Print options

April 15, 2014

Ukraine Launches Crackdown on Separatists

by VOA News

Ukrainian airborne troops landed in a town in the east of the country on Tuesday apparently at the start of an “anti-terrorist operation” to root out pro-Russian separatists - but they pulled back into base after meeting a hostile reception from local civilians.

The town of Kramatorsk is one of 10 localities in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east where separatist rebellions have broken out. The move suggested Ukraine's authorities were going ahead with a plan for a military crackdown to end the unrest which began 10 days ago.

Separately, the state security service announced a similar operation was under way in the town of Slovyansk, about 20 km (13 miles) from Kramatorsk, where pro-Russia militants are occupying state buildings to push their demands for referendums on the status of Ukraine's eastern regions.

Exercising restraint

Despite warnings issued on Sunday by Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov of a “full-scale operation” against separatists, the offensive by Ukrainian forces is seen as moderate. Even Turchynov himself toned down his rhetoric.

Some observers say Kyiv is exercising restraint in anticipation of four-way talks on the crisis to be held on Thursday in Geneva.

Aside from Ukraine and Russia, the meeting will include representatives from the U.S. and EU.

Moscow has called on Kyiv not to use force against the separatists in the run-up to the talks.

The standoff has raised fears in the West and in Kyiv that Russia might intervene militarily to “protect” Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, following its annexation of Crimea last month in response to the overthrow of Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych, following months of protests.

US reaction

The White House said on Tuesday Ukraine's actions against pro-Russian militiamen in the country's eastern region are called for because of the threat to law and order in the country.

"The Ukrainian government has the responsibility to provide law and order and these provocations in eastern Ukraine are creating a situation in which the government has to respond,'' White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a briefing.

The United States is "seriously considering'' new sanctions against Russia, but is not considering providing lethal aid to Ukraine, he said.

Separately, the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday it anticipates more Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia but suggested no action was likely before four-way talks  in Geneva this Thursday.

No UN peacekeepers

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was quoted as saying on Tuesday that now was not the right moment for any United Nations peacekeeping troops to be sent to Ukraine.

”At this moment, it doesn't seem very practical to send troops,” Ban during a visit to Mexico told newspaper Reforma, according to the Spanish text of an interview.

Ban said that any decision to send peacekeeping troops to Ukraine would need to be agreed by the U.N. Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member.

”Unless we have a clear mandate and authorization from the Security Council, I can't take any action,” Ban said.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin told Ban that the United Nations and the international community should condemn the use of force by Ukrainian authorities in eastern Ukraine.

UN report

A United Nations report on Tuesday disputed Moscow's claims that Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine were seriously threatened, including those in Crimea which Russia annexed last month following a referendum the West considered staged.

"Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread," said the report by the U.N. human rights office.

Russia called the report one-sided, politicized and apparently fabricated.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen accused Moscow of involvement in the rebellions. "It is very clear that Russia's hand is deeply engaged in this," he told reporters.

Russia's stance

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Moscow was stirring up the separatists in the east and southeast as a possible prelude to repeating steps taken in Crimea.

"Ukraine is spreading lies that Russia is behind the actions in the southeast," Lavrov said on a visit to China.

Moscow has demanded constitutional change in Ukraine to give more powers to Russian-speaking areas, where most of the country's heavy industry lies, while the rebels have demanded Crimean-style referendums on secession in their regions.

Kyiv opposes anything that might lead to the dismemberment of the country. But in an attempt to undercut the rebels' demands, Turchynov has held out the prospect of a nationwide referendum on the future shape of the Ukrainian state.

Reverse flows

The crisis has also prompted fears that Moscow might turn off gas supplies to Kyiv, disrupting flows to the European Union.

Russian exporter Gazprom promised it would remain a reliable supplier to the EU, but German energy company RWE began deliveries to Ukraine on Tuesday - reversing the usual east-west flow in one central European pipeline.

Central Europe's pipeline network is designed to carry Russian gas westwards. But Polish operator Gaz-System said it had reversed the flow to send back 4 million cubic meters per day, the equivalent of 1.5 billion annually - a modest volume compared with Ukraine's need for more than 50 billion.

Moscow has nearly doubled the price it charges Kyiv this year, and President Putin has threatened to halt supplies if Kyiv does not repay more than $2 billion it owes to Gazprom.

Putin also has warned EU leaders that this could disrupt their supplies that flow across Ukraine.

Ukrainian state energy company Naftogaz said it was ready to pay in full for imported gas from Russia at $268.5 per 1,000 cubic meters, rather than the $485 Moscow has demanded, which is more than it charges rich Western countries for its gas.
  ​​

​​ ​​Klitschko urges action

Opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, who helped lead the protests that drove pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from office, urged Turchynov to send Ukrainian armed forces to the region to drive out the separatists.

"Infiltrators and hired people are not the people of Ukraine. Our dialogue with them must be short," he insisted. "That's what people in Donbas, Lugansk, Kharkiv, who ask about protection, are expecting from us. People, who came to the parliament today and are standing there right now, demand mobilization to protect their state.''

Moscow denies involvement

Moscow denies claims of Russian agents' involvement in the protests as "speculations based on unreliable information.'' Putin said the protests vented public anger about the Ukrainian government's reluctance to recognize the interests of Russian speakers in the east.

Moscow accuses Kyiv of provoking the crisis by ignoring the rights of citizens who use Russian as their first language, and has promised to protect them from attack. It also has highlighted the presence of far-right nationalists among Kyiv's new rulers.

Lavrov had said Moscow will withdraw from an emergency international summit scheduled for Thursday in Geneva if Kyiv uses force in eastern Ukraine.

"Ukraine is spreading lies that Russia is behind the actions in the southeast. This is a total lie that supposes that those residents there are completely incapable of protesting of their own will,'' Lavrov said on a visit to China.

Lavrov called on Kyiv to hold back before a meeting between Russia, the European Union, the United States, and Ukraine planned for Geneva on Thursday. "You can't send in tanks and at the same time hold talks,'' he said. "The use of force would sabotage the opportunity offered by the four-party negotiations in Geneva.''

Moscow says it wants constitutional change in Ukraine to give more powers to Russian-speaking areas, where most of the country's heavy industry lies, while the secessionists have demanded Crimean-style referendums in their regions.

Kyiv opposes anything that might lead to the dismemberment of the country. But in an attempt to undercut the rebels' demands, Turchynov has held out the prospect of a nationwide referendum on the future shape of the Ukrainian state.

Lavrov said Kyiv's apparent willingness to "resolve through negotiations all the problems relating to the legal demands of the inhabitants of the south-east regions of Ukraine, is certainly a step in the right direction, albeit very belated''.

NATO chief, Britain's Hague accuse Russia

Russia is deeply involved in the crisis in eastern Ukraine where pro-Moscow separatists have seized control of a number of government buildings, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Tuesday.

The frank remarks from the head of the western military alliance underline rising tensions with Moscow, which says it is not involved in the armed pro-Russian protests in eastern Ukraine. Asked if he had seen evidence of Russian involvement in events in eastern Ukraine, Rasmussen told reporters: "We never... comment on intelligence, but I think from what is visible, it is very clear that Russia's hand is deeply engaged in this." Relations between NATO and Russia have turned icy since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region last month.

NATO, accusing Russia of massing forces on Ukraine's border, also has suspended cooperation with Moscow. Rasmussen, in Luxembourg for talks with European Union defense ministers, called on Russia to "de-escalate the crisis,to pull back its troops from Ukraine's borders, to stop destabilizing the situation in Ukraine and make clear that it doesn't support the violent actions of pro-Russian separatists. Russia should stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution."

Rasmussen said NATO was not discussing any military involvement in non-NATO member Ukraine and was focusing on strengthening the defenses of eastern European allies nervous about Russia's intentions. NATO ambassadors are expected on Wednesday to discuss options put forward by military planners for reinforcing the defenses of eastern allies through exercises and temporary deployments of planes and ships sent by other allies. In his talks with EU defense ministers, Rasmussen said he would call for stronger cooperation between NATO and the EU, proposing that the military rapid reaction forces that both organizations maintain should train and exercise together more often.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague will say on Tuesday in a speech in London that Russia has deliberately pushed Ukraine "to the brink" in recent days and increased the risk of violent confrontation there.

Hague's comments were released in advance by his office: "In recent days Russia has deliberately pushed Ukraine to the brink, and created a still greater risk of violent confrontation."

​​UN Human Rights report

However, a United Nations report on Tuesday cast doubt on whether Russian-speakers were seriously threatened, including those in Crimea who voted to join Russia after Moscow forces had already seized control of the Black Sea peninsula.

"Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread,'' a report by the U.N. human rights office said.

The report, issued after two visits to Ukraine last month by Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic, cited "misinformed reports'' and "greatly exaggerated stories of harassment of ethnic Russians by Ukrainian nationalist extremists''.

These, it said, "had been systematically used to create a climate of fear and insecurity that reflected on support to integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation.''

Obama, Putin phone call

U.S. President Barack Obama warned Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call Monday that Moscow will face further costs if its actions in Ukraine persist.  He also urged the Russian leader to use his influence to persuade the demonstrators to leave the buildings they have seized.

"The president emphasized that all irregular forces in the country need to lay down their arms, and he urged President Putin to use his influence with these armed, pro-Russian groups to convince them to depart the buildings they have seized," the White House said in a statement.

Emergency talks planned

Top diplomats from Russia, the United States, Ukraine and the European Union are to hold emergency talks on the crisis April 17 in Geneva.  White House officials say U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Kyiv April 22.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials signed a $1 billion loan guarantee to Ukraine.  U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said the agreement demonstrates the United States' unwavering commitment to a stable Ukraine.  Ukrainian Finance Minister Oleksandr Shlapak said his country is wrapping up talks with the IMF on a comprehensive economic reform program.

Some information for this report provided by AP and Reuters
  ​​