BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Britain will pay attention to Russian military activities and opposes outside interference in Ukraine, the British defense secretary said on Wednesday after Moscow ordered an urgent drill to test its armed forces across western Russia.
“We will certainly, obviously, want to take proper cognizance of any activities by Russian forces,” Philip Hammond told reporters when asked about President Vladimir Putin’s order.
“We would urge all parties to allow the Ukrainian people to settle their internal differences and then to determine their own future without external interference,” he said, speaking before a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers which will discuss the situation in Ukraine.
Putin earlier ordered an urgent drill to test the combat readiness of the armed forces across western Russia, flexing Moscow’s military muscle amid tension with the West over Ukraine, Interfax news agency reported.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was driven from power over the weekend after months of political turmoil sparked by his decision to spurn deals with the European Union and improve ties with Russia.
The United States and European nations have warned Russia against military intervention in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that Putin wants to be part of a Eurasian Union he is building in the region.
Russian officials have said Moscow will not interfere in Ukraine, while accusing the West of doing so.
Ukraine is not currently seeking membership of NATO but does participate in the Western military alliance’s operations, including in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Hammond said he was pleased Ukraine’s armed forces were “behaving professionally” during the crisis. “We will certainly be encouraging them to continue to do so,” he said.
Speaking before the report of the Russian military drill emerged, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged other nations to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“It’s for the Ukrainian people to determine what should be the future of their country. 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,” Rasmussen said, when asked if he had been in contact with Russia over Ukraine.
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Berlin was following the situation in Ukraine with concern.
“We have to do everything for Ukraine to get back to stability. The country must not fall apart,” she said, adding that there would be no solution to the crisis without Russia.
Reporting by Adrian Croft, Tom Koerkemeier; editing by Justyna Pawlak and Angus MacSwan