Moscow’s strategy in the eastern Ukrainian of Slovyansk and Odessa is “identical” to how it precipitated the swift annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March, the Obama administration’s top official on the region said Tuesday.
“First, you create the upheaval in the towns that were completely peaceful just two months before, then you intimidate the local population, then you hold a bogus independence referendum on two weeks’ notice,” said Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
“Moscow is providing material support, funding, weapons, coordination, and there are Russian agents on the ground in Ukraine involved in this,” Mrs. Nuland told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
The next step, she said, will see Russian “peacekeepers” swarming into the southern and eastern Ukrainian cities to “protect the will of the voters.”
Her remarks came amid widening tensions between Ukrainian security forces loyal to the fledgling pro-Western government in Kiev and militants loyal to Moscow who have seized control of a growing number of government buildings in southern and eastern Ukraine in recent weeks.
Ukrainian forces tightened a security cordon Tuesday around the eastern city of Slovyansk — a stronghold of the pro-Russia militants. The Associated Press reported that Ukraine’s interior minister said 30 militants and four Ukrainian troops were killed in clashes around the city.
The AP reported that pro-Russia militants acted with impunity elsewhere in the turbulent region bordering Russia and that the militants said 10 people — fighters and civilians — had been killed by Ukrainian forces during clashes on Monday. There was no immediate way to reconcile the figures.
Gun battles around the city of 125,000 have signaled Kiev’s most ambitious effort to date to quell weeks of unrest in Ukraine’s mainly Russian-speaking east.
But in Ukraine’s southwest, the AP reported, Kiev authorities also attempted to reassert control over the key Black Sea region of Odessa by appointing a new governor there Tuesday.
In Washington, Mrs. Nuland’s remarks came during a hearing in which Democratic and Republican senators called for a significant expansion of U.S. economic sanctions against Russia to deter Moscow from pushing for an annexation of eastern and southern Ukrainian regions.
Senate Republicans recently have introduced legislation urging President Obama to begin directly arming the Ukrainian military with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry.
Senior administration officials, including Mr. Obama himself, have publicly resisted calls to provide “direct military assistance” to Ukraine. It was unclear Tuesday whether the Republican bill will garner support from Democrats.
Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said lawmakers “need to examine further steps we can take to assist Ukraine at this critical juncture, including the provision of military assistance and equipment, body armor as well as training and security assistance for Ukrainian forces.”
But Mr. Menendez also suggested that his Republican colleagues were attempting to politicize the situation by pushing an aggressive bill that might quickly escalate Washington’s military involvement in Ukraine’s conflict.