EU foreign ministers prepared to meet over the Crimea crisis in Athens yesterday after Ukraine’s Western-backed leaders blamed Russian agents and the country’s ousted president for organizing the bloodshed during February protests that claimed nearly 90 lives.
The explosive allegations were leveled only moments before Russia responded to the new course taken by the ex-Soviet neighbor by hiking the price it must pay for gas shipments to what Ukrainian officials say is the highest rate for any European state.
Washington reacted by warning Russia that “a country should not use supply and pricing terms as tools of coercion to interfere in Ukraine or elsewhere,” US White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Moscow also lashed out at its old Cold War nemesis NATO for building up the defenses of ex-Communist and former Soviet republics that have felt threatened by Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea and massive buildup of forces near Ukraine.
Both sides have blamed the other for starting the violence, but there had been no formal probe results unveiled until acting-Ukrainian interior minister Arsen Avakov presented his initial findings to reporters on Thursday.
Avakov’s conclusion was decisive and potentially devastating for the new leaders’ relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
He said that deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych had issued the “criminal order” to fire at the protesters, while agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) helped him plan and carry out the assault.
“FSB agents took part in both the planning and execution of the so-called anti-terrorist operation,” Ukrainian Security Service Head Valentyn Nalyvaichenko told the same press briefing.
An FSB spokesman told Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency that Ukraine’s allegations were patently false.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for his part said “huge amounts of evidence” contradicted Kiev’s claims.
“Former president Yanukovych will be prosecuted,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told the BBC. “He is accused of mass murder and we will bring him to justice.”
Meeting under Greece’s six-month EU presidency in Athens, EU foreign ministers were to discuss the Crimea and Ukraine yesterday.
Russia’s NTV channel reported that security services had detained 25 Ukrainians suspected of planning “sabotage” and “terrorist attacks” between March 14 and March 16 in seven Russian regions.
It said the group contained three activists from Pravy Sektor, a radical nationalist group in Ukraine, and claimed all 25 were following “instructions” from the Ukrainian security agency, the SBU.
NTV aired a brief video of the detainees being questioned. It showed three young men speaking to the camera. The newsreader’s voiceover drowned out their testimonies.
Earlier on Thursday, the SBU said it had detained two Russians in the western Lviv region who had planned to take Ukrainian politicians hostage, including a presidential candidate.
NTV is owned by a bank affiliated to state-owned gas giant Gazprom. It is known for showing smear documentaries that target critics of the Kremlin.
Gazprom — long accused of being wielded by the Kremlin as a weapon against uncooperative neighbors — on Tuesday hiked the price it charges Ukraine for natural gas shipments, on which its industries depend, by 44 percent.
Kiev has vowed to contest the new charge — a warning that threatens a repeat of the 2006 and 2009 halts in gas supplies to Ukraine, which also affected many of Russia’s other European clients.
Europe’s worst security crisis in decades appeared to be only gaining momentum after NATO boosted the air power of Eastern European nations that Putin still views as part of Russia’s strategic domain.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Thursday defended the move against Russian claims it violated international law.
“I’m actually surprised that Russia can claim that NATO has violated its commitments because Russia is violating every principle and international commitment it has made,” Rasmussen said.
“First and foremost the commitment not to invade other countries,” he added.
The 28-nation alliance has said firmly it did not intend to get militarily involved in Ukraine no matter what Russia did.