Ukrainian authorities sent security forces to Kharkiv to clear the country’s second-biggest city of separatists as Russia traded accusations with the U.S. and warned that its neighbor’s crackdown risks sparking civil war.
An “anti-terrorist operation” was under way in Kharkiv, with the subway closed and the downtown area sealed off, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said today. Russia’s Foreign Ministry said 150 specialists from the U.S. private security company Greystone were working with Ukraine to put down protests. Ukraine countered that most of those behind the unrest were Russian and denied that U.S. advisers are involved.
“We call for the immediate halt of all military preparations, which risk sparking a civil war,” the ministry in Moscow said in a statement on its website.
Russia and the U.S. are on a collision course as tensions flared in Ukraine over the weekend and diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis faltered. The U.S. yesterday threw its weight behind the contention of Ukrainian officials that some of the pro-Russian separatists who seized administration buildings in the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk were paid provocateurs brought in from outside.
“We do have proof and we’ve already deported a number of Russians who’ve been in eastern Ukraine provoking the situation and violating Ukrainian laws,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia said in a Bloomberg TV interview. “The Ukrainian government has enough power and authority to control the situation in Ukraine.”
Deshchytsia said any suggestion that Greystone is playing a role in the crackdown is “just Russian propaganda, nothing else.” Greystone didn’t immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment after U.S. business hours.
The unrest is prompting investors to sell Russian and Ukrainian assets. The Finance Ministry in Moscow canceled tomorrow’s ruble bond auction after yields jumped the most in three weeks yesterday. The Micex Index dropped, extending the benchmark gauge’s slide since President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Crimea on March 1 to 6.7 percent.
Ukrainian sovereign notes maturing June 4 fell to 96.62 cents on the dollar, the lowest since March 24. The hryvnia depreciated 0.7 percent to 11.7850 per dollar, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The pro-Russian protesters demanded a referendum on seceding from Ukraine, state-run Rossiya 24 television reported. The mayor of Kharkiv confirmed reports that several dozen other demonstrators seized the regional television transmission mast and demanded that more Russian channels be broadcast, according to Interfax.
The regional government building in Kharkiv was freed of separatists today, with 70 people detained, according to Avakov. The detainees include no Russian citizens, he said. Eight people asked for medical assistance after clashes in Kharkiv last night, the city administration said on its website.
The demonstrations have resembled the actions of pro- Russian protesters who seized Crimea’s assembly and paved the way for Russia to annex the Black Sea province last month. Putin, who’s massed troops on Ukraine’s border, says he has the right to defend Russian speakers from “fascists” after Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.
Russian speakers account for 44.3 percent in the Kharkiv region, 74.9 percent in the Donetsk region and 68.8 percent in the Luhansk region, 2001 census data show.
U.S. and European officials are increasingly concerned that yesterday’s disturbances, along with Russia’s economic and military pressure, signal the next phase of Putin’s effort to make Ukraine a loose federation allied with Russia.
Any further Russian moves into Ukraine “would be an historic mistake” and amount to “a serious escalation” in the crisis, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Paris today. “It’s obvious that the evolving security situation in Ukraine makes it necessary to review our defense plans.”
Russia has as many as 40,000 soldiers stationed across the frontier, according to officials from the U.S. and NATO. Putin says the forces are conducting military exercises and will withdraw when they end.
Ukraine’s national guard and irregular forces of Pravyi Sektor, an umbrella organization that unites nationalist groups, were gathering in southern and eastern Ukraine, the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday to arrange talks among officials from Ukraine, the U.S., the EU and Russia within 10 days to head off any escalation. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said no time or agenda was set.
Russia is ready to examine a “multilateral format” for talks on Ukraine, Lavrov told reporters in Moscow today. The new government hasn’t yet sent “any positive signals” to the southeast, according to Lavrov.
The U.S. and the EU imposed sanctions against Russian officials and associates of Putin in response to the annexation of Crimea. President Barack Obama has said the U.S. will target Russian industries, including energy and finance, if Russia moves deeper into Ukraine.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in televised remarks yesterday that Russia was trying to split his nation and turn part into “a territory of slavery under a Russian dictatorship.” The protests in Kharkiv were inspired and funded by Yanukovych and Putin, Avakov told reporters in Kiev today.
Russia also may be trying to undermine Ukraine’s planned presidential election in May and encouraging the Russophones not to vote.
“If the Kremlin can achieve that, or reach an ‘understanding’ with the winner of those elections, it might be able to achieve its goals short of force,” former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said in The National Interest yesterday. “Only if these steps fail, does Mr. Putin look seriously at further Russian military aggression in Ukraine.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday in Washington that there’s “strong evidence” that demonstrators included paid outsiders. “That at least suggests that outside forces, not local forces, were participating in the effort to create these provocations,” he said.
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