A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Geneva agreement to defuse the situation in eastern Ukraine was no longer viable after Kiev launched a military operation against the rebel-held city of Slavyansk.
The Ukrainian military launched its first serious offensive to retake the city, which is being held by pro-Russia militia, early yesterday morning. The rebel militia said Ukrainian troops had launched attacks on several checkpoints.
Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov said his forces had taken control of nine checkpoints to form a “tight ring” around the city.
Two Ukrainian helicopters were shot down and their pilots killed, Russian and Ukrainian media reported. One militant was killed and another injured, according to the reports.
Ukraine’s security service said one helicopter had been brought down by a surface-to-air missile, citing this as evidence that Slavyansk’s defenders were not just citizens who have armed themselves.
Four of those who had shot at helicopters were captured, Ukraine’s defense ministry said, but rebel leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov denied this.
“Basically, at the same time that Russia is taking pains to de-escalate and regulate the conflict, the Kiev regime has begun shooting up peaceful towns with military helicopters and has started a punitive operation, essentially destroying the last hope for the viability of the Geneva agreement,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
“Earlier, when he was still in Minsk, Putin called the possible operation a criminal action. Unfortunately, the development of events completely confirms this appraisal,” he added.
Russia, Ukraine, the US and the EU agreed in Geneva last month on a series of steps to reduce tensions in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia protesters and militia have seized government buildings in at least a dozen towns and cities.
The agreement called on illegal armed groups to lay down their weapons and vacate buildings in exchange for a broad amnesty, but since it was signed, Kiev and Moscow have accused each other of not pressuring their supporters to disarm.
The US and EU have both imposed sanctions in response to what they said was Russia’s failure to force pro-Kremlin militia in eastern Ukraine to stand down.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was to arrive in Washington yesterday for talks with US President Barack Obama, which will include the Ukraine crisis.
Fears remain that fighting in eastern Ukraine could trigger a Russian invasion. In a telephone conversation with Merkel on Thursday, Putin said Kiev should pull its forces back from the eastern and southern regions of the country.
However, Russia has been massing tens of thousands of its own troops on the border amid warnings it could intervene to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine.
In a statement yesterday, Russia’s foreign ministry accused the Ukrainian military of launching rocket strikes at protesters and claimed it had used ultranationalists from the group Right Sector and “English-speaking foreigners,” who it suggested were US mercenaries.
“As we have warned many times before, the use of the army against its own people is a crime and is leading Ukraine to catastrophe,” the statement said.
“By supporting the organizers of the Kiev coup in their strategy of violently putting down protests, the US and EU are taking on a huge responsibility, essentially closing the door to a peaceful solution to the crisis,” it added.