Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Ukraine Monday, where he planned to meet with the acting prime minister and president, as well as various members of Parliament and representatives from non-governmental organizations over the next two days.  Biden’s trip comes on the heels of yet additional escalations in the conflict in eastern Ukraine over the weekend.

From Reuters:

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will announce a package of technical assistance focused on energy and economic aid distribution during a two-day visit to Ukraine that began on Monday, a senior administration official said.

Biden is the highest ranking U.S. official to visit the country since the crisis with Russia erupted months ago.

His trip is largely symbolic. But during talks with Ukrainian leaders on Tuesday he will announce U.S. assistance, primarily of technical know-how to boost energy efficiency as well as production in Ukrainian natural gas fields and extraction of “unconventional” gas resources, a senior administration official told reporters traveling on board the vice president’s plane.

A U.S. team was also in Ukraine to help deal with the issue of securing gas flows from EU countries such as Slovakia and Hungary in the event that Russia cuts off Ukraine’s supply, the official said.

Kiev gets about half of its gas from Moscow and a large proportion of Europe’s gas is pumped from Russia via Ukraine. The United States is pushing Ukraine and the European Union to diversify their energy supplies and become less reliant on Russia.

Biden arrived in Kiev as an agreement reached last week to avert wider conflict in Ukraine began to falter.

Foreign ministers and officials from the United States, Europe, Russia and Ukraine agreed in Geneva Thursday that separatists would disarm and vacate occupied government buildings in exchange for amnesty as well as guarantees of rights for ethnic Russians in Ukraine, according to NBC News.

But Reuters reported Monday that both sides in the conflict soon after accused the other of breaking the agreement, while pro-Russia separatists showed no signs of relinquishing control of government buildings.

Tensions also escalated further in eastern Ukraine on Sunday after a shootout at a security checkpoint near Slovyansk, despite what was supposed to have been a truce.

From the NY Times:

A shootout at a checkpoint run by pro-Russian militants near the town of Slovyansk left at least three people dead on Sunday, highlighting the fraying here in eastern Ukraine of a truce reached days earlier by diplomats in Geneva.

Around 2 a.m. on a road lined with blossoming apricot trees, four cars drove toward the checkpoint and their occupants opened fire, killing three local men who were standing guard, according to pro-Russian militants who control this town.

“We thought nothing would happen because it was the holy night,” said Yevgeny Bondarenko, 62, who said he had been there to celebrate Easter with the people at the checkpoint. “Who can we trust now?”

It was unclear whether the shooting was an event staged by provocateurs, an accident or an attack on pro-Russian militants. The difficulty in sorting out what happened will resonate far beyond Slovyansk, which is the linchpin of a string of midsize towns north of the regional capital, Donetsk, that are controlled by the militants.

A diplomatic settlement reached on Thursday by the European Union, Russia, Ukraine and the United States called for illegally armed groups to lay down their weapons, though the chances of this formula for peace succeeding seemed slim from the beginning.

Russia spoke out about the incident, accusing a right-wing nationalist group of carrying out the attack, while Ukraine blamed it on a staged provocation, according to the Washington Post.

Moscow quickly took the side of the pro-Russia activists. In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said “innocent civilians” were attacked by “militants” from an ultra-nationalist, far-right organization called Right Sector, which emerged as a paramilitary group during protests in Kiev that ousted Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency in February and ushered in a pro-Western government.

“The Russian side is enraged by the militant provocation,” the Foreign Ministry declared, accusing Kiev of failing to disarm “nationalists and extremists.”

The Russians said locals had discovered weapons, aerial maps and Right Sector paraphernalia at the scene.

A spokesman for the group said it played no part in the clash and accused Russian special forces and intelligence officers of staging a provocation.

In a statement, the Security Service of Ukraine said the violence was orchestrated by pro-Russia elements trying to stir up trouble. It said evidence was planted at the scene, including new $100 bills, the business card of an ultra-nationalist leader and a World War II-era gun.

Video report below from Sunday via ABC News.


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[Featured image: AP video via USA Today]