Ukraine accuses Russia of ‘exporting terrorism’
Armoured personnel carriers bearing Russian flag reported in eastern Ukraine town of Slaviansk
Armed men, wearing black and orange ribbons of St. George - a symbol widely associated with pro-Russian protests in Ukraine - drive a combat vehicle, with a Russian flag on the top, outside Kramatorsk today. Photograph: Maks Levin/Reuters
Ukrainian forces havetightened their grip on the eastern town of Kramatorsk after securing control over an airfield from pro-Russian separatist militiamen, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to warn of the risk of civil war. Photograph: Maks Levin/Reuters
Ukraine’s prime minister today accused Russia of “exporting terrorism” to Ukraine by using covert forces to organise armed separatists who he said had attacked Ukrainian forces and occupied state buildings.
“The Russian government must immediately call off its intelligence-diversionary groups, condemn the terrorists and demand that they free the buildings,” Arseny Yatseniuk told a government meeting.
“That is, if the Russian Federation is interested in stabilising the situation, which I have significant doubts about,” he added.
Mr Yatseniuk’s comments came as at least 20 pro-Russian separatists took control of the city council building in eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk, the council’s spokeswoman said. She said the men were armed, but that they had not made any demands.
Earlier, six armoured personnel carriers entered the eastern Ukrainian town of Slaviansk, with the lead vehicle bearing the Russian flag, a Reuters eyewitness said.
A number of armed men, who wore mismatched battle fatigues and appeared to be pro-Russian activists, sat atop each of the vehicles. The vehicles stopped outside the town’s city hall which is occupied by separatists.
The troops on the column of combat vehicles wore green camouflage uniforms and had automatic weapons and grenade launchers, and at least one had the St George ribbon attached to his uniform. The ribbon has become a symbol of the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine. One soldier, who identified himself only as Andrei, said the unit was part of the 25th brigade of Ukraine’s airborne forces and that they have switched to the side of the pro-Russian forces.
The latest move follows the recapture by Ukrainian forces of an airfield near Kramatorsk from pro-Russian separatist militiamen, prompting Russian president Vladimir Putin to warn of the risk of civil war.
The attempt by the Kiev government to reassert control slowly without bloodshed came on the eve of four-power talks in Geneva tomorrow at which the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers will meet for the first time in the presence of the United States and the European Union.
Russia, which has refused to recognise Ukraine’s pro-Western government since Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich was ousted by mass protests in February, sought to dramatise the instability in its neighbour ahead of the crucial meeting.
Brink of war
Mr Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a telephone call late yesterday that Kiev had “embarked on an anti-constitutional course“ by using the army against the rebels.
“The sharp escalation of the conflict puts the country, in effect, on the brink of civil war,“ a Kremlin statement quoted him as saying.
“It is unacceptable to use (the armed) forces in the eastern Ukraine,“ he told reporters in Hanoi.
The Ukrainian government launched what it called a “special operation” yesterday against separatist militia in the Russian-speaking East, although aside from a landing by airborne troops the action was limited and avoided casualties.
Soldiers disembarked from two helicopters at the airfield 10 km (6 miles) from Kramatorsk, where reporters heard gunfire that seemed to prevent an air force plane from landing.
There was no sign of violence in the area this morning, but civilians watching the armoured vehicles enter the town reflected the sharp political divisions in the mainly Russian-speaking southeastern Donbass region.
A group of about 30 local residents blocked the APCs briefly and tried to prevent them going through, a Reuters witness said. Soldiers dismounted and pushed them away. One shot was fired in the air in a brief scuffle before the vehicles moved on.
The protesters managed to take away one hand-held radio and two rifle magazines from soldiers.
“I think Donbass should be an independent country allied with Russia,“ said a local resident who gave his name as Olexander. “My homeland is the Soviet Union. We just need to chop off the rotten west of Ukraine and we‘ll be fine.“
The crisis has also prompted fears that Moscow might turn off gas supplies to Kiev, 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 yesterday, 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 metres 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 Kiev this year, and Mr Putin has threatened to halt supplies if Kiev does not repay more than $2 billion it owes to Gazprom. Mr Putin has also warned EU leaders that this could disrupt supplies that flow to them through Ukraine.