Ukraine steps up military offensive in eastern towns, provoking Russian warning (+video)

Russia's foreign minister said an attack on Russian citizens "is an attack on the Russian Federation." Ukraine said its troops retook a city hall and repelled an assault by militiamen last night. 

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    Ukrainian security force officers walk past a checkpoint set on fire and left by pro-Russian separatists near the separatist-held city Slaviansk. Ukrainian forces clashed with pro-Russian militants as they closed in Slaviansk on Thursday, seizing separatists checkpoints and setting up roadblocks as helicopters circled overhead.
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Ukraine says it regained control of a city hall and defended an army base from pro-Russian militiamen in two eastern towns last night. Moscow said Wednesday it would retaliate if its interests in Ukraine were targeted, raising fears that tensions could rise further in the crisis.

The small Ukrainian victories, the first since pro-Russia separatists began seizing government buildings in southeastern Ukraine, came two days after acting President Oleksandr Turchynov gave orders for the Ukrainian military to resume operations there, according to The Associated Press.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the city hall in Mariupol, in the Donetsk region, was “liberated” in an overnight operation, reports the BBC. And according to the defense ministry, an army base in the town of Artemivsk, north of Donetsk, deterred an attack by about 70 rebels.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told state-run RT news on Wednesday that Ukraine should pull its forces out of the region, saying the Kremlin is prepared to act in order to “protect” pro-Russian separatists, Bloomberg reports. An attack on a Russian citizen “is an attack against the Russian Federation,” Mr. Lavrov said, adding that, “if we are attacked, we would certainly respond.” Russia's parliament has approved sending troops to Ukraine, if necessary to protect Russian citizens and compatriots. 

This was the first time Moscow has publicly compared the situation in Ukraine to South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia that Russia invaded in August 2008. The six-day war ended “in a humiliating defeat for the Georgian army and solidifi[ed] South Ossetia’s de facto independence from Tbilisi,” reports The Globe and Mail.

The US began deploying an estimated 600 troops to bolster NATO’s defense efforts in states bordering Ukraine this week. Units arrived in Poland yesterday, and others are scheduled to go to Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, reports the Guardian. Russia is believed to have at least 40,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border.

President Obama at a press conference in Japan accused Russia of not abiding by an agreement to disarm rebels that had been concluded last week in Geneva in an effort to tamp down hostilities.

"So far at least we have seen them not abide by the spirit or the letter of the agreement in Geneva," Obama said, referring to Russia. “Instead we continue to see malicious, armed men taking over buildings, harassing folks who are disagreeing with them, destabilizing the region and we haven't seen Russia step out and discouraging it."

He said consequences would include “further sanctions.” Already the US and EU have frozen some Russian assets and banned Russian and Ukrainian officials from receiving travel visas. Obama could face challenges in getting western European countries on board with further sanctions, however, due to Europe's dependence on Russia-supplied gas.

According to The Christian Science Monitor, the Pentagon is cool on some potentially hard-hitting sanctions as well:

As Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Ukraine this week to confer with US allies there, back on Capitol Hill lawmakers are planning some steps of their own to ratchet up pressure on Russia.

These steps involve, notably, proposed sanctions on a state-owned Russian arms manufacturer, which some US lawmakers also accuse of supplying arms to Syria and Iran.

The problem is that Pentagon officials have been quietly asking them to hold off on these measures, because the arms export firm, Rosoboronexport, also supplies the helicopters used by the struggling Afghan Air Force.

“The word the Pentagon keeps using with us is ‘flexibility,’ which means they want us to give Rosoboronexport a giant exception,” says a congressional staffer, who would speak only on condition of anonymity. “But these folks are tools of Russian foreign policy, and Russian foreign policy at the moment is to poke the United States in the eye.”

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