A pro-Russia activist in Slaviansk, Ukraine. (AFP)
Moscow, April 23: Russia continued today to ratchet up pressure on the government in Kiev, warning that events in eastern Ukraine could prompt a military response and again accusing the US of directing events there.
“If we are attacked, we would certainly respond,” Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said in an interview with the Kremlin’s satellite news network, Russia Today, or RT. The network’s website published a short excerpt from the interview, which was scheduled to be broadcast later .
Lavrov also made one of the first high-profile statements comparing the events in Ukraine to the circumstances that led to the war in Georgia in 2008 and to the breaking away of two republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. “If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia for example, I do not see any other way but to respond in accordance with international law,” Lavrov said.
An accord reached in Geneva last week, when all sides seemed to agree on the need to defuse the confrontation over cities seized by armed, pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, is continuing to crumble. Each side has demanded that the other make the first move, and the agreement did not include an enforcement measure.
Yesterday, Ukraine had announced that it was resurrecting an effort to use its armed forces to retake buildings, although a previous attempt sputtered out without changing the balance of forces.
Lavrov again denied that Russian troops massed along the border had crossed into Ukraine, but he also said that any attacks on Russians in Ukraine would bring a response.
“Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation,” he said.
Lavrov repeated his accusation that Washington was coordinating events in Ukraine, citing the visit by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to Kiev, the capital, earlier this week.
“There is no reason not to believe that the Americans are running the show,” Lavrov said. The announcement of the resumption of the military campaign came on the heels of Biden’s visit, the foreign minister said.
Ukraine’s government relaunched a security operation to crack down on pro-Russian armed groups after an Easter pause today and said it had the backing of the United States.
Prompted in part by the discovery of the body of a Ukrainian politician who appeared to have been tortured, officials in Kiev decided to renew what they call an“anti-terrorist operation” against separatist militias who have seized control of about a dozen public buildings in eastern Ukraine.
But it was unclear what steps, in reality, Kiev could take to restore its authority in the mainly Russian-speaking east, without wrecking an international deal, signed last week in Geneva.
The crisis over Ukraine, now in its fourth month, has dragged Russia's relations with the West to their lowest level since the Cold War. 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.
“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 Kiev government, which took power after Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich fled the capital in a row over whether to strengthen ties with Europe, appeared to have been emboldened by Tuesday’s visit of Vice-President Joe Biden.
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.”