US warns Russia after new bloodshed pushes Ukraine towards brink
America threatened Russia with further sanctions last night after accusing Moscow of being behind the latest bout of unrest in Ukraine.
The warning came as the Ukrainian government despatched special forces to dislodge pro-Russian gunmen who seized buildings in several cities in the east of the country over the weekend.
In the ensuing clashes yesterday, at least one person was reported killed and several more wounded. The West fears that the violence, which Kiev blamed on pro-Russian "terrorists", may give the Kremlin the excuse it needs to launch another Crimea-style land-grab.
Speaking on American television yesterday, Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, said the seizures of police and security stations in eastern Ukraine appeared to have been carried out with the help of Russian security forces. Describing the attacks as "outrageous", she said: "It has all the signs of what we saw in Crimea. It's professional, it's co-ordinated... it bears the telltale signs of Moscow's involvement."
She made it clear that President Barack Obama would consider further sanctions against Russia if Moscow's aggression continued, including measures to hit the energy, banking and mining sectors.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of Nato, added that gunmen appeared to be carrying sophisticated weapons and wearing identical uniforms without insignia, like the Russian troops who seized Crimea last month. He described it as a "grave development".
The UN Security Council was due to meet last night to discuss the crisis.
The White House also announced that Joe Biden, the vice-president, would travel to Kiev next week.
It refused to confirm reports that John Brennan, the director of the CIA, had already entered Ukraine under a false name to hold discussions with the Kiev government.
The focus of the latest unrest is the city of Slavyansk, 90 miles from the Russian border, where masked gunmen seized a police station and state security service building on Saturday.
Arsen Avakov, Ukraine's interior minister, said that a state security officer was killed and five were wounded during an "anti-terrorist" operation in Slavyansk, where Ukrainian military helicopters were seen.
But other reports said the killings had taken place in an "armed confrontation" near neighbouring Artemivisk.
A Russian news agency also reported that one pro-Moscow activist was killed in Slavyansk. Russian TV broadcast grainy footage of a man slumped against a car, with a pool of blood between his legs.
In the cities of Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhya, meanwhile, pro-Russian and pro-European supporters skirmished during demonstrations and counter-protests.
Compared with Crimea, eastern Ukraine is far more divided on the question of becoming part of Russia, making the prospect for bloodshed far greater.
European Union foreign ministers are set to meet tomorrow to decide what additional penalties to impose if Moscow continues to ignore the West's warnings.
Yulia Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian opposition veteran running for next month's presidential election, said the latest unrest was designed to give Russia bargaining power at talks in Switzerland on Thursday aimed at defusing the crisis.