Slavyansk (Ukraine) (AFP) – Russian President Vladimir Putin denied involvement Monday with pro-Russian insurgents gaining ground in eastern Ukraine, but an unconvinced European Union expanded its sanctions on officials accused of trying to break up the ex-Soviet country.
Putin told U.S. President Barack Obama that Russia was not sponsoring the Kalashnikov-toting separatists who have seized a string of key state buildings in eastern Ukraine, and that “such speculations are based on unfounded information”, according to a Kremlin account of a phone call between the two leaders.
Ukraine’s Western-backed interim President Oleksandr Turchynov meanwhile sought a way out of the escalating crisis by proposing a referendum on greater autonomy for the country’s regions and seeking help from the United Nations.
Russia has deployed some 40,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, a presence the U.S. and EU sought to counter by approving more than $2 billion in aid for Kiev’s embattled interim administration.
EU foreign ministers also announced they were expanding the list of 33 Ukrainian and Russian officials and business leaders hit by asset freezes and visa bans for their role in the Ukraine crisis — though the bloc stopped short of harsher measures ahead of a Geneva meeting of top EU, U.S., Russian and Ukrainian officials this week.
Underlining the danger of an escalation into military conflict, the U.S. said a Russian fighter jet had made several low-altitude passes near an American destroyer in the Black Sea at the weekend, branding the flyby “provocative and unprofessional”.
The White House meanwhile fended off Russian criticism of its own moves in the crisis, acknowledging that Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan had visited Kiev at the weekend but insisting it was part of a routine trip and that claims to the contrary were “absurd”.
The pro-Kremlin militias who have seized state buildings in coordinated raids across eastern Ukraine only appeared to be gaining confidence while paying little heed to a “full-scale anti-terrorist operation” announced with much fanfare in Kiev.
Protesters armed with rocks and clubs smashed their way inside a police station in Gorlivka — a coal-mining town straddling a highway between the regional capital Donetsk and the city of Slavyansk to the north that is now effectively under militants’ control.
The unrestrained crowd whistled and cheered as they ripped away metal shields from the visibly frightened local force before raising the tricolor flag of the self-declared “People’s Republic of Donetsk”.
And Kalashnikov-wielding militants in Slavyansk — who are already in control of the local police station and security service office — also took command of its administration building before asking Putin to send in his troops.
“We ask President Putin to help us,” rebel leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told a group of reporters.