Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces flexed their military muscles in the restive east of the country yesterday, a day ahead of high-level diplomatic talks on the escalating crisis.
Armored vehicles from the rival sides appeared on the streets of two neighboring towns after Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Kiev’s decision to send in troops to put down a separatist uprising in its industrial heartland had dragged the country to the brink of civil war.
NATO said it planned to deploy more forces in eastern Europe in the face of the crisis, while Germany warned of more bloodshed if the four-way talks in Geneva, Switzerland, today fail.
A reporter in the flashpoint town of Slavyansk saw at least six armored personnel carriers and light tanks, some flying Russian flags, parked in the city center with dozens of unidentified armed men in camouflage stationed around them.
Russian media said Ukrainian troops in the vehicles had switched sides to join the separatists, but the Ukrainian army said it had no reports that any of its equipment had been seized.
Authorities in Kiev ratcheted up their verbal attacks on Russia, with Acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accusing Moscow of trying to build “a new Berlin wall.”
Yatsenyuk demanded Moscow halt its alleged support for the separatists, but said Kiev remained committed to today’s crunch talks between the top diplomats of Russia, the EU, the US and Ukraine.
Ukrainian Acting Defense Minister Mykhailo Koval yesterday went to check on the progress of Kiev’s seemingly stalled bid to oust the separatists.
Ukraine’s military also pledged a firm response after two serviceman were allegedly taken hostage by pro-Russian forces in the Lugansk region.
The Ukrainian Security Service said in a statement that Russian commanders in the east had issued pro-Kremlin militants with “shoot-to-kill” orders.
Elsewhere, pro-Moscow gunmen stormed the mayor’s office in the regional capital of Donetsk, according to a reporter at the scene.
On Tuesday, authorities in Kiev launched what they called an “anti-terrorist operation,” sending tanks toward Slavyansk — which remains effectively under the control of pro-Russian gunmen — in a high-risk strategy sharply condemned by the Kremlin, but supported in Washington.
The 20 tanks and armored personnel carriers sent to Slavyansk were the most forceful response yet by the Western-backed government in Kiev to the pro-Kremlin militants’ occupation of state buildings in nearly 10 cities across Ukraine’s rust belt.
The move drew a sharp response from Putin in a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“The Russian president remarked that the sharp escalation of the conflict has placed the country, in effect, on the verge of civil war,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
The Kremlin described the actions of the Ukrainian army in the east as an “anti-constitutional course to use force against peaceful protest actions.”
The White House described Ukraine’s military operation as a “measured” response to an insurgency that had put the government in an “untenable” situation.