Ukraine’s armed forces are on “full combat alert” against a possible Russian invasion, Kiev said yesterday, as pro-Kremlin insurgents tightened their grip on the increasingly chaotic east of the country.
Rebels stormed the regional police building and town hall in the eastern Ukrainian city of Gorlivka, local officials said, bringing to more than a dozen the number of locations under their control.
The new seizure followed clashes in nearby Lugansk on Tuesday, as hundreds of pro-Russia protesters spearheaded by a heavily armed mob took control of the police station after a fraught stand-off.
Ukrainian Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told his Cabinet that the nation’s armed forces were on “full combat alert” as fears grew in Kiev that Russia could mount an armed invasion of the former Soviet state.
“The threat of a Russia starting a war against mainland Ukraine is real,” he said.
Turchynov urged “Ukrainian patriots” to bolster the beleaguered police force, which he has criticized for “inaction and in some cases treachery.”
His priority was to prevent “terrorism” spreading in the restive east of the country, he said.
The West has accused Russia of fomenting the crisis and backing the rebels and has imposed sanctions to try to get Moscow to back down.
The US and EU members see the insurgency as a bid to destabilize Ukraine ahead of presidential elections slated for May 25, but Moscow denies it is involved.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said to reporters on Tuesday that there were “neither Russian instructors, nor special units nor troops” operating in Ukraine.
Opening up another front in the war of words between Washington and Moscow, Putin warned that the sanctions against his country could harm Western interests in Russia’s lucrative energy sector.
“If this continues, we will of course have to think about how [foreign companies] work in the Russian Federation, including in key sectors of the Russian economy such as energy,” Putin said at a regional summit in Minsk. The Russian president’s comments threaten the operations of some of the world’s biggest energy companies in the resource-rich country.
Among those targeted by the US sanctions is the president of Rosneft, Russia’s top petroleum company and one of the world’s largest publicly traded oil companies.
The EU said talks with Russia and Ukraine will take place in Warsaw tomorrow to try to resolve a US$3.5 billion gas bill Gazprom calculates Kiev owes. Putin has threatened to cut off the gas flow to Ukraine if it is not quickly paid.
Russian officials have accused the US of wanting to reinstitute “Iron Curtain”-style policies and warned the sanctions would “boomerang” back to hurt it.
The tensions are already having an impact on the Russian economy, as the IMF announced on Wednesday that the country was already “experiencing recession.”
The IMF also drastically slashed this year’s growth forecast for Russia to 0.2 percent from 1.3 percent, amid massive capital outflows over the Ukraine crisis.
Moscow has taken aim at Japan and the EU, which it accused of “doing Washington’s bidding” for joining in the coordinated effort to impose sanctions on Russia.
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