Shootouts in eastern Ukraine over the weekend led to calls for more U.S. economic sanctions against Russia, as a diplomatic accord aimed at defusing the crisis showed little sign of taking hold.
Ukrainian and Russian officials traded accusations over responsibility for tensions that escalated since last week’s signing of an agreement in Geneva that sought disarmament of all illegal groups and vacating of all seized buildings.
With separatists holding their ground in several eastern cities, the prospect for a small-scale civil war has increased, said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.
“I see this as a creeping destabilization,” Stent said in an interview yesterday. “I’m not sure it’s a civil war yet, but the pre-conditions for a civil war are there.”
At least three people were killed in a clash in Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine, the nation’s Interior Ministry said, as a top security official accused Russia of exploiting the violence to prepare grounds for an invasion.
Three “activists” were shot to death while on duty at a roadblock in an attack yesterday that also left three other people injured, the ministry said in a posting on its website. It said the assailants took “wounded and killed along with them,” without providing details. Ukraine’s Security Service said saboteurs carried out the assault.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry blamed the Ukrainian nationalist group Pravyi Sektor for the violence — an allegation that Pravyi Sektor denied in a statement. Viktoria Syumar, first deputy head of the National Security and Defense Council in Kiev, said on her Facebook page that Russia’s accusation and statements show it is preparing grounds to invade Ukraine.
In a separate incident, unidentified people attacked Ukrainian marines at a roadblock near Dobropillya in the Donestsk region of eastern Ukraine yesterday, leaving one of the attackers dead in an exchange of gunfire, the Unian newswire reported, citing Defense Ministry spokesman Dmytro Horbunov. None of the marines was killed, the report said.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called Russia a “threat to the globe” in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program over the weekend. “If Russia pulls back its security forces and former KGB agents, this would definitely calm down the situation and stabilize the situation in southern and eastern Ukraine,” he said.
Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of seeking the “extermination of independent Ukraine,” a charge Russia denies.
Turchynov, speaking on the Ukraina television channel, said his government is willing to increase the autonomy of local regions, including “appointing governors proposed by residents of Donetsk, Luhansk regions,” in the restive East. Yet those offers have done little to quell the violence.
Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Dmytro Horbunov said in a telephone interview with Channel 5 television that there have been three to four cases of “provocations” by unknown people against Ukrainian military outposts in the Luhansk region in the eastern part of the country. The provocations consisted of throwing rocks and fireworks, the spokesman said.
As the violence continued, pressure grew on the Obama administration to impose broader economic sanctions on Russia. Two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urged the imposition of sanctions on Russia’s banking and energy sectors yesterday.
“I think the time is now to rapidly ratchet up our sanctions, whether it’s on Russian petrochemical companies or on Russian banks,” said Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, on “Meet the Press.”
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top-ranking Republican on the committee, said on the same program yesterday the administration should impose sanctions on Russia’s energy and banking industries unless there’s an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from the Ukraine border.
“Our foreign policy is always a day late and a dollar short because we’re reacting,” Corker said.
In announcing the Geneva accord last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “if we’re not able to see progress on the immediate efforts to be able to implement the principles of this agreement this weekend, then we will have no choice but to impose further costs on Russia.”
Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergei Kislyak, said new economic sanctions against his country would amount to “the revival of the Cold War mentality” and would be counter-productive.
“We can withstand pressures,” Kislyak said on “Fox News Sunday” yesterday. Claims that Putin seeks to restore the former Soviet Union are “a false notion” and Russia seeks only to ensure that Ukraine becomes “a country that is democratic, that supports the rights of all the ethnic groups, including certainly Russia’s, and we want to have a friendly neighbor,” Kislyak said.
The weekend of violence added to skepticism about whether Ukraine, the U.S. and the European Union will be able to use an April 17 Geneva accord to hold Putin accountable for easing tensions that the Russian president says he had no role in creating.
Nothing has been done to implement the agreement, said Stent, author of a new book on U.S.-Russian relations called “The Limits of Partnership.”
“I see nothing that persuades me that anyone will be able to dislodge these people,” Stent said of the pro-Russia separatists who occupied government buildings in the Russian-speaking East.
Any civil war likely would be confined to those eastern towns, where the separatist movement is based, she said.
“It’s not a large-scale civil war, but it’s political paralysis because nothing’s going to move forward,” she said.
Ukraine’s Economic Minister Pavlo Sheremeta, speaking on the private television channel 1+1, said yesterday officials expect the International Monetary Fund to act this week on a loan to the country. Ukraine’s government sealed a preliminary accord with the IMF last month for as much as $18 billion in loans in the next two years. The rescue would unlock additional international financing bringing the total package to $27 billion.
Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said he’s hopeful that Ukraine can avoid a civil war.
“What I hear from Ukrainians across the board, and especially on this Easter holiday, is a desire to bring everybody together,” Pyatt said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program yesterday.
“There are obviously efforts from small, isolated groups to stir division,” Pyatt said. “But that’s not what I hear from most Ukrainians, including, I should add, Ukrainians in the East.”
Separatists who stage demonstrations and take over government buildings don’t represent the majority of Ukrainians, he said. “We’re really just talking about a couple of hundred of people at most of these sites.”