- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2014

Ignoring Obama administration threats of stiffer sanctions, Russia began military exercises near its border with Ukraine on Thursday after Ukrainian forces killed at least five pro-Russia insurgents in a drive to recapture occupied buildings in the country’s tumultuous east.

The Russian posturing prompted a harsh rebuke Thursday evening from Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who defended the Ukrainian government and lambasted Moscow for taking “an active role in destabilizing eastern Ukraine with personnel, weapons, money, operational planning and coordination.”

Mr. Kerry accused Russia of flouting a U.S.-brokered agreement to ease tensions in Ukraine and declared that the “window for Moscow to change course is closing.”

“If Russia chooses the path of de-escalation, the international community, all of us, will welcome it. If Russia does not, the world will make sure that the costs for Russia will only grow,” he said. “As President Obama reiterated earlier today, we are ready to act.”

He did not elaborate on what actions the White House would take, but his comments were among the strongest by the administration and were made on a day of heightened violence and fears of a widening conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government said its military forces killed as many as five rebels during an effort to remove roadblocks erected by pro-Russia activists in the city of Slovyansk.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described the Ukrainian military move as a “punitive operation” that could warrant a harsh response.

“If the Kiev government is using the army against its own people, this is clearly a grave crime,” Mr. Putin said in St. Petersburg. “It will have consequences for the people who make such decisions, including relations between our countries.”

His statement and the announcement of military exercises involving ground and air forces escalated tensions over the prospect of a Russian military incursion into Ukraine.

Russia’s foreign minister warned Wednesday that any attack on Russian citizens or interests in eastern Ukraine would trigger a strong response.

The crisis “could quickly spin out of control,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Thursday.

Ukraine issued a 48-hour deadline for Russia to explain its military drills, but its foreign ministry did not say what Ukraine would do if Russia does not comply.

President Obama on Wednesday warned of dire consequences if Russia did not pull back its estimated 40,000 troops from the Ukrainian border and compel pro-Russia militants in eastern Ukraine to lay down their arms.

Speaking in Tokyo during a four-nation tour of Asia, Mr. Obama said Thursday that the U.S. is “teed up” to impose further sanctions if Russia does not abide by a tentative agreement reached last week in Geneva.

The agreement called for Kiev and Moscow to persuade all illegally armed groups operating in Ukraine to lay down their weapons. It also called for pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine to cede control of government buildings they have occupied for the past three weeks.

The U.S. imposed economic and travel sanctions against some top Russian officials last month after Russia annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine.

“There was some possibility that Russia could take the wiser course after the meetings in Geneva,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead, we continue to see militias and armed men taking over buildings, harassing folks who are disagreeing with them, and destabilizing the region, and we haven’t seen Russia step up and discourage that.”

Mr. Kerry sought to hammer home that message by asserting that “Russia continues to fund, coordinate and fuel a heavily armed separatist movement” in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

“Meanwhile,” the secretary of state said, “Russian leaders are making increasingly outrageous claims to justify their action: that the CIA invented the Internet in order to control the world, or that the forces occupying buildings, armed to the teeth, wearing brand new, matching uniforms and moving in disciplined military formation, are merely local activists seeking to exercise their legitimate rights.”

“That is absurd,” Mr. Kerry said. “There is no other word to describe it.”

Animosity between Moscow and Kiev has been high since the ouster of Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych in February. Russia contends that the government that took control in Kiev consists of nationalists who aim to suppress the large Russian-speaking population in Ukraine’s east.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia would conduct military drills in response to the operation in southeastern Ukraine.

“We are forced to react to such a development in the situation,” Mr. Shoigu said. “Starting today, exercises of battalion tactical groups from the Southern and Western military districts will begin near the borders with Ukraine.”

NATO and the United States have voiced unease about the Russian troops near the Ukrainian border.

Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov accused Moscow of “openly threatening” his country with its troop buildup. He said Kiev was trying to protect peaceful citizens but that Russia “coordinates and openly supports terrorist killers with weapons in their hands” in eastern Ukraine.

“With no reason to do so, the Russian leadership allows itself to boldly interfere in the internal affairs of Ukraine,” Mr. Turchynov said. “Russia supports terrorism in our country at the state level.”

Conflicting accounts have emerged about the number of casualties resulting from clashes Thursday.

The government in Kiev confirmed operations to destroy three checkpoints around Slovyansk and said its forces killed five pro-Russia militants. A police officer also was injured, the Interior Ministry said.

Russian officials said that, according to the international deal, Kiev must take responsibility for disarming the right-wing ultranationalists that Moscow blames for violence.

“We don’t have any doubts that the first step must be done by the Kiev authorities,” Mr. Lavrov said.

He accused the West of treating leaders in Kiev like “angels” who did nothing wrong while blaming Russia for the unrest in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Putin said the events unfolding in eastern Ukraine show that Moscow was right to support the Crimean people, who voted last month to join Russia in a referendum that was condemned by the West.

“Otherwise, they would have witnessed the same events as eastern Ukraine and surely even worse,” he said. “So, this is another proof that we have acted correctly and on time.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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