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Standoff between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers

Video shows the dramatic moments of a tense standoff between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian forces who took control of an airbase in Crimea.

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Ukraine crisis: Latest news

Moscow: Russia said it had successfully test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday, with tensions already high over its seizure of control in Crimea and its threat to send more forces into neighbouring Ukraine.

Russia's 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 near the Volga River is about 450 kilometres east of the Ukrainian border.

Defiant: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Defiant: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters

Russia and the US signed the latest of a series of treaties restricting the numbers of ICBMs in 2010, but Moscow has indicated it will agree to further cuts in the near future and is taking steps to upgrade its nuclear arsenal.

President Vladimir Putin has emphasised that Russia must maintain a strong nuclear deterrent, in part because of an anti-missile shield the US is building in Europe, which Moscow says could undermine its security.

The US received proper Russian notification ahead of its ICBM test-fire, a US official said.

Russia has test-fired a Topol nuclear-capable missile.

Russia has test-fired a Topol nuclear-capable missile. Photo: Reuters

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 over 10,000 kilometres. 

The launch follows Russia's decision to send troops into the southern Ukraine region of Crimea, with Moscow claiming that the lives of ethnic Russians there were threatened by the political upheaval in Ukraine.

Mr Putin, in his first comments since the crisis in Ukraine boiled over, said on Tuesday that he saw no reason for Russia's army to intervene in eastern Ukraine at the moment, but left open the possibility of military action, saying that Russia "reserves the right to use all means at our disposal to protect" Russian speakers in the country's south and east if they are in danger.

"We are not going to fight with the Ukrainian people," he said. "I want you to understand me clearly. If we make such a decision, it will only be for the protection of Ukrainian citizens. And god forbid if any of the servicemen tries to shoot their own people, we will be standing behind them - not in front, but behind. Let them try to shoot women and children!"

Speaking defiantly at an hour-long, unscripted news conference in Moscow at which he described events in Ukraine as an "unconstitutional coup", Mr Putin denied that Russian troops had occupied Crimea and laid blame for the crisis on the US, which he said had interfered in Ukraine "from across the pond in America as if they were sitting in a laboratory and running experiments on rats, without any understanding of the consequences".

Clearly furious, Mr Putin delivered a version of the crisis almost entirely at odds with the view held by most officials in Europe and the US, as well as by many Ukrainians. He described anti-government protests in Kiev as an "orgy" of radicals and nationalists, noting a swastika armband that he had glimpsed in images of the crowd. He also insisted that ousted president Viktor Yanukovych had never ordered security forces to shoot protesters, suggesting that snipers stationed on rooftops "may have been provocateurs from opposition parties".

Mr Putin said Mr Yanukovych's fatal mistake had been to order security forces to withdraw from the site of the protests after days of bloodshed, while the sides were engaged in negotiations, and that he had warned him not to do so. He said Russia had then stepped in to assist Mr Yanukovych, but did so for humanitarian reasons, "because death is the simplest way to get rid of the legitimate president, and it would have happened. I think he would have been probably killed."

And he expressed confidence that the crisis would not boil over into war, because, as he put it, Ukrainian and Russian soldiers are "brothers in arms".

"I am convinced that Ukrainian personnel and Russian personnel will not be on different sides of the barricades, they will be on the same side of the barricades," he said. "There has not been a shot fired in Crimea. The tense situation in Crimea, related to the possibility of the use of force, has been exhausted. There was no necessity of that."

Reuters, New York Times