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 appeared to get off to a slow start, if at all.
Twenty-four hours after an Ukrainian ultimatum expired for the separatists to lay down their arms, witnesses reported no signs yet that Kiev forces were ready to storm state buildings in the Russian-speaking east that the rebels have occupied.
Interim president Oleksander Turchinov insisted the operation had started in the eastern Donetsk region, although it would happen in stages and “in a considered way”.
Amidst the deepest East-West crisis since the Cold War, the leaders of Russia and the United States called on each other to do all in their power to avoid further bloodshed.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave a gloomy assessment after at least two people died on Sunday when Kiev unsuccessfully tried to regain control in Slaviansk, one of about 10 towns and cities where the separatists have seized buildings.
“Blood has once again been spilt in Ukraine. The country is on the brink of civil war,” he said in a statement posted on his Facebook page.
Ukraine has accused Russia of stirring up the separatists following its annexation of Crimea, while Moscow says Kiev has provoked the crisis by ignoring the interests of its citizens who use Russian as their first language.
Turchinov said the offensive, which he first announced on Sunday, was finally underway. “The anti-terrorist operation began during the night in the north of Donetsk region. But it will take place in stages, responsibly, in a considered way. I once again stress: the aim of these operations is to defend the citizens of Ukraine,” he told parliament.
On Tuesday morning a Reuters correspondent in Slaviansk had heard no shots or explosions in the town, which lies about 150 km (90 miles) from the Russian border.
Outside the occupied local police headquarters about a dozen civilians manned barricades that have been built up overnight with more tyres and wooden crates. A dozen or so armed Cossacks – paramilitary fighters descended from Tsarist-era patrolmen – stood guard at the mayor’s offices. Shops were functioning normally, bread supplies normal.
“The night passed quickly, thank God. There have been lots of rumours of violence, but it’s been very quiet here. We are in control,” said one civilian on the barricades outside the police station, who gave his name only as Rustam.
A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Western officials have drawn parallels between events in the east of Ukraine and what happened in Crimea, which Russian troops seized in February before the formal annexation.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said continued…