The White House said Tuesday that President Obama will not send lethal military equipment to Ukraine, even as the new pro-Western government in Kiev began a counteroffensive to recapture ground in eastern Ukraine that had been occupied by pro-Russian militia forces.
Ukraine’s acting president said special forces retook an airfield in the eastern part of the country that had been occupied by a militia. Russian press reports said there were casualties, and even without independent confirmation of that detail, the fight marked an escalation of military force in the weeks-long standoff.
In the U.S., White House press secretary Jay Carney backed Ukraine’s actions, saying that while the Obama administration would like to see negotiations, pro-Russian provocations have sparked Ukraine’s reaction.
“The Ukrainian government has a responsibility to provide law and order, and these provocations in eastern Ukraine are creating a situation in which the government has to respond,” Mr. Carney said.
American officials said they are considering a fresh round of sanctions to punish Russia for its role in stoking the crisis. The new sanctions, which would go beyond the individual, sanctions levied to date, could target Russia’s energy, banking and mining sectors.
However, Mr. Carney said Mr. Obama won’t consider offering lethal aid to Ukraine — dashing the hopes of some in both Ukraine and in the U.S. Congress who had wanted a more involved role for Americans.
“We’re not considering lethal assistance,” Mr. Carney said. “Our focus is on continuing to put pressure on Russia so that it understands that the international community is united when it comes to support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
He declined to get into questions over whether even items such as night-vision goggles or body armor would count as “lethal” assistance.
Pro-Russian militia forces have occupied government facilities in about 10 cities in eastern Ukraine.
Russian officials have argued the country is on the verge of a “civil war” — a label that is freighted with international implications.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who last week visited Crimea, a Ukrainian region that Russia annexed last month, posted to his Facebook account that Ukraine was headed for civil war. Speaking with reporters in Moscow, Mr. Medvedev blamed Kiev and the West for the crisis, saying, “I hope that everyone who is responsible for making decisions at the moment, the current Ukrainian authorities, have enough brains to avoid driving the country into such a state and to prevent an escalation of the conflict.”
American officials rejected that, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying that ousting pro-Russian militia forces from Ukrainian facilities “is hardly a civil war.”
For their part, Ukrainian politicians said that it wasn’t a civil war, but rather the beginnings of a Russian war against Ukraine.
U.S. officials do remain concerned about the possibility of a Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin has said it will intervene if asked to do so by ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and late Tuesday, Russia’s foreign ministry condemned Ukraine’s military action.
The Obama administration says Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on its border with Ukraine.
The fiercest clashes Tuesday came at Ukraine’s Kramatorsk airport, just south of the city of Slovyansk, which was seized by pro-Russian gunmen last weekend.
According to the Associated Press, Yury Zhadobin, coordinator of a pro-Russian defense force, said two people were slightly injured and were taken to a hospital. Russian media, without sourcing, claimed anywhere from four to 11 casualties at the airport. Ukraine’s government said there were no casualties, adding that Ukrainian forces took an unspecified number of militiamen prisoner.
“I just got a call from the Donetsk region: Ukrainian special forces have liberated the airport in the city of Kramatorsk from terrorists,” acting President 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.”
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.