The Ukrainian government sent its military Tuesday to reassert its authority here in its restive east of the country, drawing a warning from Moscow that the country was now on the brink of civil war.
It's a nascent conflict the Kremlin may be preparing to intervene in. State-run Russian media reported that at least four pro-Russian "militia" were killed in clashes with the Ukrainian military – a potential red line for President Vladimir Putin, who has warned he will use his own forces to protect Ukraine's Russian-speaking population if he deems it necessary.
The Ukrainian military, however, reported no casualties during its operation near the town of Kramatorsk to retake a military airbase that had previously been under the control of pro-Russian gunmen.
Witnesses at the scene said shots were heard shortly after two helicopters full of Ukrainian troops, followed by a column of armoured personnel carriers, arrived at the airfield. There appear to have been warning shots, fired after the commander of the Ukrainian operation, General Vasily Krutov, was jostled and shoved while attempting to address a crowd of protesters.
The issue of whether anyone was killed in Kramatorsk – about 100 kilometres north of the regional capital, Donetsk – may determine what happens next in the faceoff over Ukraine, which has seen relations between Moscow and the West plunge to post-Cold War lows.
As night fell Tuesday, pro-Russian protesters set up barricades and a protest camp outside the Kramatorsk airfield, with the Ukrainian troops inside.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev used his Facebook page to declare Tuesday that Ukraine was "on the threshold of a civil war," and Mr. Putin said he expected the international community to condemn the use of force by the Ukrainian government.
In a phone conversation with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Putin said the situation in Ukraine had "grown significantly worse due to the use of force initiated by the Kiev authorities in the southeast of the country," according to a summary posted on a Kremlin website. "Mr. Putin stressed that the Russian side expects the United Nations and the international community to clearly condemn these anti-constitutional actions."
NATO says Russia has massed tens of thousands of combat-ready troops – backed by tanks, artillery and fighter jets – near its border with Ukraine, which is just 100 kilometres from Donetsk. Ukraine's first deputy prime minister Vitaly Yarema claimed Tuesday that members of Russia's 45th Airborne Regiment were already deployed in the Donetsk region.
Moscow, which annexed the southern region of Crimea following a hotly disputed referendum there last month, has repeatedly denied it has soldiers or undercover agents on the ground in Ukraine.
Ukraine's Interim President, Oleksandr Turchynov, told parliament in Kiev that a "counter-terrorism operation" had been launched Tuesday in the Donetsk region. "It will go on gradually, responsibly and prudently. Once again I emphasize that these actions are meant for the protection of Ukrainian citizens, stopping terror, criminality [and] attempts to break our country into pieces," he said.
The escalating violence and rhetoric threatened to derail four-party talks on the crisis over the Ukraine – involving the United States and European Union as well as Russia and Ukraine – that are due to begin Thursday in Geneva. "You can't send tanks against your own citizens and at the same time hold talks," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a visit to China.
The U.S., EU and Canada have given diplomatic and economic support to the beleaguered government in Kiev, and have slapped sanctions and travel bans on dozens of top Russian officials since the annexation of Crimea. The U.S. has indicated it is preparing further sanctions to punish Moscow for its actions in eastern Ukraine, but won't introduce them until after the meeting in Geneva.
On the ground, the next flashpoint looked likely to be Slavyansk, a city of 100,000 people just north of Kramatorsk. Some 20 Ukrainian army tanks and armoured personnel carriers were seen on the roads leading to the city, while helicopters and fighter jets were spotted in the skies overhead.
The coal-producing Donetsk region has emerged has a centre of resistance to the new government in Kiev, which came to power following the February overthrow of the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych, a Donetsk native now living in self-imposed exile in Russia. Pro-Russian militants have seized government buildings and police stations in nine cities in the Donetsk region, as well as the headquarters of the security services in the nearby city of Lugansk.
Moscow and its allies in Ukraine have denounced the ouster of Mr. Yanukovych as a Western-backed coup. The Kremlin has refused to recognize the new government in Kiev, portraying it as being run by Ukrainian nationalists bent on trampling the rights of Russian-speakers in the east and south of the country.
Parliamentary deputies from Mr. Yanukovych's Party of Regions were due to hold an extraordinary congress in Donetsk on Wednesday. They are expected back the Kremlin's call for Ukraine to be reinvented as a federal state, with the regions gaining greater autonomy from Kiev. They are also likely to demand that Russian be elevated to an official government language alongside Ukrainian.
Kiev has thus far rejected both demands, seeing in them an effort to extend Moscow's political hold over the country.
Ukraine's government says the idea that the country's Russian-speakers are under any kind of threat is a Kremlin invention. Mr. Turchynov said in a statement Tuesday that "hundreds of thousands of innocent Ukrainian people [have been] deceived by Russian propaganda."
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