Ukraine’s Western-backed leader yesterday accused Russia of trying to inflame the separatist southeast but promised to proceed with caution against pro-Kremlin militias consolidating their hold on the flashpoint region.
Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov’s impassioned charges against Ukraine’s historical master came only hours after a “frank and direct” exchange on the crisis between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, the heated telephone conversation appeared to break no new ground as the Kremlin chief continued to reject any links to the Russian-speaking gunmen who have occupied town halls and police stations in nearly 10 cities across Ukraine’s struggling rust belt since the start of the month.
Displeasure at Ukrainian forces’ thus-far helpless efforts to reassert control saw several hundred nationalists set fire to tires outside the parliament building on Monday evening demanding the Ukrainian interior minister’s resignation.
Turchynov appeared to address that discontent yesterday by stressing that efforts to dislodge the pro-Russian gunmen from their increasingly entrenched positions must proceed “gradually, responsibly and in a measured way.”
The coordinated series of raids that began in the depressed industrial hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk and have since spread to nearby coal mining towns and villages have presented the untested leaders with a high-stakes challenge with no clear solution.
Inaction in the face the insurgents’ aggression and tough talk by Moscow could potentially see the vast nation of 46 million break up along its historic Russian-Ukrainian cultural divide.
However, a forceful military response — its very feasibility in question due to poor morale and desertions riddling army ranks — could prompt a counterstrike by about 40,000 Russian troops now poised along Ukraine’s border and waiting to act on Putin’s vow to “protect” his compatriots in the neighboring state.
Turchynov told an agitated session of parliament during which some of his old protest supporters questioned his leadership that Ukraine was facing an eastern enemy, rather than domestic discontent.
“They want to set fire not only to the Donetsk region, but to the entire south and east — from Kharkiv to the Odessa region,” the acting president said.
Turchynov also announced the formal launch of the Ukrainian army’s campaign in the northern parts of Donetsk — a push that started on Sunday with the involvement of internal forces but then quickly abandoned when a senior commander was killed.
Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Chief Andriy Parubiy added that he had dispatched the first unit of the newly formed National Guard — composed in part of volunteers and this winter’s more militant anti-government protesters — “to the front.”
However, the UN issued a report yesterday urging the leaders in Kiev to temper their response and “immediately take initial measures to build confidence between the government and the people.”