Ukraine launches 'anti-terrorist' ops in east... or does it?

Kiev says it has begun operations to displace pro-Russia protesters holding buildings in the country's east, though there have been few signs of activity so far.

Marko Djurica/Reuters
A pro-Russia protester shouts slogans at a barricade outside a regional government building in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine Tuesday. Russia declared Ukraine on the brink of civil war on Tuesday as Kiev said an 'anti-terrorist operation' against pro-Moscow separatists was underway, though the crackdown got off to a slow start, if at all.

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Kiev has launched a military operation to regain control of a number of cities in eastern Ukraine, the country’s interim President Oleksandr Turchynov said on Tuesday. His announcement comes a day after pro-Russian separatists, who’ve largely taken over a number of cities in the region, defied his order to step down.

But the announcement by Mr. Turchynov was immediately met with questions about whether the operation will settle or further the crisis, and whether it was going on at all. Stripped of resources and beset by multiple crises, the new government in Kiev may not have the muscle or credibility to regain control of the country’s east. And if it tries, its efforts risk setting off a chain reaction that may culminate in a full-out intervention from Moscow.

"Overnight, an antiterrorist operation began in the north of Donetsk. But it will be phased, responsible and balanced,” Mr. Turchynov told the parliament today according to the Wall Street Journal. The campaign’s purpose, he said, was to “defend the citizens of Ukraine, to stop terror, stop crime and stop attempts to tear our country into pieces,”  The New York Times writes.

What forces Kiev was able to rally in the east (some have reportedly joined the separatists) appeared to be on the move last night, based on eyewitness reports posted on social media. One YouTube video showed pro-Russian residents ambushing a tank on a field somewhere in eastern Ukraine, screaming “Who are you going to shoot with that? Power it down!”

Separatists have dug in nine eastern cities, where they have seized administrative and police buildings. (See a map of the crisis published by the Wall Street Journal.) The Journal reported from Slovyansk, a flashpoint town, that demonstrators were ready for a fight, if it came to that: 

In Slovyansk, which emerged as a key city in the recent wave of unrest, there was no sign of the Ukrainian military and the mood remained calm, although many shops were closed. A man guarding a barricade outside the city's main police station, which was seized on Sunday, said the protesters were prepared for any assault.

"If they attack, we will fight them," said the man, who only gave his name as Denis. Nearby, four well-equipped men in camouflage uniforms and carrying automatic weapons, patrolled the streets. Reporters who took photos of the men were ordered by men guarding the building to erase their cameras' memory cards and told to leave the area. 

Today’s statement by Turchynov follows his appeal to the United Nations for help on Monday, in which he invited UN peacekeepers into the country, according to Interfax Ukraine. But this proposal was almost certainly unworkable from the start – Russia is a member of the UN Security Council, holding veto power – underscoring just how few options Kiev has at its disposal. 

The increasingly precarious standoff is putting Kiev to a choice between bad and worse, the Times adds: 

The confused and passive response underscored Kiev’s limited options in challenging pro-Russian militants and their backers in Moscow. Too assertive a response could cause heavy civilian casualties and play into Moscow’s narrative that Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine are threatened and need protection. Too timid a response risks inviting more meddling from Moscow or giving free rein to local armed militants. 

Russia has repeatedly stressed that any use of force by Kiev would be tantamount to launching a civil war in the country and would thus validate the separatists’ calls for protection from Moscow. “If force is used in southeastern Ukraine, [the] chances of holding this meeting in Geneva would be undermined,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday according to the Financial Times.  Top officials from Russia, Ukraine, the US and EU are scheduled to hold talks in Geneva on Thursday.

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