Ukrainian security forces battled pro-Russian gunmen in the eastern town of Slovyansk, with both sides suffering casualties, in what European Union member Poland called “the worst-case scenario” for the country.
A day after Ukrainian officials accused Russia of “external aggression,” camouflaged gunmen fired on units deployed by the government in Kiev in an anti-terror operation near Slovyansk, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) from the Russian frontier, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said today on Facebook. One serviceman was killed and five were wounded, with an unknown number of dead on the separatist side, he said.
It followed the takeover of a regional police station in Donetsk yesterday and gun battles in which police stopped separatists from seizing buildings in other towns. The events echoed those that preceded Russia’s annexation of Crimea, rattling Ukraine’s industrial heartland and raising concern that Russia may carve off more of Ukraine with what NATO has estimated are 40,000 combat-ready troops massed on the border.
“Over the past few hours we’ve witnessed the worst-case scenario playing out in Ukraine,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who has advocated a strong response to Russia, said in an interview with Radio Zet in Warsaw.
The anti-terror operation began after acting President Oleksandr Turchynov called an emergency meeting of the country’s National Defense and Security Council last night.
“Please let all civilians know to vacate the center of town, to not leave their apartments and to stay away from windows,” Avakov posted on his Facebook account. “Separatists have opened fire on approaching special-forces units.”
One person was killed an nine were wounded, news service Interfax reported, without giving details on which side the casualties came from. Russian state-run Rossiya 24 TV said Ukrainian “self-defense” forces led by an Afghan War veteran had spread across Slovyansk and troops allied to the government in Kiev arrived in armored personnel carriers and by helicopter.
Intelligence reports from the U.S. and its allies indicate that some of the pro-Russian demonstrators infiltrated cities in eastern and southern Ukraine during the past month or even earlier as part of a Russian plan to divide Ukraine into federated regions, some of which may hold referendums to rejoin Russia, as Crimea did, two U.S. officials said.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the reports, which they stressed aren’t conclusive, the officials said that the assessment continues to be that Russian President Vladimir Putin prefers using a campaign of provocation, propaganda, bribery and subversion — rather than an outright invasion by Russian troops — to take over some of parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.
The U.K. Foreign office said the pro-Russian actions marked an escalation of an “already dangerous situation.”
“Assumptions that Russia is complicit are inevitable as long as Moscow does not publicly distance itself from these latest lawless actions,” it said.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said the reappearance of men with specialized Russian weapons and identical uniforms without insignia resembled those worn by Moscow-backed troops during “Russia’s illegal and illegitimate seizure of Crimea” and represented a “grave development.”
Putin has also been ratcheting up pressure on Ukraine, threatening to halt gas shipments to the country. A stoppage may also hurt supplies to the rest of Europe. About 15 percent of Europe’s supplies flow through Ukraine, making it a linchpin in the continent’s energy security.
“Russia is speaking and behaving not as a partner, but as an adversary,” Rasmussen wrote in an the Danish newspaper Politiken. “Russia is also waging a propaganda war the like of which we have not seen since the end of the Cold War. Its purpose is to pervert the truth, divert attention from Russia’s illegal actions, and subvert the authorities in Ukraine.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a call yesterday to his Russian counterpart, expressed strong concern that the attacks in eastern Ukraine were orchestrated and similar to the violence that served as a prelude to the Crimean annexation, according to an e-mailed statement from a U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be named under department policy.
Kerry stressed to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia will face additional consequences if it doesn’t de-escalate the tensions in Ukraine’s eastern areas, according to the statement. The U.S and other countries, as part of their response to the Crimea annexation, have enacted economic sanctions targeting Russian officials and businessmen — including Putin allies — and a bank.
Kerry and Lavrov, as well as Ukrainian and EU officials, are among the diplomats planning to meet on April 17. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will also travel to Ukraine April 22.
Government buildings were seized last week in the cities Kharkiv and Luhansk, near the border with Russia, and gunmen took over the regional police station in Donetsk. Officers in Krasnyi Liman and Kramatorsk exchanged fire with attackers yesterday and prevented people from seizing a station in Horlivka.
Today, groups of several thousand demonstrators backing the Kiev-based government gathered in the cities of Odessa, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhya.
Without a groundswell of support in eastern regions, it’s likely that Russia will try to push for a federalized Ukraine to weaken the government’s control in the east, said Otilia Dhand, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London. Without local support, Russian military intervention would be needed to shift the provinces to Russian control, she said.
“Kiev will have to walk a very thin line between maintaining order and appearing heavy-handed — and giving Russia an excuse to intervene,” Dhand wrote in an e-mail to Bloomberg. “Unfortunately, the growing tension is conducive to accidents and mismanagement, which could potentially lead to both civil conflict or intervention.”
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s government wants to increase the powers of regions and to resolve the crisis that’s gripping the country as soon as possible, he said.
Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, addressing reporters with Yatsenyuk yesterday, urged the holding of a referendum on decentralization at the same time as the Ukraine presidential election scheduled for May 25.
While only 8 percent of Ukrainians nationwide want their region to secede, in Donetsk province the figure is 18 percent, according to an opinion poll by the Kiev-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation. The creation of an independent state in southern and eastern Ukraine is backed by 11 percent, according to the March 16-30 survey conducted among 2,010 respondents in 24 Ukrainian regions including Crimea and the capital.
“We must have a right to elect our regional governor ourselves,” Nataliya Nazarenko, 50, said during a rally of several dozen people in Donetsk. “This is probably the single thing I want from Kiev. I don’t want to join Russia.”