Russia starts war games after Ukraine strikes rebels
UN warns situation could ‘spin out of control’ as Kiev’s top diplomat says country ‘ready to fight’ any Russian invasion
Pro-Russian activists guard a smouldering roadblock outside the village of Khrestyshche near Slovyansk, Ukraine yesterday. Ukrainian officials said five militants were killed when special forces stormed the roadblocks. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Ukrainian officials said five militants were killed yesterday when special forces stormed rebel roadblocks near the eastern city of Slovyansk, a stronghold for activists who want the industrial Donetsk region to split with Kiev’s new pro-EU government.
The militants said two of their men had been killed and vowed to resist any attempt to storm Slovyansk, which is one of about 10 eastern towns and cities where official buildings have been occupied by activists, allegedly with help from Russian agents.
Last night US secretary of state John Kerry said it was drawing closer to imposing more sanctions on Russia by saying time was running out for Moscow to change course.
In unsually blunt comments, Mr Kerry accused Russia of using propaganda to hide what he said it was actually trying to do in eastern Ukraine: destabilise that region and undermine next month’s planned Ukrainian elections.
“The window to change course is closing,” he told reporters. “If Russia chooses the path of de-escalation . . . all of us will welcome it. But if Russia does not, the world will make sure that the costs for Russia will only grow. It will be an expensive mistake.”
Moscow denies sending operatives into Ukraine and has warned that it will respond if its interests or citizens are harmed in the country, which Russian president Vladimir Putin has said could plunge into civil war if troops are used to quash unrest.
“If it’s true that the current regime in Kiev sent the army against citizens inside its country, then it is a very serious crime against its own people,” Mr Putin declared yesterday, saying that such actions would make Ukraine’s leaders a “junta”.
“It is a punitive operation that will have consequences for the people who make these decisions, including upon relations between our countries. We’ll see how the situation develops and we’ll make conclusions based on the reality on the ground.”
Shortly after Mr Putin spoke in St Petersburg, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu announced the start of military exercises near the border with Ukraine – where the US and Nato say Moscow has concentrated some 40,000 troops and armour.
“The order has already been given by the [Kiev] authorities for the use of force against civilians . . . We are forced to react to such a development in the situation,” Mr Shoigu said.
Mr Shoigu said battalions from Russia’s southern and western military districts would begin exercises in regions bordering Ukraine, and that “the air force will conduct flights to train for manoeuvres along state frontiers”.
Ukraine demanded an explanation from Russia within 48 hours.
Visiting Prague, Kiev’s foreign minister Andriy Deshchytsia said: “We will now fight with Russian troops if . . . they invade Ukraine. Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian army are ready to do this.”
Russia does not recognise the legitimacy of Ukraine’s new pro-western government, which took power in February after protests ousted Kremlin ally president Viktor Yanukovich.
Kiev accuses Russia of destabilising Ukraine and possibly planning to invade or foment enough civil strife to split the country. – (addional reporting Reuters )