World Bulletin/News Desk
President Vladimir Putin on Friday said Russia's takeover of Crimea showed off its military prowess, as his defence minister reported that the Russian flag was now flying over all military sites on the Black Sea peninsula.
"The recent events in Crimea were a serious test," Putin was shown on state television as saying in an echoing and glided Kremlin hall.
"They demonstrated both the completely new capabilities of our Armed Forces and the high morale of the personnel."
A deputy head of the Federal Security Service, Alexander Malevany, told Putin at the meeting active measures were being taken to counter what he called growing Western efforts to weaken the Russian state and curb Moscow's influence in its post-Soviet backyard.
The United States and NATO have voiced alarm over what they say are thousands of Russian troops massed near its western border with Ukraine. Putin has reserved the right to send troops into Ukraine, which is home to a large population of Russian-speakers in the east.
Putin praised Russian troops for "avoiding bloodshed" in Crimea, whose largely ethnic Russian citizens overwhelmingly voted to join Russia in a March 16 referendum dismissed in the West as illegal.
Speaking to Ukrainian servicemen who chose to swap sides and swear allegiance to Russia, Putin hinted they would be well rewarded by pointing out that Russian servicemen earned some four times more than their Ukrainian counterparts.
Ukraine's former navy chief, Rear Admiral Denys Berezovsky, has been handed the deputy command of Russia's Black Sea Fleet after his defection.
"The change in state symbols on all ships and in all divisions that have sided with the Russian army has been completed," Shoigu told Putin.
He said warships, war planes and other hardware seized from troops loyal to Kiev will be returned to Ukraine, which could help Russia avoid a potentially costly legal battle in international arbitration courts.
The Foreign Ministry also said Moscow would move to annul its lease agreement with Kiev that allowed it to base its Black Sea Fleet on the peninsula.
THREATS FROM THE WEST
Despite signs that tensions with the West may be cooling as a status quo takes shape in Crimea, Malevany warned Putin at Friday's meeting that Moscow faces growing threats from the United States and its allies, who are trying to weaken Russia's influence on Ukraine.
"There has been a sharp increase in external threats to the state," he said. "The lawful desire of the peoples of Crimea and eastern Ukrainian regions is causing hysteria in the United States and its allies."
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday that Russia's troop buildup near Ukraine's eastern border may be more than just an effort to intimidate Ukraine and urged Moscow to pull forces back to ease tension.
Putin has received permission from parliament to send the armed forces into Ukraine if necessary, raising concerns he could cite alleged threats to Russian-speakers in eastern regions as grounds for intervention there.
The Foreign Ministry has fuelled such concerns with near daily reports that ethnic Russians were being targeted.
"Total ignorance of the interests of Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine is now nothing new but rather a permanent reality," it said on Friday.
It called on international organisations to pay attention to what it called severe violations of the rights of minorities by Ukraine's pro-Western interim government.
Police say both suspects, who resided in Spanish cities of Valladolid and Murcia, were radicalized online
24 journalists stage strike to coincide with Palestinian Journalists Day
Over 99 percent of voters back Jan. 9 as Republika Srpska 'Statehood Day', fuelling fears of independence push from Bosnia
Council official calls for holding ‘consultations’ with view to appointing new heads of top state institutions
A measure making it more difficult for foreign workers to be employed won 58 percent of the vote in a referendum on Sunday in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, which borders Italy.
"Previous statements delivered by his adviser on Israel show a total abandonment of the two-state solution, international law and UN resolutions."
In northern Iraq, meanwhile, army braces for decisive push on ISIL-held city of Mosul
Government troops intensify operations to clear Boko Haram from northeastern Borno state
Congolese security forces battle unidentified militant group in Kasai-Central province
Hollande's visit comes just days after one by his conservative predecessor Sarkozy -- who is hoping to make a comeback as president, with a harsh line on migration a key part of his campaign.
Critics of the referendum have said that it is stoking ethnic tension and is bolstering separatist sentiment within the Bosnian Serb ministate
Hundreds of people in central Mudug region call on Indian government to release 119 Somalis accused of being pirates
Authorities in Azerbaijan are holding a referendum on September 26 over changes to the country's constitution
Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday.
"What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, told the 15-member council.
Bosnian Serbs have voted to maintain a Statehood Day holiday on January 9 in a controversial referendum held in defiance of a high-court ruling from Sarajevo.