SLAVYANSK: Russia issued a sharp warning on Wednesday that it will strike back if its “legitimate interests” in Ukraine are attacked, raising the stakes in the Cold War-like duel with the United States over the former Soviet republic’s future.
“If we are attacked, we would certainly respond,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told state-controlled RT television.
“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,” he said, referring to Russia’s armoured invasion of Georgia in 2008.
Moscow also insisted that Kiev withdraw the forces it has sent into eastern Ukraine to dislodge pro-Russian rebels who have seized control of government buildings in several towns.
Both Kiev and Washington believe the current crisis is being deliberately fuelled by Russian President Vladimir Putin in a bid to restore former Soviet glory.
The Kremlin has an estimated 40,000 Russian troops poised on Ukraine’s eastern border, prompting Washington on Wednesday to start deploying 600 US troops to boost NATO’s defences in eastern European states neighbouring Ukraine.
The first unit of 150 US soldiers arrived in Poland on Wednesday, with the remainder arriving in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia in the coming days.
Reports of two journalists — an American and a Ukrainian — being held in the flashpoint rebel-held town of Slavyansk have done nothing to ease the mounting tensions.
The US State Department said it was “deeply concerned about the reports of a kidnapping of a US citizen journalist in Slavyansk, Ukraine, reportedly at the hands of pro-Russian separatists”.
The town was also the source of gunfire that damaged a Ukrainian military reconnaissance plane on Tuesday, and the site of a crime scene for two bodies that Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said had been “brutally tortured”.
One of the two victims was believed to be a local politician and member of Turchynov’s party, which the president used as justification to relaunch “anti-terrorist” operations against the insurgents on Tuesday.
Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema said security forces had been activated “to liquidate all the groups currently operating in Kramatorsk, Slavyansk and the other towns in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions,” according to the Interfax Ukraine news agency.
The spiralling violence — coupled with America and Russia both accusing each other of inflaming the situation through the use of proxies in Ukraine — has scuppered a Geneva accord agreed last week between Ukraine, Russia and the West which was meant to move Ukraine away from the brink of civil war.
Russia said it wants Kiev to pull back its army units and start a “genuine internal Ukrainian dialogue involving all of the country’s regions”.
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