DONETSK, Ukraine: Russia was under US pressure Saturday to convince pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine to cease occupying eastern towns, after Washington warned the situation in the former Soviet republic was in a “pivotal period.”
But with the separatists’ refusal to budge throwing a deal to defuse the crisis into doubt, and US sanctions looming large, Russia warned that its military was massed on Ukraine’s border, ready to act.
In the nearly dozen Ukrainian towns the pro-Kremlin rebels were holding, the stalemate dragged on Saturday. In the major eastern city of Donetsk, gunmen remained barricaded inside the regional government building.
“We are going on as usual,” one of the rebels told AFP. “An Orthodox priest is inside with us and we are going to celebrate Easter tonight.”
The failure to implement the agreement hammered out in Geneva on Thursday by the US, Russia, Ukraine and the EU threatened to deepen the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
US Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov overnight that “full and immediate compliance” was needed of the pact, which calls for the disarmament of “illegal armed groups” and the end to the occupation of seized buildings.
Kerry “made clear that the next few days would be a pivotal period for all sides to implement the statement’s provisions,” a senior State Department official said.
US President Barack Obama has said he wants to see progress within days, otherwise more sanctions would be imposed, on top of those already targeting the inner circle of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The United States, NATO and many EU countries see Putin as the puppet master behind the Ukraine insurgency. They accuse him of sending in elite Russian soldiers to stir unrest and ensure the country — parts of which are historically and linguistically tied to Russia — stays in Moscow’s orbit.
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice said on Friday that the White House was watching to see whether Russia uses “its very considerable influence to restrain and withdraw those irregular militia from the buildings and spaces that they’ve occupied.”
Putin denies his forces have any role in east Ukraine. On Thursday, however, he dropped an identical denial over Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine last month, to finally admit the Russian army had in fact been deployed there.