Ukraine clashes could spark civil war, warns Russia

Washington backs Kiev’s ‘anti-terrorist’ operation, writes Daniel McLaughlin in Donetsk.

Interior ministry forces walk past a military helicopter and armoured carriers at a checkpoint near Izium, eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Dmitry Madorsky/Reuters

Interior ministry forces walk past a military helicopter and armoured carriers at a checkpoint near Izium, eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Dmitry Madorsky/Reuters


Moscow has warned Ukraine that a crackdown on pro-Kremlin activists in eastern regions could trigger civil war, as an angry split over the country’s crisis continued to grow between Russia and the West.

Ukrainian forces clashed with an armed group at Kramatorsk airfield last night, and military trucks, armoured vehicles and helicopters were seen heading in the direction of nearby Slovyansk. Troops also established checkpoints on some major roads in the industrial Donetsk province.

Official buildings in Kramatorsk, Slovyansk and up to eight other towns around the area are held by protesters who want a referendum on greater autonomy or on joining Russia. Kiev says they are aided by Moscow’s intelligence agents and military.

Accounts of the Kramatorsk skirmish differed widely, with some Ukrainian officials saying gunmen had been forced from the airfield and others claiming that soldiers had repelled an attack by an armed group. Kiev claimed no one was injured.

Russian media, however, reported that several people had been killed. The popular website, which is seen as close to Moscow’s security services, quoted unnamed witnesses saying soldiers and helicopters had shot at protesters.

Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin has pledged to protect Russian-speakers wherever necessary, and cited that pledge when annexing Crimea last month.

Clear condemnation
In a telephone conversation with UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Mr Putin “underscored that the Russian side expects a clear condemnation from the United Nations and the international community of these anti- constitutional actions”.

His prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said yesterday: “Blood has once again been spilt in Ukraine. The country is on the brink of civil war.”

Moscow accuses the US and EU of fomenting the uprising that ousted Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich in February, and of trying to end Kremlin influence over the country as part of a wider plan to weaken Russia.

Western powers have imposed financial and travel sanctions on some Russian officials and businessmen with Kremlin links, and have pledged to introduce more sanctions if Moscow sends troops beyond Crimea and deeper into Ukraine.

The White House defended Kiev’s actions last night. “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,” said spokesman Jay Carney.

Washington intends to join Ukraine, the EU and Russia for talks on the Ukrainian crisis in Geneva tomorrow.German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Mr Putin by telephone last night about the talks.

Russia’s presence in Geneva does not appear to be entirely guaranteed, however.

Moscow’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said yesterday that “if force is used in southeastern Ukraine, chances of holding this meeting in Geneva would be undermined”.