Ukraine crisis: Nato to bolster forces in eastern Europe
Ukraine in armoured vehicles.Nato has announced it has decided on a series of immediate steps to bolster its forces in eastern European as pro-Russian militia rolled into towns across eastern
“You will see deployments at sea, in the air, on land to take place immediately – that means within days,” the Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told a news conference after the decision was taken by Nato ambassadors.
Nato fighter aircraft will fly more sorties over the Baltic region, allied ships will deploy to the Baltic Sea, the eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere, and allied military staff will be sent out to improve Nato’s preparedness, training and exercises, Rasmussen said.
Hours earlier, pro-Russian separatists seized five armoured personnel carriers and a tank from the Ukrainian army, which they then drove in a victory lap through the centre of Kramatorsk in Ukraine’s east and on to the nearby town of Slavyansk. The Ukrainian defence ministry confirmed that vehicles had been taken by pro-Russian forces.
About 100 heavily armed men, some in balaclavas and wearing military fatigues, rode on top of the seized armoured vehicles, the first of which was flying a Russian tricolour. Several hundred locals gathered around the convoy cheering, tooting their car horns and waving in support as it rolled past Kramatorsk’s railway station, not far from the airfield where Ukrainian soldiers clashed with separatists on Tuesday.
Ukrainian military helicopters hovered above the dramatic scenes but there seemed to be no attempt by government forces to try to wrest back control of the situation. The seized armoured personnel carriers were driven to Slavyansk, where a Russian flag had been raised above a checkpoint at the city entrance. A plane resembling a Su-27 circled low over the town’s square.
The pro-Russian militiamen who drove the troop carriers into Slavyansk refused to say where they had got them. “From space,” one said. “They came on their own,” said another.
One soldier siding with the separatists in Slavyansk told a Reuters reporter that he and others in his group were part of a Ukrainian paratroop unit who could not shoot “our own people”.
Locals gathered as the militiamen parked the vehicles near city hall. A pair of women recognised one man and hugged him, suggesting that at least some of them were local.
The new “people’s mayor”, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, arrived and greeted the men, then led a group of them off the square towards other occupied buildings.
But not all the locals who had gathered joined the hero’s welcome. One man who identified himself only as Valery angrily asked the militiamen, who were enforcing a wide perimeter around the armoured vehicles, what they were doing.
“Part of the population supports them,” he said. “But people who work, like me – I’m an entrepreneur – they don’t want this.”
Valery said he did not support calls for a referendum and wanted to vote in the presidential elections planned for 25 May, which many here say they will boycott.
“People think everything in Russia is spread with honey,” Valery said – a statement that provoked angry exclamations and arguments from nearby crowds.
Separately, there were unconfirmed reports that armed men had captured the city administration building in nearby Donetsk.
Pro-Russian protesters seeking independence from Kiev have occupied at least nine government buildings in the region for more than a week – but this is the first time that separatist forces deep inside Ukraine have managed to seize heavy military equipment, and a further sign that the situation in the east is slipping out of Kiev’s grip.
Ukrainian government forces launched their first significant military action in the east of the country on Tuesday, clashing with about 30 pro-Russian gunmen at a provincial airfield and heightening fears that the standoff could escalate into a major armed conflict.
Shots were fired in Kramatorsk airport as Ukrainian special forces stormed in to reassert Kiev’s control. As troop helicopters hovered above and tempers flared, a Ukrainian general was set upon by a group of local people incensed that two protesters had been injured, knocking off his military-issue fur hat and yelling: “Jail him.”
At the same time as Kramatorsk airport was being seized, elite Ukrainian units were also gathering outside Slavyansk in an operation aimed at taking back control from armed pro-Russian groups.
Ukraine’s acting president said the recapture of the airport was just the first such action aimed at restoring Kiev’s control over the east.
“I just got a call from the Donetsk region: Ukrainian special forces have liberated the airport in the city of Kramatorsk from terrorists,” Oleksandr Turchynov told parliament. “I’m convinced that there will not be any terrorists left soon in Donetsk and other regions and they will find themselves in the dock – this is where they belong.”
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, declared the Ukrainian moves “anti-constitutional acts” and in a phone call to the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, demanded that the UN condemn them. But the US voiced strong support for the Ukrainian operation, arguing that the government in Kiev had to respond to armed groups.
“We understand the government of Ukraine is working to try to calm the situation in the east and note the measured approach of the Ukrainian security forces thus far,” said the White House press secretary Jay Carney.
Representatives from Ukraine, Russia, the US and the European Union are due to meet in Geneva on Thursday for the first time since the crisis began in February, but there were clear signs that the situation in eastern Ukraine risked spiralling out of control before the diplomats could meet.
The mayor of Slavyansk said the pro-Russian local people there were being supported by unmarked troops from Russia and Crimea. Turchynov gave pro-Russians in eastern Ukraine until Monday morning to give up their arms and the buildings they had seized, but instead a pro-Russian mob took over yet another government building in Horlivka that day. A man who appointed a new police chief there later said he was a lieutenant colonel in the Russian army.
General Vasily Krutov, the commander of the Ukrainian operation in the region, said the government’s ultimatum would not be extended. That would be “too humanitarian”, he said. He said civilian casualties were possible but his forces would try to make sure “not one innocent person suffers”.
“Unfortunately we face a difficult situation because those realising their plan are hiding behind human shields,” Krutov said – an apparent reference to the many pro-Russian local people who have taken part in taking over buildings. “Some of them are cynically working towards their own ends, but many are under the influence of propaganda.”
At the White House, Carney said the Ukrainian authorities had repeatedly sought to negotiate a peaceful resolution with armed groups occupying buildings in eastern cities, and made clear that use of force was not its “preferred action”.
But he continued: “That said, the Ukrainian government has a responsibility to provide law and order. These provocations in eastern Ukraine are creating a situation in which the government has to respond.”
Asked what advice the CIA director, John Brennan, who visited Kiev on Saturday, and other US officials had given security forces in Kiev, Carney replied: “We urged the Ukrainian government to move forward, gradually, responsibly, and with all due caution, as it deals with this situation caused by armed militants.
“Let’s be clear: the way to ensure that violence does not occur is for these armed paramilitary groups, and these armed so-called pro-Russian separatists, to vacate the buildings and to lay down their arms.”
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said in a speech to the City of London on Tuesday that the EU was completing preparations for “far-reaching economic, trade and financial sanctions whenever necessary” against Moscow.
“In recent days Russia has deliberately pushed Ukraine to the brink, and created a still greater risk of violent confrontation,” he said. “We call on Russia to stop these actions and to condemn the lawless acts in eastern Ukraine.”
The UN human rights office, meanwhile, said ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine had falsely claimed to be under assault to justify Russian intervention, warning that such propaganda could affect Ukraine’s presidential election next month.
Russia condemned the report, saying it was one-sided and seemed to have been “fabricated” to fit pre-formed conclusions.