Ukraine president, in uniform, says determined to boost military

HONCHARIVSKE, Ukraine Fri Mar 14, 2014 2:57pm EDT

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HONCHARIVSKE, Ukraine (Reuters) - Ukraine's acting president, dressed in combat fatigues as Russia's military tightened its grip on the Crimea peninsula, said on Friday the former Soviet republic was taking every possible measure to strengthen its military.

Oleksander Turchinov, elected by parliament as speaker last month after the removal of a Moscow-backed president, praised troops taking part in exercises north of Kiev, saying they were "carrying out their duties with honor".

"Today at this training site, we saw not some sort of show, but real exercises with tank units and mobile air units essentially working in tandem," the acting head of state and commander-in-chief told the troops during the exercises, about 150 km (90 miles) north of Kiev.

"That is the main conclusion we can make today. At the same time, we are working to strengthen our armed forces and strengthen the newly created National Guard. And I am certain that all the Ukrainian people will help us in this endeavor."

Troops demonstrated an array of weaponry to the media, including tanks, attack helicopters and anti-aircraft and anti-tank missile systems. Similar exercises were held in other parts of the country, military officials said.

Turchinov, who took over as acting president the same day that Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev last month, said on Thursday that a build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine's eastern borders, in addition to Moscow's military takeover of Crimea, showed Russia was "ready to invade ... at any moment".

Later on Friday in Kiev, he said Moscow was seeking to restore the Soviet empire by force: "The conflict has moved to a new level - either our new, young democracy will triumph, or a totalitarian curtain will fall on Ukraine."

Meeting visiting U.S. senator John McCain, Turchinov said it was important Moscow's action met resistance: "Unfortunately, Russia has given not a single signal that a peaceful solution to the conflict is possible.

"Without having any motivation, the Russian authorities will not stop deploying aggression in Crimea and will not pull their troops from the eastern borders of Ukraine," he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied on Friday that the Kremlin had any plans to invade southeastern Ukraine. Earlier, his ministry had said Russia reserved the right to take people under its protection after clashes between demonstrators in the Russian-speaking city of Donetsk left one protester dead.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; Writing by Ron Popeski and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Tom Heneghan) nL6N0MB3JW

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