Ukrainian troops killed three pro-Russian militants in the country’s tense southeast early Thursday, just hours ahead of key talks in Geneva seeking to ease the escalating crisis in the former Soviet republic.
The gun battle erupted overnight when around 300 people lobbed fire bombs and fired weapons at an interior ministry base in the port city of Mariupol, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page.
The violence raised the urgency of the Geneva talks, which bring together the foreign ministers of Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union in the hopes of starting dialogue to quell the biggest East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.
Russia, which has tens of thousands of troops stationed on its border with Ukraine, has warned Kiev not to use force against the pro-Kremlin militants who have seized buildings across the country’s tinderbox southeast and has said it reserves the right to protect Russian speakers there.
The United States warned Moscow on Wednesday that it risked facing fresh sanctions unless it made concessions at the crunch Geneva talks.
The negotiations come a day after a military operation ordered by Kiev to oust the separatists collapsed, with militants showing no sign of budging and humiliating the government by seizing army vehicles originally dispatched to clear them out.
As tensions simmered, NATO announced that it was deploying more forces in eastern Europe, and called for Russia to stop “destabilising” Ukraine, which has been in deep turmoil since the ouster of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych in February.
Will diplomacy win?
The focus is now on whether diplomacy can bring Ukraine back from what Moscow said could turn into a “civil war.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday warned the “criminal” operation by Kiev against the separatists would undermine the talks in Geneva between him, Ukraine’s interim Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya, US Secretary of State John Kerry and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
A US State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also underscored the fragility of the talks, saying: “It has been difficult to get real dialogue going between Russia and Ukraine.”
Moscow refuses to see Kiev’s government — installed by Ukraine’s parliament after protests forced former president Viktor Yanukovich to flee in February — as legitimate.
Washington and Kiev’s priorities at the talks include trying to get Russia to demobilise the militias, despite the fact that Moscow denies any links to them.
The United States and European Union have already imposed sanctions on key Russian and Ukrainian political and business officials, including members of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
But if the meeting ends in failure, Western countries are prepared to slap Moscow with tougher, broader economic and financial sanctions meant to hurt its already struggling economy.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that the US was “actively preparing” new sanctions against Russia, with signs growing that Washington may be ready to target the country’s key mining, energy and financial sectors.
US officials privately signalled they had little hope that the Geneva talks would make significant progress.
US President Barack Obama meanwhile specifically accused Moscow of actively supporting separatist militias in southern and eastern Ukraine.
“Each time Russia takes these kinds of steps that are designed to destabilise Ukraine and violate their sovereignty, there are going to be consequences,” Obama told CBS News.
Minutes after landing in Geneva on Wednesday, Deshchytsya called on Russia to stop supporting “terrorist activities” in the east.
He also set out a string of other demands that will be all but impossible to meet, such as asking Moscow to confirm that Crimea — which it annexed last month — “is an integral part of Ukraine”.
For its part, Russia’s foreign ministry claimed Washington was backing Kiev’s “war on its own people” in strident language that made any concession at the Geneva talks seem unlikely.
The situation on the ground in the rebel east of Ukraine is no less favourable to the Kiev administration.
In the flashpoint eastern town of Slavyansk, insurgents who had occupied state buildings since Saturday were given a hero’s welcome by locals Wednesday after they seized the six armoured vehicles from government troops.
In another apparent humbling in the nearby town of Kramatorsk, Ukrainian troops — some weeping — handed over the firing mechanisms of their rifles to pro-Moscow protesters who had surrounded their column of 14 armoured personnel carriers. In return, they were promised they could leave in their vehicles.
‘A new Berlin Wall’
As Kiev’s pushed to reclaim authority, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced Wednesday that the alliance would deploy additional forces in eastern Europe.
“We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water… and more readiness on the land,” he said.
Authorities in Kiev also ratcheted up the verbal attacks on Russia, with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accusing Moscow of trying to build “a new Berlin Wall”.
The situation in Ukraine’s southeast is similar to what happened in the Crimean peninsula before it was annexed by Russia last month.
Ukrainian intelligence said Wednesday it had intercepted communications showing that the same Russian agents who oversaw the seizure of Crimea were now coordinating the unrest in the east.
In his statement on Thursday, Ukraine’s interior minister said Russian cellphones had been seized from some of the 63 people arrested following the Mariupol raid.