Ukraine 'at war' as Kremlin ups ante
40,000 Russian troops now massed on border
Ukraine's government said yesterday the country was now at "war" with pro-Russia insurgents as the Kremlin gave warning that it had received "thousands" of pleas for help from inside its neighbour.
As fighting raged around the town of Kramatorsk in the eastern region of Donetsk, Ukrainians took stock of the worst bloodshed since the February revolution.
At least 42 people died in the port city of Odessa on Friday, including dozens killed inside a burning building, while the army's "anti-terrorist" operation in the east claimed another nine lives.
After two false starts, the Ukrainian army now appears to be pressing on with this offensive designed to restore Kiev's control over Donetsk.
But Vasyl Krutov, the head of Ukraine's "anti-terrorist" command, cautioned that the situation was more serious than had been thought.
"What we are facing in the Donetsk region and in the eastern regions is not just some kind of short-lived uprising – it is, in fact, a war," he said.
"Gunfire and clashes" were still happening around Kramatorsk, Mr Krutov added.
Ukrainian forces had managed to recapture the local headquarters of the SBU intelligence service in Kramatorsk, the interior ministry said later.
But Kiev believes that Russian Spetsnaz special forces soldiers, aided by operatives from the GRU – or military intelligence – have organised the seizure of public buildings in a dozen towns and cities across Donetsk and the neighbouring region of Luhansk.
The pro-Russian insurgents have achieved complete control over the town of Slavyansk, located near large arms dumps dating from the Soviet era that contain as many as 2.5 million Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Ukrainian forces have tried to seal off Slavyansk by capturing pro-Russian checkpoints on its perimeter. On Friday, this effort cost them two military helicopters, both of which appeared to have been shot down with surface-to-air missiles, strengthening the evidence that Russia has been supplying the gunmen.
So far, however, Ukraine's army has not attempted a full-scale assault to retake the town.
All of its decisions are taken under the shadow of the possible response from Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
Russia has massed between 35,000 and 40,000 troops on Ukraine's eastern frontier, stockpiling enough fuel, ammunition and medical supplies – including a chain of field hospitals – for this army to be able to mount an invasion within 12 hours of receiving the order.
The incidents on Friday, particularly in Odessa where 31 pro-Russian protesters were burnt to death inside a public building, may provide the pretext for a Russian advance into Ukraine. The Kremlin could argue its soldiers are needed to restore peace and protect ethnic Russians.
In Donetsk, the pro-Moscow leaders of a self-proclaimed "People's Republic" have urged the deployment of Russian troops as "peacekeepers".
Yesterday, Denis Pushilin, the self-styled "prime minister", said it was unimaginable that such killings could have occurred on "our land, on Russian land".
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin's spokesman, blamed Ukraine's new rulers yesterday, saying they were "up to their elbows in blood".
Ominously, he added that Russia had been inundated with "thousands" of pleas for help from inside Ukraine. "People are calling in despair, asking for help, the overwhelming majority demand Russian help. All these calls are reported to Vladimir Putin," said Mr Peskov.
Russia had not yet decided how to respond, he added.
Ukraine plans to hold a presidential election on May 25. The aim is to install a legitimate leader after the downfall of Viktor Yanukovych, the fallen president, in the February revolution. Russia regards Ukraine's current rulers as illegal usurpers who seized power in a coup d'etat. But the Kremlin also opposes holding an election that would regulate the situation.
Mr Peskov denounced as "absurd" any suggestion that a poll might be staged under the current conditions of "military action and mass killings".
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, by telephone yesterday.
Mr Kerry said that Russia must "withdraw support for the separatists" and begin to "de-escalate the situation".
Mr Lavrov, by contrast, said the burden of restoring calm rested on America. He urged Washington to restrain the Kiev government.