- The Washington Times - Monday, May 5, 2014

As violence escalated in Ukraine on Monday ahead of critical elections, the Obama administration stood pat with calls for Russia to obey the terms of a diplomatic agreement to ease the crisis and warned that the West was ready to impose more economic sanctions.

Ukrainian forces fought pro-Russia militants in eastern Ukraine in pitched battles, as insurgents in the southern city of Odessa vowed to retake buildings after clashes that left more than 40 people dead.

Four Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 30 were wounded during fighting near the eastern rebel stronghold of Slovyansk, the government in Kiev said. Militants also shot down a Ukrainian army helicopter.

On Sunday, army troops cut off the main road into Slovyansk as part of what the Ukrainian government described as “anti-terror” operations meant to retake government buildings captured by insurgents in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.

As the fighting intensified, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow had received thousands of calls since Friday from people in southeastern Ukraine pleading for Russia’s involvement.

“Most of the people literally demand active help from Russia,” said Putin aide Dmitry Peskov.

At the White House, officials said President Obama and European allies might impose broader economic sanctions against Russia before crucial Ukrainian elections scheduled for May 25. White House press secretary Jay Carney said there are no “artificial deadlines” for sanctions and repeated the administration’s call for Russia to abide by an agreement last month to help disarm the militants.

“We’ve made clear that if Russia escalates, the costs will escalate,” Mr. Carney said. “We are concerned that Russia seeks to undermine the May 25th elections.”

Some Republican lawmakers are urging the administration not to wait for the elections to impose more sanctions.

“I would like to see us move forward on this now and not wait to see what happens,” Sen. Daniel Coats, Indiana Republican, said Monday.

He said the sanctions already in place are “too little, too late” and haven’t deterred Mr. Putin from keeping control of Crimea.

“They should’ve been imposed much earlier and go right to the Russia pocketbook, damage their economy,” Mr. Coats said on MSNBC. “I think holding off until the 25th before imposing new sanctions or more effective sanctions is a mistake.”

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the rebels were using heavy weapons, including mortars, in the latest fighting. The crew of the downed helicopter survived largely because the craft crashed into a river, the ministry said.

It was at least the third Ukrainian military helicopter to be downed over the city in recent days.

The BBC, citing the Russian Interfax news agency, reported that government forces had taken control of a TV tower and forced the insurgents to retreat deeper inside Slovyansk. Reuters reported that heavy gunfire could be heard closer to the center of town than in recent days, and at least two armored vehicles controlled by separatists were seen retreating.

Popular opinion shifted against the interim government in Kiev after Friday’s violence in the Black Sea port of Odessa, in which at least 46 people were killed. Most of the dead were pro-Russia activists who barricaded themselves in the city’s trade union building, which was set on fire by pro-Kiev demonstrators outside.

Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk condemned the security force’s actions in Odessa and said he would order an independent investigation into police conduct. However, a BBC reporter who spoke to residents of the towns around Slovyansk said she was told that the Odessa incident “cannot be forgiven.”

Pro-Russia demonstrators attacked the main police station in Odessa on Sunday and freed 67 people who had been arrested in connection with Friday’s violence.

The Interior Ministry said Monday that it was sending an elite national guard unit from Kiev to re-establish control in Odessa and that 42 of those arrested during the rioting were being sent to another region for investigation.

Ukrainian security forces also have clashed in recent weeks with pro-Russia militants guarding a salt mine near Slovyansk. Some news reports said a massive number of small arms are stored inside the mine.

One U.S. official said the salt mine reports could not be verified but there are indications of other weapons stocks in and around Slovyansk, which may explain why the pro-Russia forces have been keen to control the area since late March.

Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.