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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
KYIV/SIMFEROPOL (BosNewsLife)– Troops of the NATO military alliance and Russian forces are holding war games at different sides of the border with Ukraine, amid mounting concerns of a possible new Cold War between the West and Russia.
Shooting their way close to a crisis zone, more than 8,000 Russian troops are massing near the border with Ukraine.
In Rostov-on-Don where the ousted Ukrainian president Yanukovych has been staying, riffles, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades are used for war games.
The show of force comes just days before voters on Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula will decide whether to join Russia in a controversial referendum.
Thousands of Russian forces already control Crimea, prompting the European Union and the United States to threaten with sanctions against Russia as early as Monday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear his country will retaliate.
He said: “I would like to stress that Russia was not the initiator of the circumstances that we are talking about…”
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said he is ready to talk with Russia, but, he warned: “We fight for our freedom, we fight for our independence, we fight for our sovereignty and we will never surrender.”
Just across the other side of Ukraine, NATO is reacting to Russian military actions, with surveillance flights over Poland and Romania.
The United States also sent fighter jets to take part in the exercise.
The flights happen amid worries in Ukraine’s neighboring countries about the security situation and possible impact on energy supplies from Russia, on which they are heavily dependent.
Foreign Ministers from Germany and the Visegrad Group — Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia — gathered in Budapest Thursday to discuss the crisis.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned Moscow that it risks “massive” political and economic damage if it refuses to change course on Ukraine and if the March 16 referendum goes ahead.
She told Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, that “The territorial integrity of Ukraine cannot be called into question” a view shared by the EU and the G7 countries. She said, “If Russia continues its course of the last few weeks, it would not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine but also for neighbors who view it as a threat.”
Merkel added that, “It would change the European Union’s relationship with Russia and cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.”
Her vice chancellor Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel went even further. He said it was in President Vladimir Putin’s “hands whether the Cold War era returned” and the weekend referendum in Crimea, likely to violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity, would bring a second stage of EU sanctions on Moscow.