After weeks of restraint, Kiev launched a military operation Tuesday to regain control of eastern Ukraine—a move Moscow has warned against.
Pro-Russian separatists have taken over government buildings in at least 10 towns and cities in eastern Ukraine during the past 10 days. Many of the activists are dressed in military fatigues and bulletproof vests and are carrying Russian machine guns. After storming the buildings, they replaced the Ukrainian flags with Russian ones and called for a referendum in some cities.
Some of the armed occupiers were wearing the black and orange St. George’s ribbons associated with Russian Victory Day celebrations and calling for a Russian intervention similar to what was launched in Crimea.
Ukrainian forces reclaimed a small airfield near Kramatorsk on Tuesday in the first victory in what acting President Oleksandr Turchynov is calling a “counter-terrorism operation.” Russian state television reported as many as 11 deaths in the offensive while Kiev claims there were none.
“The aim of these actions is to protect the citizens of Ukraine, to stop terror, to stop criminality, to stop attempts to tear Ukraine to pieces,” Turchynov told Ukraine’s Parliament before the offensive began.
In Slavyansk, the mayor helped pro-Russian separatists raid police stations and security service headquarters for weapons and take over the city hall. The mob barricaded the two primary entrances to the city. In Donetsk, a city of nearly 1 million, separatists took over the regional legislature building and the interior ministry.
Ukrainian troops entered Slavyansk on Tuesday, with reports of at least 250 soldiers, 20 armored vehicles, and two helicopters engaged in the offensive.
The occupation of government buildings in the east comes on the heels of February’s Russian troop intervention in the autonomous region of Crimea—a peninsula in southern Ukraine—and Russian annexation of that region last month. Ukrainians have long suspected Russian meddling in eastern Ukraine, and the government has arrested more than a dozen alleged Russian intelligence agents over the past few weeks.
Video from Gorlovka (also spelled “Horlivka”) showed separatists storming police headquarters and the crowd outside shouting “Russia” and “referendum.”
“Up until this morning, Gorlovka was very quiet and then it erupted, which tells me it was a well-planned operation rather than spontaneous protester involvement,” Gorlovka resident Kostya Farkovets told me on Monday. “I hear it’s 20 percent that want more local power—i.e., federalization—and only 5 to 6 percent of that want to be joined with the [Russian Federation]. I told you before that we often feel out of place here. So many people support riots one way or the other, even among fellow Christians.”
Thousands of Russian troops have massed on Ukraine’s border, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use them to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
A UN human rights report released Tuesday claimed the reports of violence against ethnic Russians are fabricated and used to stir up unrest and justify a possible Russian intervention. White House Spokesman Jay Carney said the provocations in eastern Ukraine “are creating a serious situation in which the [Ukrainian] government has to respond,” hinting at new sanctions against Russia.
Representatives from the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Ukraine are scheduled to meet in Geneva on Thursday to discuss the escalating crisis.
Listen to Jill Nelson discuss the situation in Ukraine on The World and Everything in It: