(Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin put 150,000 Russian combat troops on high alert for war games near Ukraine on Wednesday, the Kremlin’s boldest gesture yet after days of sabre rattling since its ally Viktor Yanukovich was toppled as president in Kiev.

Moscow denied that the previously unannounced drill in the western military district near Ukraine was linked to events in its neighbor but it came amid a series of increasingly strident statements about the fate of Russian citizens and interests.

With the political turmoil hammering Ukraine’s economy, the central bank said it would no longer intervene to shield the hryvnia currency, which tumbled 4 percent on Wednesday and is now down a fifth since January 1. Wednesday’s abrupt abandonment of Ukraine’s currency peg sent ripples to Russia where the rouble fell to five-year lows and bank shares fell.

Thousands of ethnic Russians, who form the majority in Ukraine’s Crimea region, demonstrated for independence. They scuffled with rival demonstrators supporting the new Kiev authorities. The Crimea is home to part of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which Moscow said it was taking steps to secure.

One person died in the Crimea protest, apparently of a heart attack during a crush of the crowd, Interfax news agency reported. A Reuters correspondent on the scene reported surging crowds and scuffles but no major violence.

NATO defense ministers, meeting in Brussels, issued a statement supporting “Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, territorial integrity, democratic development, and the principle of inviolability of frontiers”. Their statement made no direct mention of the Russian war games.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia should respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and be “very careful” in its judgments toward its neighbor.

“What we need now to do is not get into an old, Cold War confrontation,” he said on MSNBC television… see more

source: reuters