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Saturday 20 September 2014

Ukraine 'verging on state of war'

Published 10/03/2014 | 15:07

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Belgium's foreign minister Didier Reynders toured Independence Square in Kiev as part of a visit to Ukraine (AP)

Ukraine is practically in a state of war with Russia, it was claimed tonight as Moscow warned Russian-leaning eastern regions have plunged into lawlessness.

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Russian forces have effectively taken control of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in what has turned into Europe's greatest crisis since the end of the Cold War. On Sunday the region is to hold a referendum on whether to split off and become part of Russia, which the West says it will not recognise.

"We have to admit that our life now is almost like ... a war," Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsya said before meeting his counterparts from Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. "We have to cope with an aggression that we do not understand."

Mr Deshchytsya said Ukraine is counting on help from the West. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is to meet with US President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday.

Today the Russian Foreign Ministry said lawlessness "now rules in eastern regions of Ukraine as a result of the actions of fighters of the so-called 'Right Sector,' with the full connivance" of Ukraine's new authorities.

Right Sector is a grouping of several far-right and nationalist factions whose activists were among the most radical and confrontational of the three-month long demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, which eventually ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

The Kremlin statement also claimed Russian citizens trying to enter Ukraine have been turned back at the border by Ukrainian officials.

Pro-Russia sentiment is high in Ukraine's east and there are fears Russia could seek to incorporate that area as well.

Mr Obama has warned that the referendum in Crimea would violate international law. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he supports the vote, in phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Minister David Cameron.

"The steps taken by the legitimate leadership of Crimea are based on the norms of international law and aim to ensure the legal interests of the population of the peninsula," said Mr Putin, according to the Kremlin.

Today Mr Putin was briefed by Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on the contents of a document Mr Lavrov received from Secretary of State John Kerry explaining the US view of the situation in Ukraine.

That document contains "a concept which does not quite agree with us because everything was stated in terms of allegedly having a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and in terms of accepting the fait accompli," Mr Lavrov said. The Kremlin contends Mr Yanukovych, Ukraine's legally elected, pro-Kremlin president, was ousted by a coup.

Mr Lavrov said Mr Kerry had been invited to come to Russia to discuss the situation. "We suggested that he come today, I think, and we were prepared to receive him. He gave his preliminary consent. He then called me on Saturday and said he would like to postpone it for a while," the minister said.

In Washington, the State Department said it was still waiting to hear from Moscow whether it would accept a U. proposal for negotiating an end to the crisis in Ukraine.

A statement said Mr Kerry, in weekend discussions with Mr Lavrov, reiterated Washington's demand that Moscow pull back its troops from Ukraine and end attempts to annexe the Crimean peninsula. Mr Kerry also called on Russia to cease what the statement described as "provocative steps" to allow diplomatic talks to continue.

In Kiev, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the businessman and Putin critic who was once Russia's most famous prisoner, said his country is ruining its long standing friendship with Ukraine.

"The question of Crimea's fate is very painful both for Ukrainians and for Russians. It's not just a simple territorial dispute for some extra square kilometers," Khodorkovsky told a packed hall at Kiev Polytechnic University.

"For Russians, it's a sacred place, an important element in our historical memory and the most painful wound since the Soviet collapse," Mr Khodorkovsky said. Nevertheless, he said, the symbolism of Crimea for Russians cannot justify "such a blatant incursion into the affairs of a historically friendly state".

He called for Crimea to remain part of Ukraine, but with broader regional powers and the protection of the rights of Russian speakers there.

Mr Khodorkovsky, once Russia's wealthiest man, was pardoned last December by Mr Putin. Many believe he was convicted of tax violations and other crimes and sent to prison on trumped-up charges.

Press Association

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