KRAMATORSK/SLAVIANSK, Ukraine: Separatists flew the Russian flag on armored vehicles taken from the Ukrainian army Wednesday, embarrassing a Kiev government operation to recapture eastern towns controlled by pro-Russian partisans.
Six armored personnel carriers were driven into the rebel-held town of Slaviansk to waves and shouts of “Russia! Russia!” It was not immediately clear whether they had been captured by rebels or handed over to them by Ukrainian deserters.
Another 15 armored troop carriers full of paratroopers were surrounded and halted by a pro-Russian crowd at a town near an airbase. They were allowed to retreat only after the soldiers handed the firing pins from their rifles to a rebel leader.
The setback leaves Kiev looking weak on the eve of a Geneva peace conference Thursday, when its foreign minister will meet with his Russian, U.S. and European counterparts.
The U.S. said it was appropriate for the Ukraine government to take action to restore law and order, and urged it to continue to do so in a measured and responsible way.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling on Air Force One that Kiev had responded with “admirable restraint” to destabilizing actions by armed separatists in the country.
Moscow has responded to the overthrow of its ally Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in February by announcing its right to intervene militarily to protect Russian speakers across the former Soviet Union, a new doctrine that has overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last month, and its armed supporters have now taken control over swathes of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.
It has massed thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border. A Reuters reporting team that visited the border area late last week and again Wednesday said Russian military activity had increased markedly in recent days, with more troops and vehicles on the roads.
At one site in an open field in Russia’s Belgorod region about 20 km from the frontier there were found to be 10 large army tents and about 20 military trucks, far more than last week, although a squadron of attack helicopters had left.
So far, the U.S. and EU have imposed only targeted sanctions against a list of Russian and Ukrainian individuals and firms, a move that Moscow has openly mocked. Washington and Brussels say they are working on far tougher measures.
The EU took a step toward imposing harsher sanctions Wednesday by informing its member states of the likely impact of proposed measures on each of them. Countries have a week to respond before the European Commission starts drawing up plans.
Ukraine confirmed that six of its armored vehicles were now in the hands of separatists. Photos of their number markings showed they were among vehicles deployed earlier in the government’s attempted “anti-terrorist” operation. Kiev had sent the convoy to capture an airfield, in an operation to reclaim towns held by separatists who have declared an independent “People’s Republic” in the industrial Donbass region.
The Ukrainian government and its Western allies believe Russian agents are coordinating the uprising. Moscow denies it is involved and says Kiev is precipitating civil war by sending troops to put down the revolt.
The Kiev government is seeking to reassert control without bloodshed, which it fears would prompt a Russian invasion. Its operation is the first test of Kiev’s under-funded army, which had until now played no role in six months of internal unrest. The government appears to have resorted to using troops after losing faith that police in the east would remain loyal.