Ukrainian authorities sent security forces to Kharkiv to clear the country’s second-biggest city of separatists as Russia traded accusations with the U.S. and warned that its neighbor’s crackdown risks sparking civil war.
An “anti-terrorist operation” was under way in Kharkiv, with the subway closed and the downtown area sealed off in Ukraine’s second-biggest city, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page. Russia said 150 specialists from a U.S. private security company were working with Ukraine to put down protests, the Foreign Ministry said after the U.S. accused Russia of instigating unrest in the country’s eastern regions.
“We call for the immediate halt of all military preparations, which risk sparking a civil war,” the ministry in Moscow said in a website statement.
Russia and the U.S. are on a collision course as tensions flared in Ukraine over the weekend and diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis faltered. The U.S. threw its weight behind the contention of Ukrainian officials that some of the pro-Russian separatists who seized administration buildings in the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk were paid provocateurs brought in from outside, White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday in Washington.
The Bloomberg index of the biggest Russian stocks traded in New York fell 3 percent yesterday, the most since March 20, the day U.S. President Barack Obama imposed financial sanctions on Russian officials. The measure’s slide halted three straight weeks of gains amid speculation Russia won’t seek further territory after annexing Crimea from Ukraine.
The pro-Russian protesters demanded a referendum on seceding from Ukraine, state-run Rossiya 24 television reported. The mayor of Kharkiv confirmed reports that several dozen other demonstrators seized the regional television transmission mast and demanded that more Russian channels be broadcast, according to Interfax.
The regional government building in Kharkiv was freed of separatists today, with 70 people detained, according to Avakov. The country’s national guard and irregular forces of Pravyi Sektor, an umbrella organization that unites nationalist groups, were gathering in southern and eastern Ukraine, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
The demonstrations have paralleled the actions of pro-Russian protesters who seized Crimea’s assembly and paved the way for Russia to annex the Black Sea province last month. President Vladimir Putin, who’s massed troops on Ukraine’s border, says he has the right to defend Russian speakers from “fascists” after Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.
U.S. and European officials are increasingly concerned that yesterday’s disturbances, along with Russia’s economic and military pressure, signal the next phase of Putin’s effort to make Ukraine a loose federation allied with Russia.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday to arrange talks among officials from Ukraine, the U.S., the European Union and Russian within 10 days to head off any escalation. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said no time or agenda was set. The U.S. and Russia still differ on what role the interim Ukrainian government should play in any talks.
The U.S. and the European Union imposed sanctions against Russian officials and associates of Putin in response to the annexation of Crimea. Obama has said the U.S. will target sectors of Russia’s economy, including energy and finance, if Russia moves deeper into Ukraine.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in televised remarks from Kiev yesterday that Russia was trying to split his nation and turn part into “a territory of slavery under a Russian dictatorship.”
Russia also may be trying to undermine Ukraine’s planned May elections and encouraging ethnic Russians not to vote.
“If the Kremlin can achieve that, or reach an ‘understanding’ with the winner of those elections, it might be able to achieve its goals short of force,” former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said in The National Interest yesterday. “Only if these steps fail, does Mr. Putin look seriously at further Russian military aggression in Ukraine.”
Carney said there is “strong evidence” that demonstrators included paid outsiders. “That at least suggests that outside forces, not local forces, were participating in the effort to create these provocations,” he said.
Russia has as many as 40,000 soldiers stationed across the frontier, according to officials from the U.S. and NATO. Putin says the forces are conducting military exercises and will withdraw when they end.
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