The United States is sending a dozen F-16 fighter jets to Poland as a part of a training exercise amid continuing tensions between Ukraine and Russia.
Three hundred US service personnel will also be sent to Poland as part of the exercise, the Polish defence ministry said on Sunday. The deployment will be completed by Thursday.
Chuck Hagel, the US Secretary of State for Defence, and his Polish counterpart Tomasz Siemoniak agreed the deployment during a phone call, according to a statement from the Polish ministry.
“The unit will be composed of 12 F-16 planes and will transport 300 soldiers,” defence ministry spokesman Jacek Sonta said.
The fighters had been sent following a request from Poland.
The exercise was originally planned to be smaller but was increased and pushed forward because of the “tense political situation” in Ukraine, added Sonta.
The deployment in Poland comes after Washington announced it was also sending four F-15 planes to Lithuania to strengthen surveillance in the airspace around the Baltic.
According to Lithuania’s defence ministry, the deployment was in response to “Russian aggression in Ukraine and increased military activity in Kaliningrad,” the Russian exclave which borders Poland and Lithuania.
While, Poland has 48 of its own F-16 fighter jets, the Baltic states do not have sufficient air resources and look to NATO to provide protection for its airspace.
Merkel rebukes Putin
German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a strong rebuke to the Russian strongman on Sunday, telling him a planned Crimea referendum on joining the Russian Federation was “illegal” and bemoaning the lack of progress on creating an international diplomatic group to try to resolve the crisis.
In phone conversations with Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, Putin in turn accused Ukraine’s new leaders of failing to rein in “ultra-nationalist and radical forces”.
He also defied Western condemnation of the March 16 referendum, saying the pro-Russian authorities in Crimea organising the vote were legitimate and acting “based on international law”.
Tensions running high in Crimea
In a clear sign of support for Ukraine’s new leaders in the gravest post-Cold War crisis between Russia and the West, US President Barack Obama is to meet interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Wednesday.
Separatist tensions were running high Sunday on the strategic Black Sea peninsula which is now under Moscow’s de facto control.
In Sevastopol, pro-Moscow militants wearing balaclavas and bullet proof vests, joined by Cossacks wielding whips, attacked a small rally for Ukrainian unity.
Thousands of supporters of integration with Russia also seized regional government headquarters in the eastern city of Lugansk and hoisted a Russian flag outside a security service building in Donetsk.
In Kiev, Putin’s top foe Mikahil Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch who spent a decade in Russian prisons, addressed a crowd of thousands on Independence Square – the epicentre of the protests.
An emotional Khodorkovsky said Russia had colluded with the former Ukrainian authorities in violence that claimed 100 lives over three months of demonstrations against ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.
“They told me what the authorities did here. They did this with the agreement of the Russian leadership,” Russia’s former richest man said from a stage.
“I wanted to cry. It is terrifying. This is not my leadership. I want you to know – there is a different Russia,” he said, holding back tears, adding that Russia and Ukraine “have a common European future”.
Yatsenyuk, who heads to Washington this week, vowed Ukraine would not cede “an inch” of its territory to Moscow.
“It is our land,” he told a crowd of several thousand in Kiev.
A senior Russian lawmaker meanwhile said Moscow had set aside $US1.1 billion ($A1.21 billion) in aid for Crimea.