The efforts of Ukraine’s government to crack down on pro-Russia separatists who have recently seized various government and security buildings in the east appeared to suffer setbacks Wednesday.
Pro-Russian militants appeared to tighten their grip on Ukraine’s eastern town of Slaviansk on Wednesday as Ukrainian military forces massed nearby in an uneasy standoff.
On a day of fast-moving events in the restive region, officials in Transnistria, a separatist region in Moldova on Kiev’s other border, turned to Moscow for recognition — taking example from Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine last month.
In Donetsk, six armored vehicles sent into the nearby city of Kramatorsk in the morning later showed up carrying Russian flags in Slaviansk.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the vehicles had been seized by militants after they were “blocked by local residents, including representatives of Russian labeled subversive and terrorist groups.”
As of mid-afternoon local time, the vehicles were located “near an administrative building in the center of Slaviansk, surrounded by men in armed uniform not related to the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” it said. It was not immediately clear what had happened to the personnel in the cars.
State-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti said the crew of the vehicles had switched sides to join the protesters, while other reports said they had been seized by militants.
An earlier report from Reuters news agency also confirmed that the vehicles were later seen under control of pro-Russia separatists. The article indicates there were reports that Ukrainians gave up the vehicles to the separatists but notes that it was unclear whether there was any threat of force.
And the Wall Street Journal reports that in Donetsk, separatists took over the city council building with little effort and apparently without intervention.
It’s been a difficult start after Ukraine announced in recent days that it had launched a “full-scale anti-terrorist operation” against separatist forces in the east. Ukraine’s acting president and other government leaders have repeatedly blamed Russia for agitating the unrest, while Russia has denied such accusations.
The White House meanwhile again signaled Wednesday that it is prepared to impose new sanctions against Russia, according to another Wall Street Journal report.
The Obama administration said on Wednesday that it has readied fresh sanctions to punish Russia for fomenting unrest in Ukraine, but wants to hear whether Moscow will offer conciliatory steps at a Thursday meeting before imposing the penalties.
“We’re prepared to impose new sanctions,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One en route to an event near Pittsburgh. Mr. Carney didn’t say what penalties the U.S. is prepared to issue. He said the U.S. wants to find a diplomatic solution and is approaching the talks on Thursday in Geneva with “an eye toward evaluating whether or not Russia is serious about de-escalating” the crisis.
The meeting, which includes representatives from the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and the European Union, will help decide the West’s response to growing unrest in Ukraine. It comes as the Ukrainian military’s efforts to regain control of eastern Ukraine from pro-Russian separatists stumbled, raising more concerns about bloody clashes.
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