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Ukraine ‘on brink of civil war’ as sides square off in the east

Nato plans to deploy more forces in eastern Ukraine in the face of the crisis, while Germany warned of more bloodshed if the four-way talks in Geneva on Thursday fail.

Ukrainian soldiers sit on an armoured personnel carrier in Kramatorsk. Ukrainian government forces and separatist pro-Russian militia staged rival shows of force in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday amid escalating rhetoric on the eve of crucial four-way talks in Geneva on the former Soviet country's future.  Reuters / April 16, 2014
Ukrainian soldiers sit on an armoured personnel carrier in Kramatorsk. Ukrainian government forces and separatist pro-Russian militia staged rival shows of force in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday amid escalating rhetoric on the eve of crucial four-way talks in Geneva on the former Soviet country's future. Reuters / April 16, 2014

SLAVYANSK, UKRAINE // Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces flexed their military muscles in the east of the country on Wednesday, a day ahead of high-level diplomatic talks on the escalating crisis.

Armoured vehicles from the rival sides appeared on the streets of two neighbouring towns after the Russian president Vladimir Putin warned that Kiev’s decision to send in troops to put down a separatist uprising in its industrial heartland had dragged the country to the brink of civil war.

Nato said it planned to deploy more forces in eastern Europe in the face of the crisis, while Germany warned of more bloodshed if the four-way talks in Geneva on Thursday fail.

A witness in the flashpoint town of Slavyansk saw at least six armoured personnel carriers and light tanks, some flying Russian flags, parked in the city centre with dozens of unidentified armed men in camouflage stationed around them.

Russian media said Ukrainian troops in the vehicles had switched sides to join the separatists but the Ukrainian army said it had no reports that any of its equipment had been seized.

A witness in the nearby town of Kramatorsk also said Ukrainian forces had deployed a column of 14 armoured vehicles, although these were being blocked by a crowd of pro-Russian protesters.

Military jets could be seen flying low over both towns in an additional show of strength.

As the situation on the ground appeared to escalate, the authorities in Kiev ratcheted up the verbal attack on Russia, with the prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, accusing Moscow of trying to build “a new Berlin wall”.

Mr Yatseniuk demanded Moscow halt its alleged support for the separatists but said Kiev remained committed to Thursday’s crunch talks between the top diplomats of Russia, the European Union, the United States and Ukraine.

“There is only one directive for the Ukrainian foreign ministry – the Russian government has to immediately withdraw its commando groups, condemn the terrorists and demand they leave the installations.”

Ukraine’s acting defence minister, Mykhailo Koval, on Wednesday headed out to the east to check on the progress of Kiev’s seemingly stalled bid to oust the separatists.

Ukraine’s military also pledged a firm response after two serviceman were allegedly taken hostage by pro-Russian forces in the Lugansk region.

The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said that Russian commanders in the east had issued pro-Kremlin militants with “shoot-to-kill” orders.

Elsewhere, pro-Moscow gunmen stormed the mayor’s office in the regional capital of Donetsk.

Kiev takes risk

On Tuesday, authorities in Kiev launched what they called an “anti-terrorist operation”, sending tanks towards Slavyansk, which remains effectively under the control of pro-Russian gunmen, in a high-risk strategy sharply condemned by the Kremlin but supported in Washington.

The 20 tanks and armoured personnel carriers sent to Slavyansk were the most forceful response yet by the Western-backed government in Kiev to the pro-Kremlin militants’ occupation of state buildings in nearly 10 cities across Ukraine’s rust belt.

But the move drew a sharp response from Mr Putin in a conversation with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

“The Russian president remarked that the sharp escalation of the conflict has placed the country, in effect, on the verge of civil war,” the Kremlin said.

But both Mr Putin and Mr Merkel “emphasised the importance” of Thursday’s Geneva talks.

The Kremlin described the actions of the Ukrainian army in the east as an “anti-constitutional course to use force against peaceful protest actions”.

Kiev’s response to the insurgency also prompted Mr Putin to tell the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, that Moscow “expects clear condemnation from the United Nations and the international community of the anti-constitutional actions” by Ukraine.

Mr Ban in turn “expressed his alarm about the highly volatile situation in eastern Ukraine” and told the Russian leader that everyone involved needed to “work to de-escalate the situation”, his office said.

But the White House described Ukraine’s military operation as a “measured” response to a lawless insurgency that had put the government in an “untenable” situation.

Washington also said it was coordinating with its European allies to slap more sanctions on Russia over the crisis.

“Our national security team is in active discussions about the next round of sanctions,” the State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

A cultural spilt?

Kiev’s untested interim leaders, who took power in February after four months of pro-European protests ousted Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovich, have struggled to meet the high-stakes challenge presented by the coordinated series of raids that began in the industrial hubs of Donetsk and Lugansk and have since spread to nearby coal mining towns and villages.

The breakaway move could potentially see the vast nation of 46 million people break up along its historic Russian-Ukrainian cultural divide.

Moscow last month annexed the largely Russified region of Crimea after deploying military forces there and backing a hasty local referendum calling for the Black Sea peninsula to be absorbed into the Russian Federation.

But a forceful military response by Kiev could prompt a devastating counterstrike by Russian troops who are waiting to act on Putin’s vow to “protect” Russian-speakers in the neighbouring state.

Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchinov, told an agitated session of parliament on Tuesday that the country 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,” he said.

* Agence France-Presse