A truck drives through a checkpoint with a local self-defense unit on the highway between Kherson and Simferopol in the town of Tsyurupinsk, Ukraine's region adjacent to Crimea, March 13, 2014. (REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko)
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Washington warned Russia Thursday it was preparing a "very serious" response together with Europe to a breakaway vote in Ukraine's Crimea that has sparked the most explosive East-West standoff since the Cold War.The tangible danger of war breaking out on the EU's eastern frontier prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to tell Russian President Vladimir Putin his country faced long-term political and economic damage unless he showed an immediate willingness to compromise.U.S. President Barack Obama had a day earlier also thrown his full weight behind the new Ukraine leaders' decision to distance themselves from Putin and seek a closer alliance with the European Union.Ukraine's conventional army of 130,000 soldiers – half of them conscripts with aging equipment – is dwarfed by an 845,000-strong Russian force that is backed by nuclear arms.Russia's tanks and artillery units were training Thursday across three regions neighboring Ukraine while 4,000 paratroopers began performing drills in the region of Rostov.Moscow also confirmed sending six fighters and three transport jets to Belarus in response to NATO's decision to start flying reconnaissance aircraft over Poland and Romania as part of the Western military alliance's attempts to monitor the movement of Russian troops.
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