Russia's military started large-scale aviation exercises in the northwest on Wednesday, officials said, close to Baltic ex-Soviet republics that are members of NATO and wary of Russia after its annexation of Crimea.
The exercises involving jet fighters and bombers were being conducted in regions that do not border Ukraine. A senior Russian military source said they had been planned in December and had no political significance.
Interfax reported that the drills would involve more than 40 Sukhoi and MiG warplanes and were being held in regions including Leningrad, which borders NATO-member Estonia and Finland, and Karelia, which shares a long border with Finland.
The drill ends in late March, it cited a spokesman for the Western Military District, Colonel Oleg Kochetkov, as saying. Russia has held major military exercises in regions near Ukraine twice in recent weeks, raising concern in Kiev and the West that Moscow could have designs on eastern Ukrainian regions where there are many Russian speakers.
President Vladimir Putin sought to assuage those fears on Tuesday, saying Russia did not want to take over other regions or partition Ukraine. But he has reserved the right to send in the military to protect Russians there if needed.
Russia sent thousands of soldiers to Crimea in the buildup to a weekend referendum in which the Russian-majority region voted overwhelmingly to leave Ukraine and join Moscow. Ukraine and Western governments have dismissed the referendum as a sham.
The United States has emphasised NATO's collective commitment to protect member states, sending F-16 fighter jets to Poland for drills last week and holding joint exercises with other allies that were once Soviet satellites. In Warsaw on Tuesday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden accused Russia of a "land grab" in Crimea and said the United States may conduct more drills with NATO allies in the region.
GENEVA - Russia signaled concern on Wednesday at Estonia's treatment of its large ethnic Russian minority, comparing language policy in the Baltic state with what it said was a call in Ukraine to prevent the use of Russian.
Russia has defended its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula by arguing it has the right to protect Russian-speakers outside its borders, so the reference to linguistic tensions in another former Soviet republic comes at a highly sensitive moment.
Russia fully supported the protection of the rights of linguistic minorities, a Moscow diplomat told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, according to a summary of the session issued by the U.N.'s information department. "Language should not be used to segregate and isolate groups," the diplomat was reported as saying. Russia was "concerned by steps taken in this regard in Estonia as well as in Ukraine," the Moscow envoy was said to have added.
The text of the Russian remarks, echoing long-standing complaints over Estonia's insistence that the large Russian minority in the east of the country should be able to speak Estonian, was not immediately available. But amid the growing Crimea crisis, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - which like Ukraine were all parts of the old Soviet Union - have expressed growing apprehension over Moscow's intentions.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius as part of a trip to reassure the three countries, all European Union and NATO members, of Washington's support. Ukraine told the rights council that U.N. experts had found no credible evidence of mistreatment of its Russian minority as alleged by Moscow -- one of whose pro-Kremlin newspapers said this week there was "bloodshed almost like in Syria" in the east of the country.
The new government in Kiev, a Ukrainian envoy declared, was reinvigorating its promotion and protection of the rights of minorities "to the highest international standards".
The envoy asked what measures could be taken to protect Ukrainian, Crimean Tatar and other minority groups in Crimea "whose rights are being violated under the Russian occupation." Responding, the Russian delegate said there were no violations of minority rights in Crimea and minorities were not being persecuted. The new Russian-backed government there had guaranteed protection of the Tatars.