WASHINGTON/IZYUM, Ukraine: Russia warned Tuesday that Ukraine was on the brink of “civil war” after Kiev’s leaders pushed troops and tanks toward a flashpoint eastern city to counter a separatist surge backed by Moscow.
The 20 tanks and armored personnel carriers were the most forceful response yet by Kiev’s Western-backed government to the pro-Kremlin militants’ occupation of state buildings in nearly 10 cities across Ukraine’s rust belt.
Ukrainian forces set up a concrete road barrier and began checking traffic leading to Slavyansk while fighters and attack helicopters circled overhead.
“They must be warned that if they do not lay down their arms, they will be destroyed,” Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) Gen. Vasyl Krutov told a group of reporters tracking the sudden tank movements.
He insisted that the militants were receiving support from several hundred soldiers from the Russian army’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) that had been dispatched to Slavyansk and surrounding villages.
Witnesses told AFP that at least two Ukrainian military helicopters had landed in the nearby town of Kramatorsk with reinforcements for the offensive.
One Slavyansk resident told Kiev’s private ICTV television that the insurgents had begun reinforcing barricades and set up two machine guns along one of the main entrances to the city.
Kiev’s response to the eastern insurgency prompted Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to warn that “Ukraine is on the brink of civil war – it’s frightening.”
He urged Ukraine’s “de facto” authorities – not recognized by Moscow – to avert “terrible turmoil.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin called for the United Nations to condemn Kiev’s actions in east Ukraine, the Kremlin said.
But the White House said that Ukraine faced an “untenable” situation and described its military operation against pro-Russia militants as “measured.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney urged restraint and “all due caution” while adding that the Ukrainian government had a “responsibility” to safeguard law and order.
The threat of an all-out war breaking out just beyond the EU’s eastern frontier sent stock markets across Europe lower Tuesday. London’s FTSE 100 ended down 0.64 percent while the CAC-40 fell 0.89 percent in Paris. The Dax index in Germany – which is closer and more affected by events – plummeted 1.77 percent.
“New fears about Ukraine worried the market and could, at any time, send it plunging once again,” Saxo Bank analyst Andrea Tueni said.
The rapid turn of events on the ground were preceded by a telephone conversation late Monday between U.S. President Barack Obama and Putin that the White House described as “frank and direct.”
The Kremlin chief continued to reject any links to the Russian-speaking gunmen who have proclaimed the creation of their own independent republic and asked Putin to send in the 40,000 troops now massed along the eastern border with Ukraine.
But Obama accused Moscow of supporting “armed pro-Russian separatists who threaten to undermine and destabilize the government of Ukraine.”One of the worst East-West standoffs since the Cold War era was exacerbated over the weekend by a Russian warplane “buzzing” a U.S. destroyer in the Black Sea and a visit to Kiev by CIA chief John Brennan that was confirmed by the White House and slammed by Moscow.
European ministers, meanwhile, held back on unleashing punishing economic sanctions against Russia in hopes that EU-U.S. mediated talks Thursday in Geneva between Moscow and Kiev could help de-escalate the crisis.
The U.S. State Department said it anticipated more sanctions but also suggested no action was likely before a diplomatic meeting in Geneva this week.
“Thursday is the next opportunity to have a diplomatic discussion and I think it’s safe to lean into the unlikelihood of making [sanctions] announcements before Thursday,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a news briefing.
Kiev’s untested interim leaders have struggled to meet the high-stakes challenge presented by the coordinated series of raids that began in the industrial hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk and have since spread to nearby coal mining towns and villages.
But a forceful military response by Kiev could prompt a devastating counterstrike by Russian troops who are waiting to act on Putin’s vow to “protect” Russian-speakers in the neighboring state.