LUGANSK, Ukraine: Armed pro-Russian militants holed up in the headquarters of Ukraine’s security agency in Lugansk Wednesday refused to give up their arms and vowed to fight off any efforts by the state to dislodge them, as NATO said that American troops could be deployed to alliance nations in Eastern Europe which feel at risk.
Separatists demanding a referendum to join Russia seized the building four days ago as a wave of secessionist anger swept eastern Ukraine, whose mainly Russian-speaking population feels under threat from a new pro-Western government in Kiev.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov Wednesday promised a “strong response” to those looking for a fight, as Kiev launched an “anti-terrorist” operation which he said would resolve the tense situation in the east by Friday morning.
“For those ready for dialogue, there will be a political solution. And for the fringe for whom the most important thing is conflict, they will be met with force,” he told reporters in Kiev.
However his threats did little to sway the militants in Lugansk, only 60 kilometers from the border with Russia, whose military buildup along Ukraine’s eastern flank has raised fears Moscow could step in on the grounds that Russian-speakers there need “protection.”
Ukrainian police have treaded carefully in the east to avoid violence with the protesters, putting up little resistance as pro-Russians stormed state buildings in Donetsk and Kharkiv over the weekend.
“We are refusing to lay down our arms, as we have been asked. We have nothing to lose,” said Oleg Desyatnikov, 49, one of the leaders of the group occupying the SBU security agency.
The occupants appeared to have plundered arms stocks inside the building, according to an AFP reporter who saw many of the militants holding automatic rifles and wearing bulletproof vests.
“We are willing to negotiate, but no one wants to listen. Instead, they are threatening us with an assault. If we are attacked, we will respond,” Desyatnikov said.
Awaiting an assault from police, the militants reinforced barricades around the building. Outside, dozens slept in tents in a park surrounding the regional security headquarters to be on site to repel any actions from riot police.
Few officers were visible aside from those directing traffic outside the building. On the road between the city of Donetsk and Lugansk, police have set up control posts where they halfheartedly stopped cars passing through the region.
Many police in the three regions fraught with anti-government sentiment have been accused of cooperating with protesters, and Avakov said this week up to 30 percent faced losing their jobs.
In Lugansk, only Russian flags flapped atop the four-floor security agency where several thousand gathered to listen to patriotic speeches and old Russian and Soviet songs, a scene which has played out across the region in recent days.
Much of the discontent in Ukraine’s east where industry has slowed since the breakup of the Soviet Union, stems from nostalgia for life in the USSR, a sentiment stoked at rallies with hymns and flags and wartime rhetoric.
“We are not separatists. We are for the joining of brotherly peoples who lived together in the USSR. Separatists are those who destroyed the USSR. The USSR is our homeland,” says a speaker to cheers from the crowd.
Also Wednesday, NATO’s top military commander in Europe said measures to counter Russia’s threats against Ukraine could include deployment of American troops to alliance nations in Eastern Europe also feeling at risk.
United States Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove told the Associated Pres he wouldn’t “write off involvement by any nation, to include the United States.”
Foreign ministers of the 28-nation alliance have given Breedlove until Tuesday to propose steps to reassure NATO members nearest Russia that other alliance countries have their back.
“Essentially what we are looking at is a package of land, air and maritime measures that would build assurance for our easternmost allies,” Breedlove told the AP. “I’m tasked to deliver this by next week. I fully intend to deliver it early.”
Asked again if American soldiers might be sent to NATO’s front line states closest to Russia, the four-star U.S. general said, “I would not write off contributions from any nation.”
In March, Russian troops took control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, whose inhabitants then voted in a referendum to secede and join Russia. The U.S. and other Western countries have accused Moscow of massing troops on Ukraine’s border to maintain the pressure on the government in Kiev, and possibly for military use.
Speaking at the end of a NATO conference in Paris, Breedlove told the Associated Press the Russian armed presence near Ukraine’s frontier continues unabated.
“What we see there is a force of about 40,000,” he said. “I would characterize it as a combined arms army. In other words, this is an army that has all of the provisioning and enabling that it needs to accomplish military objectives if given them.”