There has been a firefight in the Eastern Ukraine city of Slaviansk as pro-government forces sought to dislodge pro-Moscow militias from a police station. Groups of armed men sympathetic to Russia have taken over government buildings throughout the Eastern Ukraine in an attempt to force an overreaction by Ukraine’s government that would give Vladimir Putin an excuse to invade.
The Kiev government reports dead on both sides in Slaviansk.
One Ukrainian state security officer was killed and five wounded on the government side in what interior minister Arsen Avakov called Sunday’s “anti-terrorist” operation.
“There were dead and wounded on both sides,” Avakov said on his Facebook page, adding that about 1,000 people were supporting the separatists.
The Russian news agency RIA reported that one pro-Moscow activist was killed in Slaviansk in clashes with forces loyal to the Kiev government. “On our side, another two were injured,” RIA quoted pro-Russian militant Nikolai Solntsev as adding.
The separatists are holed up in the local headquarters of the police and of the state security service, while others have erected road blocks around Slaviansk, which lies about 150 km (90 miles) from the Russian border.
However, details of the fighting remain sketchy. A statement from the administration of the eastern Donetsk region indicated the security officer may have been killed between Slaviansk and the nearby town of Artemivsk. Putting the number of wounded at nine, it said “an armed confrontation” was going on in the area.
Kiev accuses Moscow of trying to deepen violence and chaos in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic it once ruled. The Kremlin, it says, wants to undermine the legitimacy of presidential elections on May 25 which aim to set the country back onto a normal path after months of turmoil.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Kiev was “demonstrating its inability to take responsibility for the fate of the country” and warned that any use of force against Russian speakers “would undermine the potential for cooperation”, including talks due to be held on Thursday between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union.
With Russian troops still massed on Ukraine’s border, President Obama has once again warned the Russians against military action. Vice President Biden will visit Ukraine for the second time in 3 months later in April.
As pro-Russian activity rose in eastern Ukraine over the weekend, the White House voiced concerns that Russia might once again advance past Ukrainian borders.
Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Kiev on April 22, the White House announced, to meet with leaders in and outside of the government to reinforce American support and talk about Ukrainian security. Last month, Biden traveled to Europe and met with leaders of NATO members Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to reassure them after Russia’s initial incursion into Crimea.
President Obama’s National Security Council warned that similar developments were seen in Crimea before Russian forces moved in — and warned Russian President Vladimir Putin not to invade.
“We are very concerned by the concerted campaign we see underway in eastern Ukraine today by pro-Russian separatists, apparently with support from Russia, who are inciting violence and sabotage and seeking to undermine and destabilize the Ukrainian state,” NSC spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said in an e-mail. “We saw similar so-called protest activities in Crimea before Russia’s purported annexation. We call on President Putin and his government to cease all efforts to destabilize Ukraine, and we caution against further military intervention. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.”
Multiple news outlets reported pro-Russian demonstrations in eastern Ukraine, and ABC’s Dragana Jovanovic and Alexander Marquardt reported a number of government buildings were taken over by apparent militiamen wearing mismatched camouflage in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk.
Putin would prefer to gobble up a few more Ukrainian provinces by forcing the Kiev government to hold plebiscites in several Russian majority regions. But putting pressure on the Ukraine government by unleashing the pro-Russian militias could easily backfire if Kiev overreacts or goes too far in their effort to regain control of the restive eastern provinces. Putin could “justify” his military intervention if that were to occur, but the Ukraine government appears not to be rising to the bait.
What seems clear is that Putin appears willing to play the long game — waiting out the Kiev government who will eventually be forced into capitulation.