A senior Ukrainian security official warned the country faces the threat of a "full-scale" invasion by Russian troops and that Kiev could be overrun in a matter of hours.
Andriy Parubiy, the secretary of the National Security and National Defence Committee, also said Wednesday that the government is preparing for a possible flood of refugees from Crimea after Sunday's referendum in the territory on joining Russia.
His comments came as Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk meets U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington in an effort to show solidarity with the new government. Mr. Yatsenyuk is expected to ask for economic and military help. Meanwhile Russia and Crimean officials ploughed ahead with plans to annex the territory after Sunday's vote, saying Wednesday that the local government will begin taking over Ukrainian government assets within days.
During a press conference in Kiev on Wednesday, Mr. Parubiy said Russia has amassed 80,000 troops, 280 tanks and 170 aircraft along the border with Ukraine. "And they are adding to this military potential," he said. "We have a critical situation on the entire southeastern border. The Russian army is only a two to three hour [distance] from Kiev."
He said the government is mobilizing troops to prepare for a possible invasion but acknowledged that the state of the country's military is weak. The armed forces lack fuel, other critical supplies and has only 6,000 combat-ready troops. All of its bases in Crimea have also been surrounded by Russian soldiers.
To help boost the military, the government is expected to adopt a law on Thursday to create a National Guard. The new force will be run out of the Interior Ministry and it will have more power than current Interior forces. About 20,000 volunteers will be trained within days of the legislation being adopted, Mr. Parubiy said. "We call upon everybody who wants to serve Ukraine to join the National Guard," he said.
There are concerns the National Guard could be filled with right-wing groups such as Right Sector which were part of the protest movement in Kiev, known as Maidan, and led much of its security work. Mr. Parubiy said he was inviting all groups "that were in Maidan and who were concerned with security in Maidan" to join the National Guard. However, he said they will weed out criminal elements who were "masquerading as self-defence groups" in Maidan.
With the referendum vote just days away, tensions have been increasing inside Ukraine and Crimea. Mr. Parubiy said Ukrainian border officials have stopped about 3,600 Russians from entering the country because officials believed they had been sent to stir up trouble in eastern regions which have a high proportion of Russian-speaking people. Crimea has also accused the Kiev government and Maidan protesters of sending "provocateurs" to disrupt the referendum vote.
So far only a few hundred people have left Crimea, but Mr. Parubiy said the government is bracing for more refugees after the referendum, which is widely expected to be in favour of Crimea joining Russia. He did not say what will happen to Ukrainian troops in Crimea or whether they will be evacuated.
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