By Sergei L. Loiko and Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times
KIEV, Ukraine — Vice President Joe Biden on Monday embarked on a mission to show U.S. support for Ukraine’s embattled interim leaders as pro-Russia gunmen took over more government buildings in eastern Ukraine and the Kremlin’s top diplomat blamed Washington for the growing crisis.
Biden was to meet Tuesday with acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, as well as civil society leaders in Kiev, the capital, before returning to Washington.
Although the White House said Biden’s visit was intended to express U.S. support for “national unity and a successful constitutional reform,” the trip and other recent political missions to Kiev were cast by Russian officials and media as evidence that Washington was directing the interim government.
U.S. and Russian officials have been trading accusations of failing to enforce an agreement reached in Geneva last week. The accord was aimed at easing the standoffs in eastern Ukraine, including one that erupted into a shootout at a roadblock Sunday.
The Geneva plan called for all “illegal armed groups” to disarm and surrender key government facilities to their “rightful owners.” But the pro-Russia gunmen occupying government offices in a dozen towns and cities have refused to give up their weapons, saying the interim government in Kiev is also an illegal armed group subject to the plan’s provisions.
“It’s still too early to tell if this is going to succeed,” said Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. “The ball is really in Moscow’s court in terms of whether they’re going to take this diplomatic offramp.”
All indications Monday were that the crisis was continuing unchecked.
In the town of Kramatorsk, in the north of the Donetsk region, pro-Russia separatists broke into a police station and kidnapped the police chief, the online publication Kramatorsk.info reported.
In Luhansk, capital of the neighboring region of the same name, young separatists in masks and armed with sticks and baseball bats attacked a rally by supporters of Ukrainian unity, calling people “fascists” and “traitors” as they beat them, independent Channel 5 reported. Militants continue to hold the Ukrainian Security Service headquarters in Luhansk and have captured hundreds of firearms, the UNIAN news agency reported.
And in Slovyansk, scene of the Sunday shootout in which at least three people were killed, a new influx of gunmen set up roadblocks at key intersections and commercial sites, said reporter Denis Kazansky of the regional online publication Ostrov.
“Russian commandos are allegedly hiding inside the local police station and running this growing chaos from there,” Kazansky said.
The gunmen in Slovyansk also detained five journalists — two Ukrainians, two Italians and a Belorussian. All but one were released after being roughed up and interrogated, Kazansky said.
Authorities in Kiev blame the spreading confrontation in the east on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last month annexed Ukraine’s Crimea area after a similar campaign of accusations that Russian-speaking citizens were in danger from the new leadership in power since pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in February.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Washington of having ignited the crisis.
“Instead of giving ultimatums and threatening us with sanctions, Washington should realize in full measure its responsibility for those people they brought to power in Kiev,” Lavrov said.
Biden’s visit is mostly symbolic, analysts said, but it could serve to remind Moscow that the West is prepared to help the fledgling Ukrainian government as it is being challenged by neighboring Russia.
“The U.S.-leaning interim government of Ukraine still counts very much on getting some financial assistance and maybe more than that from the United States at this crucial moment in its history,” said Kost Bondarenko, head of the Ukrainian Policy Institute in Kiev. “Biden’s visit sends a clear-cut message to Moscow that Washington may not limit its reaction to sanctions alone.”
AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic