held at least six such snap exercises to test readiness in the past year, the RIA Novosti news agency said.
The exercises, he said, involve the western military district, which abuts Ukraine’s northeastern border and is headquartered in St. Petersburg, and units of the central district, which covers a vast swath across the middle of Russia and is headquartered in the Ural Mountain city of Yekaterinburg. The district closest to the Crimea, the area with the greatest agitation for Russian protection, is not involved.
Russian officials have said their country has no intention of intervening militarily in Ukraine. Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, said Wednesday, before Shoigu’s announcement, that intervention was out of the question.
Shoigu said the troops participating in the drills should achieve a state of readiness by Thursday and are to remain in readiness until March 3.
In a brief news conference in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen made no direct mention of the Russian exercises but said that “we take it for granted that all nations respect the sovereignty and independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and this is a message that we have also conveyed to whom it may concern.” He made the remarks Wednesday as NATO defense ministers assembled for a scheduled meeting.
Although Ukraine has not sought NATO membership, it has long cooperated with NATO operations, sending troops to Bosnia and Afghanistan and participating in alliance anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.
“We stand read to continue assisting Ukraine in its democratic reforms,” Rasmussen said. Ukraine’s acting defense minister is expected to attend a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission on Thursday.
Later, in a statement following their closed-door meeting, NATO defense ministers said it was “imperative that the [Ukrainian] armed forces do not intervene in the political process” and commended them for so far staying out.
The ministers, who included U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, said NATO would “continue to support Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, territorial integrity, democratic development and the principle of inviolability of frontiers as key factors of stability and security in Central and Eastern Europe and on the continent as a whole.”
The elite Ukrainian police force that has been disbanded, known as the “Berkut,” was reviled by the protesters in Kiev following attacks that included the use of live ammunition against anti-government demonstrators occupying the capital’s Independence Square, popularly known as the Maidan.
Dismantling such units can be a difficult business. A similar outfit, the Latvia OMON, was disbanded in 1991 and its members became the backbone of organized crime in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The new head of the Coordinating Council of the Sevastopol city administration, Alexey Chaly, said Berkut troops would be welcome there, according to a Web site called Sevastopol.su.
“These people adequately fulfilled their duty to the country, have shown themselves to be real men,” Chaly wrote, “and are now abandoned to the mercy of this rabid pack of Nazis. For faithful service, today criminal cases are brought against them. At this difficult time our city needs decent men who could form the basis of self-defense groups, and in the future the municipal police. We are ready to provide for them if they join us in our struggle, and to offer safety to their families.”
In Kiev, interim authorities said they are prepared to ask the approval of a self-organized Maidan council Wednesday evening for a slate of new cabinet ministers.
The parliament has decided that the people who maintained the protest encampment through three sometimes violent months must be allowed a say in the formation of a new government.
That means the new authorities have been held back from moving too swiftly. But as days go by, Ukraine remains deeply unsettled by the overthrow of Yanukovych.
In Kharkiv, a large eastern city where hostility to the Maidan protesters was strong, tensions ran high as rival crowds faced off, with no one seemingly in charge. In the Crimea, with a strong pro-Russian population, a Russian flag was raised on a major government building and four Russian legislators met with local officials. Then came the invitation to the Berkut.
Officials in Moscow continued Tuesday to express displeasure with events in Ukraine, if not as harshly as the day before. A law that flew through the Ukrainian parliament on Monday downgraded the status of Russian as an official language, which struck critics as an unnecessary and incendiary move and opened Ukraine’s new authorities to stinging criticism from their larger neighbor.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, tweeted Tuesday, “We want to curtail the influence of radicals and nationalists who are trying to play first fiddle in Ukraine.”
The turn of events in Ukraine has been a major setback for Putin, who wants to draw Ukraine into a new Eurasian Economic Union. But protesters on the Maidan worry that Russia still hopes to recoup its losses.
“There are an awful lot of bandits here,” said Viktoria Ignatova, “and Putin wants to get them back into power.”
Moscow argues that the Ukrainian protests have been taken over by extremists. But on the Maidan there were sharp fears that the revolution was being sold out.
Activists were unhappy with the roster of veteran politicians who were being mentioned for top posts in a new government. And one very familiar face was missing Tuesday — the giant poster with a portrait of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and arch-foe of Yanukovych, had been taken down.
Her release from prison Saturday had turned her into a player again, instead of a cause, and she is no longer a uniting factor among what until a few days ago was the opposition. Her party, in any case, said she will go to Germany for medical treatment.
“We need totally new people,” said Yaroslav Kazmyrchuk, 70, who described himself as a pensioner and a revolutionary.
A Maidan council has been established by a group of prominent activists to consult on ministerial choices. It wants to veto any candidate who is rich, who worked for Yanukovych, or who was involved in human rights abuses.
The Maidan had a full crowd Tuesday, as Kievans laid flowers at shrines to the dead built from stacked paving stones and snapped photos of the barricades of rubble that had held back the police. More than 80 people were killed in the violence last week as police cracked down on the demonstrators.
Kazmyrchuk said the camp protest there would continue until it was clear that all the “bandits” would be removed from power.
There was still no conclusive word Tuesday on the whereabouts of Yanukovych, a day after the authorities here announced a nationwide manhunt for him on murder charges.
But a top aide, Andriy Kluyev, who was thought to have been with Yanukovych, was reported by his press secretary to have been shot and wounded — where and when were not clear.
While the parliament was putting off a vote on a new government, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, met with the interim leaders and asked for a financial reform plan, which would open the way to E.U. loans.
Ukraine’s economy is in dire shape, and the new authorities said they have found the government’s coffers almost bare.
In Kharkiv, where nationalists seized the local government building over the weekend, an opposing crowd had gathered around a huge statue of Lenin across the main square, to protect it from assault.
The nationalists wear the red arm bands of the right-wing Pravy Sektor movement that was the militant backbone of the Maidan protests. Those defending the Lenin statue flew the black and orange Saint George flag commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Neither Mikhail Dobkin, the governor of Kharkiv region, who said he would run in the presidential election in May, nor his deputy, Valentin Dulub, has been seen since the weekend.
Yet local government employees continue to show up for work, picking their way through the motley crowds roaming the ground floor of the building on their way to their offices.
All over Ukraine, in fact, the wheels kept turning. The Daily Bulletin of the Council of Ministers was published as usual Tuesday, even if there aren’t any government ministers at the moment. It contained a few nods to the crisis but also announced the construction of 743 locomotives last month, a new transport agreement with Turkey, a plan to build a bridge across the Dnieper River next year, and a 5.3 percent increase in natural gas extraction.
Ukraine has a vast bureaucracy, and it would take more than the overthrow of a president to bring it to a halt.
Source: The Washington Post