Ukraine accuses Russia of creating ‘terrorist network’ to wreck elections
Putin insists he has right to send troops into Ukraine to protect Russian speakers
A Pro-Ukrainian activist attends a demonstration yesterday in Donetsk to support a united Ukraine. Photograph: EPA/Konstantin Ivanov
Kiev has accused Moscow of setting up a “terrorist network” in Ukraine and planning to wreck its presidential elections, as Russian president Vladimir Putin insisted he had a “right” to send troops into the country to protect Russian speakers there.
Mr Putin made the claim during his annual televised question-and-answer session. He also admitted to deploying soldiers in Crimea, a decision he said was in part a reaction to Nato’s expansion towards Russia.
In comments likely to alarm Kiev and its western allies, Mr Putin referred to a swathe of southern and eastern Ukraine as “ Novorossiya [New Russia], to use the terminology of tsarist Russia”.
“These are territories that were passed to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. God knows why they did that,” he said, adding that he considered Russia and Ukraine to be “part of a single space, a single people” that foreign enemies had sought for centuries to weaken through division.
This area, which Catherine the Great claimed for Russia in the 18th century, stretches from the current Russian border through Ukrainian land, encompassing Donetsk, Kharkiv, Odessa and other major cities, to Moldova’s Moscow-backed separatist province of Transdniestria, which is agitating for incorporation into Russia.
Most people living in Mr Putin’s “Novorossiya” speak Russian, and he has vowed to protect them from “fascist” supporters of Kiev’s new government, which is dominated by central and western Ukrainians who want closer ties with the EU rather than Moscow.
“We are sure we should do everything to help these people defend their rights,” Mr Putin said, adding that Russia’s upper house of parliament had given “the president the right to use military force in Ukraine. I hope very much that I don’t have to use this right.”
The UN human rights office this month found no evidence of “widespread nor systemic” persecution of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, but many people across eastern regions distrust the new government and want broad powers to be devolved from Kiev.
Pro-Moscow gunmen have seized official buildings in about 10 eastern towns and cities over the past week, often with the support of locals who fear Ukraine’s new leaders will discriminate against Russian speakers and sever traditionally close links with Russia.
On Wednesday night, Ukrainian forces killed three militants and injured several others who attacked a military base in the southeastern city of Mariupol, Kiev’s interior ministry said.
Mr Putin has warned that Kiev’s use of force against the militants could trigger civil war.
“I hope that they can realise what a pit, what an abyss, the current authorities are in and are dragging the country into,” he said.
Ukraine says it is sending troops, armour and aircraft to eastern Ukraine to counter unrest orchestrated by Russian agents and non-uniformed soldiers, and to discourage Moscow from invading with some 40,000 troops allegedly massed near the border.
“There are no Russian agents in eastern Ukraine. There are only local people protesting,” Mr Putin claimed, calling Kiev’s allegations “nonsense”.
Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Mr Putin’s denials were absurd.
“There is only one person in the world who believes there are no Russian troops in the east of Ukraine: his name is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, ” Mr Yatsenyuk said, accusing Moscow of trying to form “a terrorist network in Ukraine”.
Ukraine’s security service says it has detained several suspected Russian intelligence operatives.
Oleh Slobodyan, a spokesman for Ukraine’s border guards, announced that Russian men’s reasons for visiting Ukraine would be checked closely to prevent “possible provocations at the border, up to and including terrorist attacks”.
Mr Putin said unrest in Ukraine and recent attacks in Kiev on two presidential candidates from eastern regions cast doubt on next month’s election. Russia sees ousted leader Viktor Yanukovich as Ukraine’s rightful president.
“If things carry on like this, of course we could not recognise what happens on May 25th as legitimate. What kind of legitimate elections could there be, when candidates from the east are constantly beaten . . . and aren’t able to meet voters?” Mr Putin asked.
Mr Yatsenyuk said Russia was “playing only one game: further aggravation, further provocation, because the task, that Putin today officially announced, is to wreck the presidential election on May 25th”.
Kiev believes Mr Putin wants to carve up Ukraine or at least make it ungovernable for pro-EU authorities – a process that started with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
“Of course our troops stood behind Crimea’s self-defence forces,” Mr Putin said, having previously claimed that the thousands of well-armed men wearing uniform without insignia who quickly took control of Crimea were actually local residents. “We had to take essential steps so that events did not develop as they are currently developing in southeast Ukraine,” he added.
“When the infrastructure of a military bloc is moving towards our borders . . . we need to take some steps in response,” Mr Putin said of Nato.
The EU and US say they will step up sanctions against Russia if it pushes deeper into Ukraine or destabilises Moldova, another former Soviet state that has angered Moscow by seeking integration with the West. Mr Putin accused Ukraine and Moldova of imposing a “blockade” on the latter’s Russian-speaking separatist region of Transdniestria, and claimed that “nationalistic armed formations have already been deployed” on Ukraine’s border with the province.
‘Manifestation of democracy’
Mr Putin said people in Transdniestria had “their own idea on how to build their future . . . It would be a manifestation of democracy if we allow them to do as they wish.”
Mr Putin took a question from a former member of Ukraine’s Berkut riot police, which was disbanded after being blamed for much of the violence that killed more than 100 protesters in Kiev.
The unnamed ex-officer said Berkut had fulfilled orders “not to spill blood” and had been “betrayed” by Mr Yanukovich when he fled for Russia.
“Was he always such a weakling and traitor?” the man asked Mr Putin.
The Russian leader claimed Mr Yanukovich had told him that several times he had almost ordered the violent dispersal of protesters, “but his hand would not sign a decree on using force against his own population”.
Kiev yesterday asked the International Criminal Court to investigate the protesters’ deaths. Ukrainian prosecutors blame most of them on security service snipers, following orders from Mr Yanukovich’s officials, who were allegedly in contact with Russian agents.