DONETSK, Ukraine: The United States Tuesday accused Russia of sending “agents” to stoke a flaring secession crisis in eastern Ukraine that Moscow itself conceded could spill over into civil war.
The blunt U.S. charge came as Ukraine’s embattled leaders struggled to keep their nation together after the February ouster of a pro-Kremlin president and subsequent loss of Crimea to Russia.
An eerie echo of the Black Sea peninsula’s separation sounded Sunday when militants, many of them masked, stormed strategic buildings across a swath of heavily Russified eastern regions and demanded that Moscow send its troops for support.
Ukraine mounted a counteroffensive Tuesday, vowing to treat the separatists as “terrorists” and making 70 arrests in a nighttime security sweep.
Kiev also regained control of an administration office in Kharkiv and the security service headquarters of Donetsk, the stronghold of Viktor Yanukovych prior to his ouster as president and flight to Russia.
Addressing parliament, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said several police were injured when they retook the building.
In a session that was briefly interrupted by a brawl, parliament also voted to toughen punishments for undermining Ukraine’s national security, imposing jail terms of up to 5 years for separatist activities.
But Kalashnikov-wielding militants still held the main police building in the nearby city of Lugansk after breaking into its weapons cache and releasing several activists who had been accused of plotting a coup.
Ukraine’s state security service said it had established that the Lugansk militants had rigged the building with explosives and were holding 60 people “against their will.”
The agency did not explain why it was making the announcement two days after the actual raid or how it had gained information from inside the heavily fortified building.
Hundreds of pro-Russians also remained holed up inside the Donetsk administration center a day after proclaiming the creation of a sovereign “people’s republic” and demanding that an independence referendum be held before May 11.
“We have formed a provisional government in Donetsk,” separatist leader Vadym Chernyakov told AFP inside the occupied building.
The 33-year-old said his forces intended to control the region’s airport and railway stations in order to “maintain order.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly accused the Kremlin of sending operatives into eastern Ukraine in order to foment unrest.
“Everything that we’ve seen in the last 48 hours, from Russian provocateurs and agents operating in eastern Ukraine, tells us that they’ve been sent there determined to create chaos,” Kerry told U.S. lawmakers.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague echoed Kerry’s message, claiming that the flare-up bore “all the hallmarks of a Russian strategy to destabilize Ukraine.”NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen reaffirmed on a visit to Paris that Moscow, which has massed forces along Ukraine’s eastern frontier, would be making a “historic mistake” if it were to intervene in Ukraine any further.
Such barbed rhetoric has not yet led to the kind of complete breakdown in diplomatic relations seen during the Cold War.
Kerry said he intended to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Europe next week to discuss possible four-way talks with Ukraine and the EU.
The West’s anxiety stems in part from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vow to use “all means necessary” to protect his compatriots in Ukraine.
The Russian Foreign Ministry put further pressure on Kiev by accusing it of making “military preparations [in eastern regions] that are fraught with the risk of unleashing a civil war.”