KIEV, Ukraine -- Defying warnings from Moscow not to confront pro-Russian militants entrenched in towns across eastern Ukraine, the interim central government in Kiev on Friday threatened to “blockade” the Kremlin’s allies in the eastern town of Slovyansk, and told Russian troops on maneuvers that any crossing of the border would be seen as an invasion.
The declarations reflected heightened worries that the government’s efforts to move against forces aligned with Moscow could trigger a Russian incursion under the guise of a humanitarian or peacekeeping initiative.
The events on Friday morning were marked by an icy hostility between Moscow and Washington reminiscent of the Cold War.
Ukrainian interim leaders said operations to expel pro-Russian militants in eastern cities would continue, even though military action so far has done little more than prompt Russia to stage military exercises on Ukraine’s border and heighten concerns about Moscow’s next move.
“Attempts at military conflict in Ukraine will lead to a military conflict in Europe,” Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, told the interim cabinet in remarks broadcast live, according to Reuters.
“The world has not yet forgotten World War II, but Russia already wants to start World War III.”
The acting head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, Serhiy Pashynskyi, said the operation to dislodge “terrorists” was continuing in and around the eastern city of Slovyansk and would now focus on “totally blockading” it to prevent militants getting reinforcements and supplies.
He also reported Russian military movements overnight at four locations on the Russian side of the border that were said to involve “400 tanks, armored vehicles and rocket launchers.”
“In the event of any crossing of the border by Russian troops, we will qualify this as an invasion and we will eliminate the invaders,” he said.
Ukraine’s interim defense minister, Mykhailo Koval, was quoted by the Interfax-Ukraine news agency on Friday as saying Russian troops on maneuvers had approached to within one kilometer, or 1,100 yards, of the border but had not crossed.
There was no independent corroboration of the minister’s account.
Reporters in Slovyansk said there were signs of Ukrainian infantry units patrolling farmland northwest of the city, a day after Ukraine sought to dislodge pro-Russian forces from checkpoints.
On the road to Izyum, north of Slovyansk, a combined force of soldiers and interior ministry forces seemed to be well armed.
In nearby Kramatorsk, a Ukrainian military transport helicopter was burned out on the ground but the cause of the blaze was unclear.
In a posting on Facebook, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said Ukraine’s military operations in the east — known as “ATO,” meaning Anti-Terrorist Operation — had not been suspended, despite local news reports to the contrary.
“The ATO goes on,” he said.
“The terrorists should be on their guard around the clock. Civilians have nothing to fear.”
Russia has repeatedly denied having a hand in the unrest convulsing eastern Ukraine or any intention to invade.
But an announcement on Thursday by Moscow that it would immediately start military maneuvers along the border with Ukraine, and a threat by Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, of unspecified consequences for Ukraine as a result of what he called a “serious crime,” signaled a combustible new phase in a geopolitical struggle set off by the overthrow of Ukraine’s government in February.
The heightened tensions have buried already faint hopes that a deal reached last Thursday in Geneva by diplomats from the European Union, Russia, Ukraine and the United States might calm a crisis, stirring fears of a wider conflict over Ukraine, a nation of 46 million on a volatile fault line between Europe and Russia.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia on Thursday night that it would face additional economic sanctions if it failed to carry out that agreement.
“The window to change course is closing,” he said.
Sanctions could be announced as soon as Friday if the Russians do not respond, said one administration official who asked not to be identified while discussing internal planning.
The threat of intensified sanctions was under underscored on Friday when the rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded its assessment of Russia.
“In our view, the tense geopolitical situation between Russia and Ukraine could see additional significant outflows of both foreign and domestic capital from the Russian economy and hence further undermine already weakening growth prospects,” the agency wrote.
In his most detailed accusation of Russian interference to date, Mr. Kerry said that American intelligence services had concluded that Russia’s “military intelligence services and special operators are playing an active role in destabilizing eastern Ukraine with personnel, weapons, operational planning and coordination.”
“Some of the individual Special Operations personnel who were active on Russia’s behalf in Chechnya, Georgia and Crimea have been photographed in Slovyansk, Donetsk and Luhansk,” Mr. Kerry said.
“Some are even bragging about it by themselves on their Russian social media sites.”
On Friday, Mr. Kerry’s Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, hit back, accusing Washington of seeking only to further its interests in Ukraine.
“The West wants to take control of Ukraine while exclusively putting its geopolitical interests, not the interests of the Ukrainian people, at the forefront,” Mr. Lavrov told a conference of young diplomats from former Soviet republics.
“We are talking about the methods that Americans use with states of different regions,” Mr. Lavrov said.
“This is not our method. We will not blackmail, we will not threaten, we are all polite people,” he said.
“Without batting an eye, our Western partners keep demanding day after day that Russia stop interfering in Ukrainian affairs, pull out troops and remove certain agents who have reportedly been caught in the southeast and who are reportedly guiding these processes,” Mr. Lavrov said, adding, “I even find it difficult to respond. I try to make the conversation constructive.”
Vyachislav Ponomaryov, the de facto mayor of Slovyansk, who was installed by pro-Russian militants, said Tuesday that armed men had come to his town from outside Ukraine but insisted they were friends and volunteers, not Russian Special Forces.
While the United States and its allies cheered the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, who fled Kiev on Feb. 21 and is now sheltering in Russia, Moscow deplored his removal as an armed putsch led by fascists.
President Obama and other Western leaders have repeatedly demanded that Russia halt all support for the rebels, exert its influence to get them to leave occupied government buildings in Slovyansk and other towns, and pull back its 40,000 troops deployed along the border.
Last week’s agreement called for armed pro-Russian groups in eastern Ukraine to surrender the government buildings.
On Thursday Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, said drills would begin immediately involving troops in southern and western Russia, the areas surrounding Ukraine.
The drills, which would also involve the air force, will include flights along the border, Mr. Shoigu said at a meeting of Russia’s top military council.
The most violent Ukrainian operation on Thursday, against checkpoints north of Slovyansk, a small eastern city, raised new questions about the competence of Ukraine’s forces and the interim government’s thinking.
With armored vehicles and helicopter support, Ukrainian troops attacked crudely built checkpoints on a narrow access road.
After a brief round of fighting, the forces — which the government said were a mix of regular infantry and Interior Ministry troops — withdrew, leaving rubble and burning tires behind.
Russia’s seizing of Crimea has for weeks fueled debate about whether Russian forces might again take advantage of the weakness of Ukraine’s military and roll across the border to seize more territory.
Western diplomats and other analysts speculated until recently that Mr. Putin had perhaps not decided.
But a series of harsh warnings from Moscow over the past week against the use of force by Ukraine to dislodge separatist militants has added to worries that Russia may be preparing the ground for a military intervention to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian speakers it says are in danger.
Mr. Putin drew a direct parallel between events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine on Thursday and spoke of the value of swift action.
“What we can see in Ukraine’s east, undoubtedly, would have happened in Crimea, had we not taken certain timely measures to protect the interests of the people in Crimea,” he said.
Source: The New York Times