SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Russia conducted new military maneuvers near its border with Ukraine on Thursday, and President Vladimir Putin said the world shouldn't blame his country for what he called Ukraine's "internal crisis."
In Crimea, where the public will vote Sunday on whether to break away from Ukraine and become part of Russia, jittery residents lined up at banks to withdraw cash from their accounts amid uncertainty over the future of the peninsula, which Russian troops now control. Violence engulfed the eastern Donetsk region, where clashes between pro-Russia demonstrators and supporters of the Ukrainian government left at least one person dead.
"These people are afraid their bank will collapse and no one wants to lose their money," said resident Tatiana Sivukhina. "Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet in London today in a last-ditch bid to end the international standoff over the Crimean referendum, which Ukraine and the West have rejected as illegitimate.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel sharply criticized Russia, saying the territorial integrity of Ukraine cannot be compromised.
Speaking to Germany's Parliament, Merkel said Russia risks "massive" political and economic consequences over the crisis. She said the only way out is through diplomacy and that "the use of the military is no option."
On Wednesday, Moscow rejected the Ukrainian government's claim that a massive Russian military buildup near the countries' border was raising the threat of a possible invasion.
But on Thursday Russia's Defense Ministry said thousands of Russian troops in the regions of Rostov, Belgorod, Kursk and Tambov bordering Ukraine are involved in the exercises, which will continue until the end of the month.
Amateur photographs appeared to show columns of armored vehicles and trucks in the border village of Lopan, 30 miles from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
In the southern Rostov region, the maneuvers involved parachuting in 1,500 troops, the ministry said. The drills included the military conducting large artillery exercises involving 8,500 soldiers and artillery and rocket systems in the south.
The United States has sent additional fighter jets to Poland and Lithuania. Russian responded Thursday by deploying six fighter jets to Belarus, its ally.