Ukrainian military defections boost pro-Russia militia as unrest spreads

Ukrainian efforts to regain control over its industrial eastern region bordering Russia appear to be floundering after some units defected. Pro-Russian forces have seized another building in Donetsk.

Maks Levin/Reuters
Ukrainian servicemen look at a Ukrainian military jet fly above them in Kramatorsk April 16, 2014. Ukrainian government forces and separatist pro-Russian militia staged rival shows of force in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday amid escalating rhetoric on the eve of crucial four-power talks in Geneva on the former Soviet country's future.

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Ukrainian troops appear to be defecting to join pro-Russia separatist forces in Ukraine's restive east, one day before a planned summit in Geneva to discuss the growing crisis. The divided loyalties of Ukrainian forces are another blow to Kiev's efforts to regain control over the region. 

According to various media reports, a set of six armored personnel carriers flying pro-Russia colors arrived today in the protester-occupied town of Slovyansk, in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland. Reuters reports that the second vehicle in the column bore "the emblem of the Donetsk People's Republic which a group of separatists proclaimed last week and which the Kiev authorities see as a first step to seeking to break from Ukraine and join with Russia." 

The Associated Press reports that one of the men on the APCs, "who identified himself only as Andrei, said the unit was part of Ukraine's 25th Brigade of Airborne Forces and that they have switched to the side of the pro-Russian forces."

AP describes Slovyansk as a "hotbed of unrest against Ukraine's acting government," where local protesters have already seized the local police station and town hall.

Elsewhere, Ukrainian troops entered the the nearby town of Kramatorsk, but were impeded by local protesters, and "it is unclear whether they have any control of the town," the BBC reports. Yesterday, Ukrainian forces reportedly recaptured Kramatorsk's airfield, which had been seized by protesters.

And pro-Russia gunmen occupied the mayor's office in Donetsk without meeting any resistance this morning, the BBC adds.

The increasing military actions raise the ante for Thursday's planned talks in Geneva between Ukraine, Russia, the European Union, and the United States. Although Moscow had warned Kiev against sending troops into the east, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters today that "the meeting is still on the agenda," and that he still plans to attend, reports The Washington Post.

However, Lavrov stressed that the only way out of the crisis was to push Kiev to adopt sweeping constitutional reforms that devolved more power to Ukrainian regions.

“Sincere friends of the Ukrainian people must force the incumbent authorities finally to move from words to deeds and begin a genuine and comprehensive constitutional reform” to guarantee the rights of all regions of the country, he said.

Still, Russian military intervention remains a possibility. The Kremlin's authorization for use of troops in Ukraine remains on the books, and Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in a phone call today with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Ukraine is "on the brink of civil war," according to the presidential website.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Tuesday that while the US appreciates Kiev's promise that any action actions in the east "will be gradual and responsible," it stands behind Kiev's actions, the Post reports.

"... The Ukrainian government has a responsibility to provide law and order, and these provocations in eastern Ukraine are creating a situation in which the government has to respond,” Carney said. “The best way to de-escalate this situation is for the armed militants to leave the buildings they have seized.”

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