Ukraine’s Western-backed leader has accused Russia of trying to enflame the country’s southeast but said he would proceed cautiously against pro-Kremlin militias consolidating control in the volatile region.
Oleksandr Turchynov’s impassioned charges against Ukraine’s historic master on Tuesday came only hours after a “frank and direct” exchange on the crisis between US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
But the phone conversation appeared to break no new ground as the Kremlin chief continued to reject any links to the Russian-speaking gunmen who have occupied town halls and police stations in nearly 10 cities across Ukraine’s struggling eastern rust belt since the start of the month.
European foreign ministers meanwhile held back on unleashing punishing economic sanctions against Russia in hopes that EU-US mediated talks Thursday in Geneva between Moscow and Kiev could help de-escalate the most explosive East-West standoff since the Cold War.
The pressure that the ex-Soviet state’s interim leaders are feeling from Moscow is also starting to reverberate from their supporters in Kiev who had toppled a detested pro-Kremlin regime in February after months of protests that sought to link up Ukraine firmly to the West.
Displeasure at Ukrainian forces’ thus-far helpless efforts to reassert control and anxiety over their country’s possible breakup saw several hundred nationalists set fire to tyres outside the parliament building on Monday evening demanding the interior minister’s resignation.
Turchynov appeared to address that discontent on Tuesday as he stressed that his “full-scale anti-terrorist operation” that aims to dislodge the pro-Russian gunmen from their increasingly entrenched positions must proceed “gradually, responsibly and in a measured way”.
He told an agitated session of parliament that saw some of his old protest supporters question his leadership that Ukraine was facing an eastern enemy rather than domestic discontent.
“Russia had and continues to have brutal plans,” Turchynov said.
“They want to set fire not only to the Donetsk region but to the entire south and east – from Kharkiv to the Odessa region.”
He added that Donbass – the informal name of the Donetsk region that is now the hotbed of Ukraine’s latest wave of unrest – had a vast majority that was happy to be rid of the old leaders and become part of a broader Europe.
“The Donbass is in colossal danger,” Turchynov said.
“Besides the Russian special forces, besides terrorists, Donbass also has hundreds of people who have been deceived by Russian propaganda,” he argued.
“And besides them are hundreds of thousands of completely innocent Ukrainians. That is why an anti-terrorist operation must be carried out responsibly.”
Turchynov also announced the formal start of the army’s campaign in the northern parts of Donetsk – a push started on Sunday with the involvement of internal forces but then quickly abandoned when a senior commander was killed.