The Battle for Ukraine
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|Bernard Banks||April 14th 2014|
Towns in eastern Ukraine were braced for military action by government forces Monday as a deadline passed for pro-Russian rebels to disarm and end their occupation of state buildings or face a major “anti-terrorist” operation.
Angered by the death of a state security officer and the wounding of two other officers near the eastern city of Slovyansk, where armed men had seized two government buildings, acting President Oleksander Turchinov warned the pro-Russian groups on Sunday that a full-scale security operation would be unleashed unless they met the deadline of 9 a.m. local time Monday.
However, Reuters reported that there were no outward signs that the rebels were complying with that ultimatum as it passed.
Turchinov and other leaders blame Russia — which annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula when Moscow-backed former President Viktor Yanukovych fled after months of pro-Western protests — for inspiring and organizing a rash of rebellions in Slovyansk and other Russian-speaking towns in eastern Ukraine.
"We will not allow Russia to repeat the Crimean scenario in the eastern regions of Ukraine," Turchinov said on Sunday night.
Use of force by Kyiv's pro-Europe authorities could trigger a fresh confrontation with Russia. The crisis has brought relations between Russia and the West to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War in 1991.
Russia's Foreign Ministry called the planned military operation a "criminal order" and said the West should bring its allies in Ukraine's government under control.
The United Nations Security Council held an emergency session on Sunday night, and the United States warned that it was likely to impose further sanctions against the Kremlin if the escalation in eastern Ukraine continues.
The EU and the United States have already imposed limited sanctions on Moscow following its annexation of Crimea.
With East-West relations in crisis, NATO described the appearance in eastern Ukraine of men with specialized Russian weapons and matching uniforms without insignia — like those worn by Moscow's troops when they seized Crimea — as a "grave development."
While Kyiv has repeatedly accused the Kremlin of inspiring rebellion in eastern Ukraine, any attempt to dislodge the armed separatists from the region risks tipping the standoff into a new, dangerous phase, since Moscow has warned it will protect the country’s Russian speakers if they come under attack.
Leaders in Kyiv allege that Moscow is attempting to undermine the legitimacy of presidential elections scheduled for May 25 that aim to set Ukraine back onto a normal path after months of turmoil.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Kyiv 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 among Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union.
NATO has effectively ruled out military action over Ukraine, which lies outside the Western alliance. However, Washington and NATO leaders have made clear they would defend all 28 member states, including former Soviet republics in the Baltic that are seen as the most vulnerable to Russian influence.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine seized a police building on Monday in the city of Horlivka, not far from the border with Russia, while hundreds of onlookers cheered them on, it was reported. Thick white smoke rose from the entrance to the building, from which the insurgents hoisted the Russian flag.
Oleksandr Sapunov, one of the men who took part in the takeover, said his comrades were fighting against appointees of the Kyiv government, including the local police chief, and wanted to select leaders of their choosing.
"The people came to tell him that he is a puppet of the Kyiv junta and they won't accept him," Sapunov said.
Also Monday, Turchynov indicated that holding a nationwide referendum on the nation's status was a possibility, after initially refusing such demands by separatists in the east, and that such a vote could be conducted on May 25 along with presidential elections.
Turchynov expressed confidence that Ukrainians would vote against turning the country into a fractured federation.