SLAVIANSK, Ukraine/ST PETERSBURG, Russia, (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow rebels yesterday as they closed in on the separatists’ military stronghold in the east, and Russia launched army drills near the border in response, raising fears its troops would invade.
The Ukrainian offensive amounts to the first time Kiev’s troops have used lethal force to recapture territory from the fighters, who have seized swaths of eastern Ukraine since April 6 and proclaimed an independent “People’s Republic of Donetsk.”
Ukraine’s acting president accused Moscow of supporting “terrorism at the state level” against his country for backing the rebels, whom the government blames for kidnapping and torturing a politician found dead on Saturday.
“The window to change course is closing,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned in a hastily arranged appearance in the State Department, where he cited President Barack Obama’s comments earlier on Thursday that Washington was ready to impose new sanctions if Moscow did not alter its policy. In unusually blunt comments, Kerry accused Russia of using propaganda to hide what he said it was actually trying to do in eastern Ukraine – destabilize the region and undermine next month’s planned Ukrainian presidential elections.
“So following today’s threatening movement of Russian troops right up to Ukraine’s border, let me be clear,” Kerry said. “If Russia continues in this direction, it will not just be a grave mistake, it will be an expensive mistake.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said sanctions were “dishonourable” and destroyed the global economy but that so far the damage had not been critical. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said its forces backed by the army had removed three checkpoints manned by armed groups in the separatist-controlled city of Slaviansk.
“During the armed clash, up to five terrorists were eliminated,” it said in a statement, adding one person had been wounded on the side of the government forces.
A rebel spokeswoman in Slaviansk said two fighters had died in a clash in the same area, northeast of the city centre. Slaviansk’s separatist self-proclaimed mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, quoted on a local news site, said one man was shot dead and another badly wounded on the northeastern outskirts of the city. He said the dead had been unarmed.
The Kremlin, which says it has the right to invade its neighbour to protect Russian speakers, has built up forces on Ukraine’s border – estimated by NATO at up to 40,000 troops.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Moscow had launched military drills near the border in response to “Ukraine’s military machine” and NATO exercises in Eastern Europe. Kiev demanded an explanation within 48 hours of action on the border. Russia seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last month after President Vladimir Putin overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy by announcing the right to use military force in neighbouring countries. An invasion of mainland Ukraine’s industrial heartland would be a far more serious action. It had seemed beyond contemplation only weeks ago but now looks like a real threat, although the full extent of Putin’s territorial ambitions remains a mystery.