Ukraine leader says Russia wants to set southeast 'on fire'
SLAVYASNK, Ukraine - Agence France-Presse
A pro-Russia activist guards a barricade ouside the regional state building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on April 15, 2014. AFP PhotoUkraine's Western-backed leader on Tuesday accused Russia of trying to inflame the separatist southeast but promised to proceed with caution against pro-Kremlin militias consolidating their hold on the flashpoint region.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov's impassioned charges against Ukraine's historical master 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 heated 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 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 on Thursday in Geneva between Moscow and Kiev could help deescalate the most explosive East-West standoff since the Cold War.
But the pressure that the ex-Soviet state's interim leaders are feeling from Moscow is now also starting to be matched by pushback 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 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 by stressing that efforts to dislodge the pro-Russian gunmen from their increasingly entrenched positions must proceed "gradually, responsibly and in a measured way".
The coordinated series of raids that began in the depressed industrial hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk and have since spread to nearby coal mining towns and villages have presented the untested leaders with a high-stakes challenge with no clear solution.
Inaction in the face the insurgents' aggression and tough talk by Moscow could potentially see the vast nation of 46 million break up along its historic Russian-Ukrainian cultural divide.
But a forceful military response -- its very feasibility in question due to poor morale and desertions riddling army ranks -- could prompt a counterstrike by some 40,000 Russian troops now poised along Ukraine's border and waiting to act on Putin's vow to "protect" his compatriots in the neighbouring state.
Turchynov told an agitated session of parliament during which some of his old protest supporters questioned his leadership that Ukraine was facing an eastern enemy rather than domestic discontent.
"They want to set fire not only to the Donetsk region but to the entire south and east -- from Kharkiv to the Odessa region," the acting president said.
Turchynov also announced the formal launch 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.
Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council chief Andriy Parubiy added that he had dispatched the first unit of the newly formed National Guard -- comprised in part of volunteers and this winter's more militant anti-government protesters -- "to the front".
But the United Nations issued a report on Tuesday urging the leaders in Kiev to temper their response and "immediately take initial measures to build confidence between the government and the people".
Kiev's news programmes have spent much of the past day replaying footage from an attack by militants on a police station in the town of Gorlivka in which men in gasmasks pelted the building with Molotov cocktails before smashing its windows with rocks and bats.
One clip showed a green-uniformed man who identified himself as a Russian colonel telling the local police force that it now must obey his orders and must wear orange-and-black ribbons symbolising Kremlin pride.
The Kremlin set nerves in Kiev further on edge on Monday by announcing that Putin had received "a lot" of requests from eastern Ukraine "to help, to intervene in some form".
The crisis was exacerbated further still by two episodes with a dash of Cold War-style intrigue: a confrontation in the Black Sea in which a Russian warplane "buzzed" a US destroyer and a weekend visit to Kiev by CIA chief John Brennan.
This charged atmosphere witnessed Putin place a surprise call to the White House that both sides later said covered plenty of ground but appeared to chart no new course.
The White House said Obama accused Moscow of supporting "armed pro-Russian separatists who threaten to undermine and destabilise the government of Ukraine."
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Tuesday also urged Russia to "stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution."
A Kremlin account of Putin's call with Obama said the Russian leader blamed the unrest on "the unwillingness and inability by the Kiev authorities to take account of the interests of the Russian and Russian-speaking population".
The White House also took the rare step of confirming that Brennan had flown into Kiev over the weekend.
Moscow's Interfax news agency had quoted an unidentified source as saying Brennan recommended that Kiev use force against the pro-Russian militants.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney blasted claims that Brennan's travel was anything but routine.