Vladimir Putin today presided over military exercises that simulated what the AP calls a "massive retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack," further stoking tensions simmering in Ukraine. Putin said the drills had been planned since November, and the move comes a day after he said he had pulled Russian troops back from the Ukraine border—though US and NATO intel indicates nothing to confirm that actually happened (more on that below). And though the BBC reports that Putin yesterday struck a seemingly softer tone, calling on pro-Russia separatists to delay a referendum on autonomy set for Sunday, that request fell on deaf ears. Separatist leaders in Donetsk announced today that they're going ahead with the referendum anyway. "They feel that this is the people's choice—that they respect Mr. Putin, but this path of a referendum will lead to the peace that Mr. Putin wants," reports NPR's correspondent in the city. Elsewhere:
- Confusion and disbelief continues among rebels over Putin's call for a delay, the Guardian finds. One militia member in Slovyansk described Putin as a coward. "Instead of helping Russian people here, he is betraying us," he says. "He will pay for this with a revolution in Red Square. Russian people will not stand by and watch this happen."
- NATO, the Pentagon, and the White House say they've seen no sign of Putin pulling back troops, reports Reuters. "We would certainly welcome a meaningful and transparent withdrawal," a White House spokesman says. "To date, there has been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place."
- Western governments are still pretty skeptical about Putin's intentions, especially considering what happened in Crimea, the New York Times reports. Analysts suspect Putin wants to avoid chaos—and an expensive, bloody invasion—while still keeping eastern Ukraine in Moscow's orbit. "He really promised nothing," a political commentator in Moscow says. "He demonstrated that he controls the level of tension in Ukraine. He can return the situation to the high levels of violence at any moment. He did not refuse the referendum, but only proposed delaying it."