I don’t think this Russian crap is over by any stretch of the imagination. Looks like the internal civil war is starting now – thanks to Russia.
Ukrainian armed forces on Tuesday launched a “special operation” against militiamen in the country’s Russian speaking east, authorities said, recapturing a military airfield from pro-Moscow separatists.
Heavy gunfire could be heard from the airfield at the town of Kramatorsk after a fighter jet swooped low over the area.
Ukrainian troops were seen disembarking from helicopters. A Reuters correspondent in Kramatorsk saw four military helicopters over the airport. Two of these landed and when troops stepped out and walked across the field, locals manning a barricade shouted “Shame! Go back home!”
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksander Turchynov had earlier announced that a military operation was under way to flush pro-Russian separatists out of the government buildings and facilities they have seized in about 10 towns and cities in the east over the last few days.
Turchynov issued a statement saying Ukraine had retaken the airfield in Kramatorsk from pro-Russian militants, while the state security service said an “anti-terrorist” operation was in progress against separatists in the nearby town of Slaviansk.
The operations appeared to mark an escalation of the deepest East-West crisis since the Cold War. The standoff has raised fears in the West and in Kiev that Russia might intervene militarily on behalf of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, following its annexation of the Crimean region last month in response to the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, after weeks of protests.
Russia, US reaction
Earlier, pro-Russian militants who had been holed up in the Kramatorsk police headquarters since Saturday left the building – but a state security official in Kiev said separatists had then taken over the agency’s offices in the town.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday that the United Nations and the international community should condemn the use of force by the Ukrainian authorities in eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin said. In a telephone conversation with Ban, Putin “underscored that the Russian side expects a clear condemnation from the United Nations and the international community of these anti-constitutional actions,” a Kremlin statement said.
The White House said on Tuesday Ukraine’s actions against pro-Russian militiamen in the country’s eastern region are called for because of the threat to law and order in the country.
“The Ukrainian government has the responsibility to provide law and order and these provocations in eastern Ukraine are creating a situation in which the government has to respond,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a briefing. The United States is “seriously considering” new sanctions against Russia, but is not considering providing lethal aid to Ukraine, he said.
The reports of military action in eastern Ukraine caused Russian shares to fall sharply, with the main Moscow indices down about three percent. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave a gloomy assessment, apparently referring to the deaths of at least two people on Sunday when Kyiv unsuccessfully tried to regain control in Slaviansk, about 150 kilometers [90 miles] from the Russian border.
“Blood has once again been spilt in Ukraine. The country is on the brink of civil war,” he said on his Facebook page. Turchynov said an offensive he first announced on Sunday was now in progress after days in which it failed to materialize. “The anti-terrorist operation began during the night in the north of Donetsk region. But it will take place in stages, responsibly, in a considered way. I once again stress: the aim of these operations is to defend the citizens of Ukraine,” he told parliament.
At least 15 armored personnel carriers displaying Ukrainian flags were parked by the side of a road around 50 kilometers [30 miles] north of Slaviansk, witnesses said. Ukrainian troops wearing camouflage gear and armed with automatic weapons and grenade launchers were stationed nearby, with a helicopter and several buses containing interior ministry personnel near the road.
In Slaviansk itself, separatists have seized the local headquarters of the police and state security service.
Outside the police station about a dozen civilians manned barricades of tires and wooden crates. A dozen or so armed Cossacks – paramilitary fighters who claim descent from Saris-era patrolmen – stood guard at the mayor’s offices.
Shops were functioning as usual and bread supplies were normal. In Kyiv, a radical pro-Russian candidate running for Ukrainian presidential elections due next month was beaten up by an angry crowd. Moscow accuses Kiev of provoking the crisis by ignoring the rights of citizens who use Russian as their first language, and has promised to protect them from attack. Russia also stresses the presence of far-right nationalists among Kiev’s new rulers.
However, a United Nations report on Tuesday cast doubt on whether Russian-speakers were seriously threatened, including those in Crimea who voted to join Russia after Moscow forces had already seized control of the Black Sea peninsula. “Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread,” said the report by the U.N. human rights office.
Russia called the report one-sided, politicized and apparently fabricated.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen accused Moscow of involvement in the rebellions. “It is very clear that Russia’s hand is deeply engaged in this,” he told reporters.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Moscow was stirring up the separatists in the east and southeast as a possible prelude to repeating its annexation of Crimea. “Ukraine is spreading lies that Russia is behind the actions in the southeast,” Lavrov said on a visit to China.
Moscow has demanded constitutional change in Ukraine to give more powers to Russian-speaking areas, where most of the country’s heavy industry lies, while the rebels have demanded Crimean-style referendums on secession in their regions. Kyiv opposes anything that might lead to the dismemberment of the country. But in an attempt to undercut the rebels’ demands, Turchynov has held out the prospect of a nationwide referendum on the future shape of the Ukrainian state.
The crisis has also prompted fears that Moscow might turn off gas supplies to Kyiv, disrupting flows to the European Union. Russian exporter Gazprom promised it would remain a reliable supplier to the EU, but German energy company RWE began deliveries to Ukraine on Tuesday – reversing the usual east-west flow in one central European pipeline. Central Europe’s pipeline network is designed to carry Russian gas westwards. But Polish operator Gaz-System said it had reversed the flow to send back 4 million cubic meters per day, the equivalent of 1.5 billion annually – a modest volume compared with Ukraine’s need for more than 50 billion.
Moscow has nearly doubled the price it charges Kyiv this year, and President Vladimir Putin has threatened to halt supplies if Kyiv does not repay more than $2 billion it owes to Gazprom. Putin also has warned EU leaders that this could disrupt their supplies that flow across Ukraine. Ukrainian state energy company Naftogaz said it was ready to pay in full for imported gas from Russia at $268.5 per 1,000 cubic meters, rather than the $485 Moscow has demanded, which is more than it charges rich Western countries for its gas.
Ukrainian Army troops receive munitions at a field on the outskirts of Izyum, Eastern Ukraine, April 15, 2014.
Klitschko urges action
Opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, who helped lead the protests that drove pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from office, urged Turchynov to send Ukrainian armed forces to the region to drive out the separatists.
“Infiltrators and hired people are not the people of Ukraine. Our dialogue with them must be short,” he insisted. “That’s what people in Donbas, Lugansk, Kharkiv, who ask about protection, are expecting from us. People, who came to the parliament today and are standing there right now, demand mobilization to protect their state.”
Moscow denies involvement
Moscow denies claims of Russian agents’ involvement in the protests as “speculations based on unreliable information.” Putin said the protests vented public anger about the Ukrainian government’s reluctance to recognize the interests of Russian speakers in the east.
Moscow accuses Kyiv of provoking the crisis by ignoring the rights of citizens who use Russian as their first language, and has promised to protect them from attack. It also has highlighted the presence of far-right nationalists among Kyiv’s new rulers.
Lavrov had said Moscow will withdraw from an emergency international summit scheduled for Thursday in Geneva if Kyiv uses force in eastern Ukraine.
“Ukraine is spreading lies that Russia is behind the actions in the southeast. This is a total lie that supposes that those residents there are completely incapable of protesting of their own will,” Lavrov said on a visit to China.
Lavrov called on Kyiv to hold back before a meeting between Russia, the European Union, the United States, and Ukraine planned for Geneva on Thursday. “You can’t send in tanks and at the same time hold talks,” he said. “The use of force would sabotage the opportunity offered by the four-party negotiations in Geneva.”
Moscow says it wants constitutional change in Ukraine to give more powers to Russian-speaking areas, where most of the country’s heavy industry lies, while the secessionists have demanded Crimean-style referendums in their regions.
Kyiv opposes anything that might lead to the dismemberment of the country. But in an attempt to undercut the rebels’ demands, Turchynov has held out the prospect of a nationwide referendum on the future shape of the Ukrainian state.
Lavrov said Kyiv’s apparent willingness to “resolve through negotiations all the problems relating to the legal demands of the inhabitants of the south-east regions of Ukraine, is certainly a step in the right direction, albeit very belated”.
NATO chief, Britain’s Hague accuse Russia
Russia is deeply involved in the crisis in eastern Ukraine where pro-Moscow separatists have seized control of a number of government buildings, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Tuesday.
The frank remarks from the head of the western military alliance underline rising tensions with Moscow, which says it is not involved in the armed pro-Russian protests in eastern Ukraine. Asked if he had seen evidence of Russian involvement in events in eastern Ukraine, Rasmussen told reporters: “We never… comment on intelligence, but I think from what is visible, it is very clear that Russia’s hand is deeply engaged in this.” Relations between NATO and Russia have turned icy since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region last month.
NATO, accusing Russia of massing forces on Ukraine’s border, also has suspended cooperation with Moscow. Rasmussen, in Luxembourg for talks with European Union defense ministers, called on Russia to “de-escalate the crisis,to pull back its troops from Ukraine’s borders, to stop destabilizing the situation in Ukraine and make clear that it doesn’t support the violent actions of pro-Russian separatists. Russia should stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.”
Rasmussen said NATO was not discussing any military involvement in non-NATO member Ukraine and was focusing on strengthening the defenses of eastern European allies nervous about Russia’s intentions. NATO ambassadors are expected on Wednesday to discuss options put forward by military planners for reinforcing the defenses of eastern allies through exercises and temporary deployments of planes and ships sent by other allies. In his talks with EU defense ministers, Rasmussen said he would call for stronger cooperation between NATO and the EU, proposing that the military rapid reaction forces that both organizations maintain should train and exercise together more often.
Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague will say on Tuesday in a speech in London that Russia has deliberately pushed Ukraine “to the brink” in recent days and increased the risk of violent confrontation there.
Hague’s comments were released in advance by his office: “In recent days Russia has deliberately pushed Ukraine to the brink, and created a still greater risk of violent confrontation.”
UN Human Rights report
However, a United Nations report on Tuesday cast doubt on whether Russian-speakers were seriously threatened, including those in Crimea who voted to join Russia after Moscow forces had already seized control of the Black Sea peninsula.
“Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread,” a report by the U.N. human rights office said.
The report, issued after two visits to Ukraine last month by Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic, cited “misinformed reports” and “greatly exaggerated stories of harassment of ethnic Russians by Ukrainian nationalist extremists”.
These, it said, “had been systematically used to create a climate of fear and insecurity that reflected on support to integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation.”
Obama, Putin phone call
U.S. President Barack Obama warned Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call Monday that Moscow will face further costs if its actions in Ukraine persist. He also urged the Russian leader to use his influence to persuade the demonstrators to leave the buildings they have seized.
“The president emphasized that all irregular forces in the country need to lay down their arms, and he urged President Putin to use his influence with these armed, pro-Russian groups to convince them to depart the buildings they have seized,” the White House said in a statement.
Emergency talks planned
Top diplomats from Russia, the United States, Ukraine and the European Union are to hold emergency talks on the crisis April 17 in Geneva. White House officials say U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Kyiv April 22.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials signed a $1 billion loan guarantee to Ukraine. U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said the agreement demonstrates the United States’ unwavering commitment to a stable Ukraine. Ukrainian Finance Minister Oleksandr Shlapak said his country is wrapping up talks with the IMF on a comprehensive economic reform program.