Pro-Russia protesters stand guard near a barricade outside
a regional government building in Donetsk, in eastern
Ukraine. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the United
States of being behind the political upheaval in Ukraine and
said Moscow would respond if its interests came under attack.
Lavrov's comments came a day after US Vice President Joe
Biden was in the Ukrainian capital with promises of support
for the pro-Western government, and a warning to Russia not
to interfere in Ukraine.
The crisis in Ukraine, now in its fourth month, has dragged
Russia's relations with the West to their lowest since the
Cold War. In the east, pro-Russian armed separatists have
seized about a dozen public buildings and are defying Kiev's
A further escalation could lead to damaging economic
sanctions, and raises the risk of a disruption to the Russian
gas supplies on which Europe depends.
NATO says Russia has built up a force of about 40,000 troop
in its border with Ukraine. Moscow says some are stationed
there permanently, while others have been deployed as a
precaution to protect Russia from the instability in Ukraine.
In Moscow, Lavrov said Moscow would respond if its interests,
or the interests of Russian citizens, were attacked.
"Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the
Russian Federation," he said according to excerpts of an
interview with the Russia Today news channel.
"There is no reason not to believe that the Americans are
running the show," RT quoted him as saying.
Washington said that suggestion was "ludicrous", while NATO's
deputy secretary general, Alexander Vershbow, said Russia
must de-escalate the situation and avoid "inflammatory
rhetoric and misrepresentations of the situation inside
Russia justified its intervention in Crimea earlier this year
by saying it had to defend Russians living there. In eastern
Ukraine some people hold Russian passports.
Ukraine called on Moscow to pull troops back from the border,
saying it feared pro-Russian separatists could use their
proximity to provoke a Russian invasion.
Lavrov's ministry, in a separate statement, accused the
United States and the interim government in Kiev of a
"distorted interpretation" of an international accord, signed
in Geneva last week, under which illegal armed groups in
Ukraine are to disarm and give up buildings they have
Russia said that applies not only to the pro-Russian
separatists in the east, but also to groups in Kiev whose
protests helped bring Ukraine's new government to power.
Earlier, Ukraine's government relaunched a security operation
to crack down on the pro-Russian armed groups after an Easter
pause and said it had the backing of the United States.
But it was unclear what steps Kiev could take to restore its
authority in the mainly Russian-speaking east, without
wrecking the Geneva deal.
"The security forces are working on the liquidation of
illegal armed groups," in the east of Ukraine, First Deputy
Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema told reporters.
"The corresponding activities will be carried out in the near
future, and you will see the results."
The Interior Ministry said it had flushed armed separatists
out of a town which they had controlled in eastern Ukraine in
an "anti-terrorism" operation.
It said the operation took place on the outskirts of the town
of Sviatogorsk and that no one was injured. There had been no
previous reports of gunmen in the town, which lies just
outside the stronghold of pro-Russian militants in Slaviansk.
Ukraine's SBU state security service warned that it would
attack militants who held out. It said the Geneva accord
required all illegal militias to lay down their arms:
"If not, the law enforcement agencies will use all their
forces, means and capabilities to put an end to criminal
activities and restore law and order and communal security."
Kiev's decision to resume its security operation in the east
was prompted in part by the discovery of two bodies in a
river in eastern Ukraine. One body was that of Volodymyr
Rybak, a member of the same party as Ukraine's acting
The Ukrainian government, which took power after
Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich fled the capital in
a row over whether to strengthen ties with Europe, appeared
emboldened by Biden's visit on Tuesday.
He brought a package of aid and urged Russia to curb the
separatist militias in the east.
"We have obtained the support of the United States, that they
will not leave us alone with an aggressor. We hope that in
the event of Russian aggression, this help will be more
substantive," Yarema said.
The United States and NATO have made clear they will not
intervene militarily in Ukraine. But the Pentagon said it was
sending about 600 soldiers to Poland and the three Baltic
states for infantry exercises, to reassure NATO allies.
Russian gas giant Gazprom has said it will turn off supplies
to Ukraine next month unless Kiev pays its outstanding debts.
That would have a knock-on effect on deliveries to Europe,
because much of the gas shipped westwards has to pass through
The European Commission said it would meet Slovakian and
Ukrainian ministers on Thursday to discuss the possibility of
pumping gas back to Kiev. Another meeting between the
Commission, Ukraine and Russia is due on Monday on Moscow.
The crisis in Ukraine began when Yanukovich, under pressure
from Moscow, pulled out of a planned cooperation agreement
with the EU. Pro-Western protesters took to the streets and
Yanukovich fled after bloody clashes.
As a caretaker leadership of pro-Western protest leaders took
over the government in Kiev, the Kremlin sent its forces into
Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula, and shortly after annexed the
region. Moscow said it acted to protect local people who were
being persecuted by Kiev's new rulers, while the West called
it an illegal land grab.
Mediators from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation
in Europe, tasked with helping the sides implement the
accord, were in eastern Ukraine trying to encourage illegal
groups to disarm. There was no sign yet they were backing
In areas under the separatists' control, there was growing
evidence of arbitrary rule by self-appointed local officials,
backed up by heavily armed militias, and of violence being
meted out against opponents.
A video released on a local news site, gorlovka.ua, purported
to show Rybak, the councillor whose body was found in a
river, being confronted by an angry crowd outside the town
hall in Horlivka, where he was a councillor.
Rybak can be seen being manhandled by several men, among them
a masked man in camouflage, while other people hurl abuse.
After several minutes, Rybak appears able to walk away. The
Interior Ministry said he was seen being bundled into a car
by masked men in camouflage later that day. His body, and
that of a second man, was found on Saturday in a river near
Ukraine's SBU security service issued a statement accusing a
rogue SBU officer and an officer in Russia's GRU military
intelligence of involvement in Rybak's murder.
In nearby Slaviansk, pro-Russian militia were holding three
journalists, including a US citizen, Simon Ostrovsky, from
the online news site Vice News.
The United States said the detentions amounted to kidnappings
which violated the Geneva agreement.