For several weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top diplomats have provided the world with repeated assurances that they have no intention of sending Russian troops into eastern Ukraine. On Monday, April 21, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brushed aside those pledges, providing the strongest signal yet that Moscow may be laying the political groundwork for a military incursion into its jittery neighbor.
Speaking at a Moscow news conference, Lavrov said Russia is committed to "stop[ping]" what he claimed were provocations by armed Ukrainian extremists "willfully seeking to unleash civil war" in Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine. The Russian government, he said, is coming under mounting pressure from its allies in eastern Ukraine to protect them. "Russia is increasingly called upon to save southeastern Ukraine from chaos," Lavrov said, according to remarks carried on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account. The comments were striking because the foreign minister has been at the center of Moscow’s efforts to negotiate a diplomatic settlement to the crisis.
Lavrov went even further during the Monday news conference. "Those who are deliberately pursuing a civil war … are pursuing a criminal policy," he told reporters there. "And we will not only condemn this policy but will also stop it."
The rising tensions came as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in an effort to show support for the beleaguered transitional government on the eve of planned May 25 presidential and mayoral elections. Biden was expected to pledge a so-called "technical support package" aimed at boosting Ukraine’s moribund and cash-poor economy.
U.S. and European efforts to negotiate a political settlement to the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, meanwhile, came sputtering to a halt as officials from Kiev and Moscow accused one another of violating the terms of an April 17 agreement aimed at preventing further armed confrontations between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian security personnel.
Lavrov’s latest comments came just one day after three pro-Russian militants manning a checkpoint near the city of Slovyansk were killed by what Moscow alleged were extremists from Ukraine’s ultranationalist Right Sector, which has links to the Euromaidan protest movement that toppled Ukraine’s former pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February. A spokesman for the Right Sector, Artyom Skoropatskiy, denied that his group was involved in the attack. The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, claimed that the attack — the deadliest since Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine in March — was staged to help Moscow justify any military intervention into eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian officials fear that such a strike could come as early as this week. U.S. and European officials have made clear that Russia will face additional sanctions if it invades or tries to annex more sections of Ukraine.
Putin has already annexed the Ukrainian autonomous republic of Crimea, a Russian-speaking peninsula that has long hosted Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet, and he has asserted Russia’s right to intervene to protect Russian-speaking communities beyond Russia’s own borders. Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have appealed to Moscow to send peacekeepers into the region to protect them from purported attacks by Ukrainian militiamen or security personnel. NATO says that Moscow has deployed 40,000 troops, backed by warplanes, helicopters, and armored vehicles, to its border with Ukraine. Last week, the military alliance released satellite photos showing what appeared to be large concentrations of Russian troops and equipment there.
On Monday, Moscow began carefully constructing its case for action. Lavrov accused the government in Kiev of "flagrantly" violating the terms of a four-day-old agreement brokered in Geneva by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Lavrov. "By all accounts, Kiev is unable or maybe unwilling to control the extremists who are still calling the shots," Lavrov said. "This is primarily about restoring basic order. Preventing any kind of violence is now the major concern."
The Geneva accords require armed elements throughout Ukraine to lay down their arms and cede control of government buildings. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have been sent to Ukraine to negotiate the surrender of government buildings. But so far pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have refused to abide by the terms of the accord. If anything, according to reports from the ground, the purported insurgents have tried to solidify their control over several eastern Ukrainian cities.
Speaking to reporters Monday in Kiev, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia claimed that pro-Russian militants — armed and instructed by the Russian secret services — were responsible for the Easter Sunday attack in Slovyansk. He said that Ukraine’s special security services have "information indicating that next week Russia will perform an act of military aggression against Ukraine."
"Russia-controlled and -inspired militants, instructed and sponsored by [Russian intelligence personnel], continue to destabilize the situation in the eastern Ukraine in order to create a new stage of Moscow’s aggression," Deshchytsia said. "The Russian Foreign Ministry and Kremlin-controlled Russian mass media launched a new phase of Soviet-style propaganda aimed to falsify a real state of danger in some eastern regions of our country, particularly in Lugansk and Slovyansk.… All these illegal actions have only one purpose: to motivate Russia to continue its policy for further escalation of tension in Ukraine by supporting artificially created separatism moods in eastern communities."
Ukraine’s political turmoil began last November, when then-President Yanukovych, citing pressure from Moscow, delayed plans to sign a so-called association agreement with the European Union, a move that would have strengthened Kiev’s trade relations with Europe and eased travel restrictions. The decision triggered massive demonstrations — dubbed Euromaidan — that ultimately forced Yanukovych from power and set the stage for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The crisis has deepened in recent weeks as pro-Russian militants seized control of government buildings in several cities in eastern Ukraine.
Yanukovych — who has since taken refuge in Russia — issued a statement Monday urging Ukrainian troops not to follow the "criminal orders" from Kiev’s transitional leaders and advised Ukrainians to back Putin’s call for reconstituting the country as a federation. He called for the holding of regional referendums on federation before the country’s May 25 elections. "This is the only way to preserve the integrity of Ukraine," he said. "If this is not done, our country will be threatened with fragmentation.… A civil war would be more likely."