Ukraine’s interim government said today that it would renew a security operation against pro-Russian gunmen in the country’s east, prompting Russian criticism and underscoring concern that a deal signed last week to defuse tension is unraveling.
“The security forces are working on the liquidation of illegal armed groups” in eastern Ukraine, First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema told reporters, according to Reuters. “The corresponding activities will be carried out in the near future, and you will see results.”
Mr. Yarema also said that Ukraine had “obtained the support of the United States, that they will not leave us alone with an aggressor.”
The scene in eastern Ukraine is increasingly unruly, officials in Kiev say. Acting Ukrainian President Olexander Turchynov told the BBC that he had ordered the security operation to resume after two men – including local politician Volodymyr Rybak – were found dead after being "brutally tortured."
Reuters reports that "there was growing evidence of arbitrary rule by self-appointed local officials, backed up by heavily-armed militias, and of violence being meted out against opponents." Of particular note, a militia in Slaviansk is currently holding three journalists, including Simon Ostrovsky, an American reporter for online site Vice News.
Reuters adds that there may be little Ukrainian forces can do to remove the separatist militias "without wrecking an international deal, signed last week in Geneva, designed to defuse the stand-off."
Ukraine's poorly resourced forces had previously shown little sign of taking on the gunmen who started occupying towns and public buildings two weeks ago. The offensive may not lead to much more action but could fuel recriminations between Moscow and Kiev about who is failing to honor the Geneva deal.
Mediators from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe, tasked with helping the sides implement the accord, were in eastern Ukraine trying to encourage illegal groups to disarm. There was no sign yet they were backing down.
The announcement of the security operation's relaunch follows the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden to Ukraine yesterday, during which he pledged $50 million in aid to Kiev, according to the BBC. He also called on Moscow to end its support for separatist forces in Donetsk and other eastern cities – forces that Kiev and the West say are controlled by Russia, something the Kremlin denies.
Russian officials responded to Ukraine’s announcement by critiquing the US role. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told state broadcaster RT that it was “quite telling” that Ukraine “chose the moment of the vice president of the US’ visit to announce the resumption of this operation,” and that there is “no reason not to believe that the Americans are running the show,” according to excerpts of the television interview on the RT website.
He also denied that Russian troops were in eastern Ukraine, said that the presence of Russian troops by the border with Ukraine was in line with international law, and pledged that "Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation."
Russia had also proposed meetings tomorrow between Ukrainian and Russian ministers to discuss gas – Russia’s Gazprom says it will turn off gas flows to Ukraine next month unless Kiev pays its debts – but it is not certain whether the talks are on, Reuters reports.
The United States also announced yesterday that it would send 600 troops to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, according to Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.
“This is a tangible representation of our commitment to security obligations in Europe and to the alliance” and comes in response to the crisis in Ukraine, he said, according to Bloomberg. The troops will be on training exercises and are meant to reassure nervous former Soviet Union states who border Russia. The US has made it clear that it does not expect to send soldiers to Ukraine.