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Military is 'ready to protect Ukraine'

Ukrainian acting president dons combat uniform, declaring that the army is ready to protect the people.

PT1M6S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-34t6g 620 349

Update: The United States and Russia have failed to resolve a Cold-War-style crisis sparked by Moscow's intervention in Crimea and the Ukrainian peninsula's referendum on joining Kremlin rule.

US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London with little hope Sunday's Moscow-backed referendum in Crimea could be averted or delayed.

The talks lasted six hours and failed to end the Ukraine stand-off. 

On the march: Russian troops near the Crimean city of Simferopol.

On the march: Russian troops near the Crimean city of Simferopol. Photo: Reuters

US officials say they still expect Moscow to avoid taking the extra step of actually annexing the region in a move that would escalate the biggest East-West showdown since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.

Lavrov says Russia and the West don't have a common vision of the situation but Moscow does not have any plans to invade Crimea.

Meanwhile, Russia shipped more troops and armour into Crimea on Friday and repeated its threat to invade other parts of Ukraine, showing no sign of listening to Western pleas to back off from the worst confrontation since the Cold War.

Russia's stock markets tumbled and the cost of insuring its debt soared on the last day of trading before pro-Moscow authorities in Crimea hold a vote to join Russia, a move all but certain to lead to US and EU sanctions on Monday.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, responding to the death of at least one protester in Ukraine's eastern city of Donetsk, repeated President Vladimir Putin's declaration of the right to invade to protect Russian citizens and "compatriots".

"Russia is aware of its responsibility for the lives of compatriots and fellow citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take people under its protection," it said.

Ukrainian health authorities say one 22-year-old man was stabbed to death and at least 15 others were being treated in hospital after clashes in Donetsk, the mainly Russian-speaking home city of Ukraine's ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

Organisers of the anti-Moscow demonstration said the dead man was from their group.

Moscow denies that its forces are intervening in Crimea, an assertion Washington ridicules as "Putin's fiction". Journalists have seen Russian forces operating openly in their thousands over the past two weeks, driving in armoured columns of vehicles with Russian licence plates and identifying themselves to besieged Ukrainian troops as members of Russia's armed forces.

A Reuters reporting team watched a Russian warship unload trucks, troops and at least one armoured personnel carrier at Kazachaya bay near Sevastopol on Friday morning. Trucks drove off a ramp from the Yamal 156, a large landing ship that can carry more than 300 troops and up to a dozen APCs.

Russian troops seized the southern Ukrainian region two weeks ago as a pro-Moscow regional government took power there. The new regional authorities intend to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a vote described in the West as illegal.

"What we would like to see is a commitment to stop putting new facts on the ground and a commitment to engage seriously on ways to de-escalate the conflict, to bring Russian forces back to barracks, to use international observers in place of force to achieve legitimate political and human rights objectives," a US State Department official said ahead of Kerry's talks.

But Russia has shown no sign of veering from President Vladimir Putin's plan to annex Crimea.

Putin declared on March 1 that Russia had the right to invade its neighbour, a week after its ally Yanukovych fled the Ukrainian capital following three months of demonstrations that ended with about 100 people killed in the final days.

In further signs of Moscow's belligerent posture ahead of the Crimea vote, the Defence Ministry announced on Friday it would hold exercises with fighter jets and helicopters over the Mediterranean Sea. On Thursday it announced artillery drills near Ukraine's border.

U.S. and EU sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes on Russian officials and their firms, are now seen as inevitable. The only mystery remaining is who will be on the lists of targets when they are agreed at the start of next week.

US and European officials say the targets will not include Putin or Lavrov, but will include senior figures in the government and members of parliament in an effort to impose hardship on Russia's elite for backing Putin's policies.

The initial list would be just a start, with more individuals and companies to be added later, and further trade sanctions could follow. Germany's Bild newspaper said the initial EU list would include at least 13 officials including top ministers and people around Putin.

Russia's MICEX stock index was down 2.9 percent at 0930 GMT, having lost more than 16 per cent of its value in the two weeks since Putin declared his right to invade. At one point in the morning it had fallen 5 per cent to its lowest since 2009.

The cost of insuring Russia's debt against default for five years rose 18 basis points to 285 - a rise of nearly 7 per cent - and is now up by half since the crisis began.

Although Russian public opinion, fed by overwhelmingly state-controlled media, is still solidly behind the plan to annex Crimea, Western countries believe sanctions could undermine support for Putin among the wealthy elite.

Goldman Sachs lowered its prediction for Russian economic growth for this year to 1 per cent from 3 per cent on Thursday, blaming the Ukraine crisis for sparking capital flight that will destroy investment.

Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin told Russian media that the threat of Western sanctions was already imposing higher borrowing costs on Russian businesses and that further sanctions would push capital flight to $US50 billion a quarter.

Renaissance Capital estimated capital outflow in the first quarter would exceed $US55 billion, compared with $US63 billion for the whole of 2013.

The rouble has declined only slightly despite the rout in share prices, held aloft by a central bank that raised its lending rates on March 3 and has been spending reserves to keep the currency from falling.

Putin's March 1 declaration of the right to invade was accompanied by demonstrations across the south and east by groups who raised Russian flags, seized buildings and convened regional legislative sessions demanding secession, in what Kiev called Kremlin-orchestrated bids to repeat the Crimea scenario.

The most persistent pro-Moscow agitation has been in Donetsk, where the Russian flag was flown above the regional government headquarters for nearly a week and pro-Russian protesters occupied the building for days. Their leader, who had declared himself "people's governor" and demanded police report to him, was finally arrested last week. 

Reuters

What's happened so far

NOVEMBER 2013

21: Ukrainian authorities suspend talks on a trade pact with the European Union in favour of closer relations with Russia, sparking protests by pro-European opposition groups three days later.

DECEMBER

1: Up to 500,000 demonstrators march through Kiev demanding new elections before pouring into Independence Square, where they set up camp and build barricades.

JANUARY 2014

19-22: Dozens are wounded in urban guerrilla fighting between police and protesters after the government adopts new laws to restrict protests. By the end of the month the casualty toll stands at four dead and more than 500 injured.

FEBRUARY

4: Protesters demand the return of 2004 constitution, which limits the government's powers. Drafted during the Orange Revolution, it was annulled after Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010.

18-20: Riot police launch an assault on protesters in Kiev, sparking riots during which crowds charge a police line on Independence Square. At least 83 people are killed, including 15 police officers. The death toll linked to the escalating violence nears 100.

22: Parliament impeaches Yanukovych and he flees Kiev. Presidential elections are planned for May 25.

Opposition figure Yulia Tymoshenko is released from prison.

23: Parliament elects Tymoshenko ally Oleksandr Turchynov as interim president.

26: Russia rejects Ukraine's new leadership and puts armed forces on high alert.

Pro-Russian demonstrators brawl with supporters of Kiev's interim authorities in Simferopol, capital of the Russian-speaking peninsula of Crimea.

27: Pro-Russian gunmen seize parliament and government buildings in Simferopol, raising the Russian flag. Pro-Russian soldiers move to storm airports and isolate Ukrainian military bases on the peninsula.

28: The Ukrainian interior minister denounces the "armed invasion" by Russian forces, which are now in de facto control of the peninsula.

MARCH

4: Putin denies Russia has sent troops, says force only to be used as a last resort. US President Barack Obama claims Putin is "not fooling anybody".

6: Pro-Moscow officials in Crimea ask Putin to examine a request to join the Russian Federation and plan an independence referendum for March 16.

The United States slaps visa bans on Russians and Ukrainians it blames for destabilising Ukraine.

The EU holds a summit on crisis, saying it could sign an association accord with Kiev before the May 25 elections.

9: Putin claims the measures taken by officials in Crimea respect international law.

11: Crimean regional parliament adopts a "declaration of independence".

12: Obama receives Yatsenyuk at the White House.

13: Ukraine moves to mobilise a volunteer force. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warns Moscow of potentially "massive" long-term economic and political damage.

Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Czhemilev calls for a boycott of the referendum and a NATO intervention to avert a "massacre" in Crimea.

AFP, AAP