WASHINGTON  - The White House on Thursday reinforced US warnings to Russia that it must avoid “miscalculations” in military drills along the border of troubled Ukraine.

The comments, which built upon statements by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, appeared to reflect Washington’s concern that Russian maneuvers near the ex-Soviet state could trigger events which may get out of control. “We are closely watching Russia’s military exercises along the Ukraine border,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

“We expect Russia to be transparent about these activities and to avoid provocative actions,” Carney said, adding that Moscow should not take steps that could be misinterpreted or lead to “miscalculations during a very delicate time.” Russia ordered military exercises earlier this week, as political tensions in the region soared following the ouster of the Russian-backed president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych. Hagel had earlier said at Nato meetings in Brussels that Russia needed to be transparent about its activities and used language later echoed by Carney.

The White House on Thursday also welcomed the decision by Ukraine’s parliament to name a new government under Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. It also dismissed Yanukovych’s defiant claim to Russian news agencies from an undisclosed location that he was still president. “Wherever he is, he has clearly left Kiev, left his office and abdicated his responsibilities,” Carney said. “The parliament has on the other hand taken responsible action to deal with that void and to deal with the many pressing issues that Ukraine faces.”

Ukraine issued a blunt warning to Russia on Thursday after dozens of pro-Kremlin gunmen in combat fatigues seized parliament and government buildings on the volatile Crimean peninsula and Moscow said it was protecting the ousted leader.

The dawn raid came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin stoked fears of Moscow using its military might to sway the outcome of Ukraine’s three-month standoff by ordering snap combat readiness drills near the border with the ex-Soviet state.

Interim president Oleksandr Turchynov responded by telling a boisterous parliament session that any movement of Russian troops out of their Black Sea bases in Crimea “will be considered as military aggression”.

Ukraine’s bloodiest crisis since its 1991 independence erupted in November when Viktor Yanukovych — deposed as president last weekend — made the shock decision to ditch an historic EU trade deal in favour of closer ties with old master Russia. Yanukovych broke a five-day silence by telling Russian news agencies from an undisclosed location he still viewed himself as president of the strategic but now splintered nation that has served as the geopolitical bridge between Russia and the West. A high-ranking source quoted by the news agencies said the fugitive leader’s request for personal security had been “granted on Russian territory” but provided no other details.

Ukraine had appeared to take a decisive swing back toward the European Union by ousting Yanukovych’s entire pro-Russian team and replacing it with a new brand of younger pro-Western politicians who will steer the nation — torn between a Russified east and pro-European west — until snap presidential polls are held on May 25. The 450-seat Verkhovna Rada parliament on Thursday confirmed opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko’s top ally Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister by a 371-0 vote. “Ukraine is being torn apart,” a sombre Yatsenyuk told the session. “But Ukraine sees its future in Europe. We will be a part of the European Union.”

 Russian flag flies in Crimea

The Russian tricolour flag was flying over both the Crimean parliament and government buildings in the regional capital Simferopol as supporters of Moscow rule arrived from other parts of the peninsula by car and bus.

The Black Sea autonomous region’s prime minister Anatoliy Mohilyov told AFP that up to 50 men with weapons had seized the buildings and were preventing government workers going inside.

But his predecessor Serhiy Kunitsyn told lawmakers in Kiev that his contacts in Crimea said the raid involved “about 120 well-trained gunmen armed with sniper rifles... and carrying enough ammunition to last them a month”.

Ukraine’s interim interior minister Arsen Avakov said internal security troops and the entire police force had been put on heightened alert. The prosecutor general’s office announced separately it had launched a criminal probe into a suspected “act of terrorism” by the gunmen.

AFP correspondents in Simferopol said about 20 police had cordoned off the area after moving a crowd of about 400 pro-Russian onlookers away from the direct vicinity of the seige. “We hope that the (Ukrainian) nationalists in Kiev do not come here,” said Russian-speaking pensioner Sergei Vladimirovich. The international response to the Crimean standoff was swift and mostly critical of Russia.