Russia ordered surprise military exercises on Ukraine's doorstep Wednesday as tensions in that country's southern Crimea region simmered, with pro-Russian demonstrators facing off against rival protesters in the city of Simferopol.
As the mood soured among the thousands rallying in front of the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol, some scuffles broke out.
One group waved Ukrainian flags and shouted "Crimea is not Russia," while the other held Russian flags aloft and shouted "Crimea is Russia," images broadcast by Crimean TV channel ATR showed. As the crowd became more agitated, a line of police moved in to divide the groups.
Local leaders sought to calm the mood, urging the protesters to go home and resist provocations.
One man died around the time of the protests in front of Parliament, the Crimean Ministry of Health said on its website. The man had no visible signs of injury, and early indications point to a heart attack, it said. Seven people sought medical help.
The demonstrations signal the broad divide between those who support what is going on in Kiev, where the new government is leaning toward the West, and those who back Russia's continued influence in Crimea and across Ukraine.
In the capital Wednesday, the names of nominees for the country's new unity government were read to the crowd in Independence Square. Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk was named as a nominee for interim prime minister, while activist Dmytro Bulatov was put forward as sports minister. Candidates are expected to be voted on in Parliament Thursday.
Russia's foreign minister has vowed not to intervene militarily in Ukraine.
But with tensions in the region high, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered surprise military exercises.
The exercises are "to check combat readiness of armed forces in western and central military districts as well as several branches of the armed forces," Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu was quoted as saying by state media.
Shoigu did not mention Ukraine, which lies to Russia's west, but the timing of the move has prompted speculation about the motivation.
Ukraine's Ministry of Defense declined to comment on the exercises since they are on Russian territory.
U.S. military intelligence has seen some Russian naval ship movement near Ukraine since the weekend, but it sees no immediate indication the Russians are preparing for any offensive military action in Ukraine, two U.S. officials said.
Instead, the officials said intelligence suggests Russia is "repositioning" up to half a dozen Russian ships near the Ukrainian port city of Sevastapol in case they're needed to respond if Russian interests are threatened.
"They want to have their assets more accessible if needed," one official said. "This will allow for an expedited response."
Sevastapol is home to Russia's Black Sea fleet, so the ships could be used, if needed, to protect the base, Russian military assets and personnel, and Russian citizens around Sevastapol, the U.S. officials said.
About 60% of the population in the city is Russian.
The White House urged "outside actors" to respect Ukraine's sovereignty.
"We urge outside actors in the region to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and end provocative rhetoric and (take) actions to support democratically established transitional government structures and use their influence in support of unity, peace and an inclusive path forward," Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
Russia held at least six snap combat readiness checks of its armed forces last year, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency said.