NATO has warned Russia against making a “historic mistake” by provoking a flaring secession crisis in eastern Ukraine that Moscow itself conceded could degenerate into a civil war.
Ukraine’s embattled interim leaders have been waging an uphill battle to keep their culturally splintered nation of 46 million together after last month’s ouster of a pro-Kremlin regime and subsequent loss of Crimea to Russia.
On Sunday, militants stormed a series of strategic government buildings across a swathe of heavily Russified eastern regions and demanded that Moscow send its troops for support.
Ukraine mounted a counteroffensive on Tuesday by vowing to treat the separatists as “terrorists” and and making 70 arrests in a security sweep aimed at proving the Kremlin’s involvement in the secessionist movement.
An urgent deployment of security forces saw Kiev also regain control of an administration building in Kharkiv and the security service headquarters of Donetsk.
But the separatists still held on to the security service building in the city of Lugansk after breaking into its massive weapons cache and releasing several activists who had been accused of plotting to stage a coup.
Hundreds of militants also remained inside the Donetsk administration building a day after proclaiming the creation of an independent “people’s republic” and demanding that an independence referendum be held before May 11.
The months-long crisis threatens not only to splinter the vast nation on the EU’s eastern frontier along its ethnic divisions but also plunge Moscow’s relations with the West to a low that may take decades to repair.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen reaffirmed on a visit to Paris that Moscow, which has massed troops along its border with Ukraine, would be making a “historic mistake” if it were to intervene in Ukraine any further.
“It would have grave consequences for our relationship with Russia and it would further isolate Russia internationally,” said the Western military alliance leader.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to use “all means necessary” to protect his compatriots in Ukraine and is now demanding a decentralisation of power that could push the east further out of Kiev’s reach.
The Russian Foreign Ministry put still more pressure on Kiev by accusing it of making “military preparations (in eastern regions) that are fraught with the risk of unleashing a civil war.”
It also alleged that the new leaders were deploying private security operatives from a US firm called Greystone whom it dressed up as Ukrainian special forces.
Putin has frequently accused Washington of trying to weaken his hand and once blamed the US State Department for the sudden surge in anti-Kremlin protests that hit Moscow in the winter of 2011-2012.
Washington warned the Kremlin on Monday to stop efforts to “destabilise Ukraine” and proposed it instead join four-way talks that besides the two nations and Kiev would also include the European Union.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that any such negotiations should also include representatives of Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions – a condition implicitly unacceptable to Kiev.
The West’s growing concern underscores the trouble Kiev may have in bringing order to Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland – a region with ancient cultural and trade ties to Russia.