IZYUM (Ukraine) (AFP) – Russia warned on Tuesday that Ukraine was on the brink of “civil war” after Kiev’s leaders pushed troops and tanks toward a flashpoint eastern city to counter a separatist surge backed by Moscow.
The 20 tanks and armoured personnel carriers were the most forceful response yet by Kiev’s Western-backed government to the pro-Kremlin militants’ occupation of state buildings in nearly 10 cities across Ukraine’s rust belt.
Ukrainian forces set up a cement road barrier and began checking traffic leading to Slavyansk while fighters and attack helicopters circled overhead.
The economically depressed industrial city of 100,000 that has been under effective control of separatist gunmen since Saturday.
“They must be warned that if they do not lay down their arms, they will be destroyed,” Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) General Vasyl Krutov told a group of reporters tracking the sudden tank movements.
He insisted that the militants were receiving support from several hundred soldiers from the Russian army’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) that had been dispatched to Slavyansk and surrounding villages.
Witnesses told AFP that at least two Ukrainian military helicopters had landed in the nearby town of Kramatorsk with reinforcements for the offensive.
One Slavyansk resident told Kiev’s private ICTV television that the insurgents had begun reinforcing barricades and set up two machine guns along one of the main entrance to the city.
Kiev’s response to the eastern insurgency prompted Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to warn that “Ukraine is on the brink of civil war — it’s frightening”.
He urged Ukraine’s “de-facto” authorities — not recognized by Moscow — to avert “terrible turmoil”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the United Nations to condemn Kiev’s actions in east Ukraine, the Kremlin said.
But the White House said that Ukraine faced an “untenable” situation and described its military operation against pro-Russia militants as “measured”.
White House spokesman Jay Carney urged restraint and “all due caution” while adding that the Ukrainian government had a “responsibility” to safeguard law and order.
The threat of an all-out war breaking out just beyond the EU’s eastern frontier sent stock markets across Europe lower on Tuesday. London’s FTSE 100 ended down 0.64 percent while the CAC-40 fell 0.89 percent in Paris. The Dax index in Germany — which is closer and more affected by events — plummeted 1.77 percent.
“New fears about Ukraine worried the market and could, at any time, send it plunging once again,” said Saxo Bank analyst Andrea Tueni.
The rapid turn of events on the ground were preceded by a telephone conversation late Monday between U.S. President Barack Obama and Putin that the White House described as “frank and direct.”
The Kremlin chief continued to reject any links to the Russian-speaking gunmen who have proclaimed the creation of their own independent republic and asked Putin to send in the 40,000 troops now massed along the eastern border with Ukraine.
But Obama accused Moscow of supporting “armed pro-Russian separatists who threaten to undermine and destabilise the government of Ukraine.”
The worst East-West standoff since the Cold War era was exacerbated over the weekend by a Russian warplane “buzzing” a U.S. destroyer in the Black Sea and a visit to Kiev by CIA chief John Brennan that was confirmed by the White House and slammed by Moscow.
European foreign ministers meanwhile held back on unleashing punishing economic sanctions against Russia in hopes that EU-U.S. mediated talks on Thursday in Geneva between Moscow and Kiev could help de-escalate the crisis.
Kiev’s untested interim leaders have struggled to meet the high-stakes challenge presented by the coordinated series of raids that began in the industrial hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk and have since spread to nearby coal mining towns and villages.
The breakaway move — backed by tough talk by Moscow — could potentially see their vast nation of 46 million break up along its historic Russian-Ukrainian cultural divide.
Moscow last month annexed the largely Russified region of Crimea after deploying military forces there and backing a hasty local referendum calling for the Black Sea peninsula to be absorbed into the Russian Federation.
But a forceful military response by Kiev could prompt a devastating counterstrike by Russian troops who are waiting to act on Putin’s vow to “protect” Russian-speakers in the neighboring state.
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov told an agitated session of parliament that the country was facing an eastern enemy rather than domestic discontent.
“They want to set fire not only to the Donetsk region but to the entire south and east — from Kharkiv to the Odessa region,” the acting president said.
Kiev’s news programmes have spent much of the past day replaying footage from an attack by militants on a police station in the town of Gorlivka in which men in gas masks pelted the building with Molotov cocktails before smashing its windows with rocks and bats.
One clip showed a green-uniformed man who identified himself as a Russian colonel telling the local police force that it now must obey his orders and must wear orange-and-black ribbons symbolizing Kremlin pride.
The Kremlin set nerves in Kiev further on edge on Monday by announcing that Putin had received requests from eastern Ukraine “to intervene in some form.” Some in Kiev saw that as a new effort to create a pretext for an invasion.
©afp.com / Anatoliy Stepanov