Oleksandr Turchynov, the interim President of beleaguered Ukraine, declared several times on Monday that he had a plan. But with his country being pulled apart under Russian pressure, and few good options to counter Moscow’s meddling, the plan continues to change.
First, Mr. Turchynov played the tough guy, ready to confront Russian intervention. Then he flipped and offered a complicated compromise. Then he went back to battle mode.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian gunmen gained ground and seized more buildings in the east of the country, defying Mr. Turchynov’s warning that he would use force to prevent a repeat of the scenario that last month saw Russia annex the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine following a controversial snap referendum in the region.
Mr. Turchynov had promised he would launch a “full-scale anti-terrorist operation” starting early Monday if the separatists – who Ukraine claims are Russian-backed and include undercover Russian soldiers – didn’t peacefully leave the buildings they had captured.
It was a high-risk ultimatum. Using force against the militants might give the Russian army massed on the other side of the border an excuse to invade, something many in Kiev believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is waiting anxiously for.
But by leaving separatists in control of an expanding area of eastern Ukraine, Mr. Turchynov risks seeing his country further disintegrate on his brief watch.
Mr. Turchynov’s deadline came and went Monday without any sign of a concerted move to oust the militants, who now control the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk, as well as much of the densely populated coal-producing industrial region known as the Donbass. Instead, dozens of masked men – some carrying automatic weapons – stormed and seized a police station in the city of Horlivka on Monday, raising the Russian flag. The move brought to 10 the number of cities in eastern Ukraine where one or more government buildings is under the control of pro-Russian forces.
On Tuesday, Mr. Turchynov announced a new "anti-terrorist operation," giving few details about how it would be conducted.
“The plans of the Russian Federation were and remain brutal," Mr. Turchynov told parliament Tuesday. "They want not only for Donbass, but for the whole south and east of Ukraine to be engulfed by fire.” The aim of the operation is to “defend the citizens of Ukraine, to stop terror, stop crime and stop attempts to tear our country into pieces,” he said.
The leader of the pro-Russian militants in one of the insurgent-held cities, Slavyansk, told journalists he and his Kalashnikov-toting fighters were counting on Russian protection if the Ukrainian army moved in. “We call on Russia to protect us and not to allow the genocide of the people of Donbass,” rebel leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov told a group of reporters. “We ask President Putin to help us.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Mr. Putin had received “a great many such appeals coming from the eastern Ukrainian regions.” Mr. Peskov said Mr. Putin was “watching the developments in eastern Ukraine with great concern.”
NATO generals say Russia has tens of thousands of combat-ready troops – as well as tanks and warplanes – massed on its side of the Ukrainian border.
“Peace and stability is being threatened here in a way that has not been threatened since the end of the Cold War,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement. He claimed the advances made by pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine were “patently, without any doubt whatsoever, strictly the work of Russian provocateurs sent by the Putin regime” and said “Canada will take additional measures” beyond the economic sanctions currently in place.
Video emerged on Monday showing a man who introduced himself as a lieutenant-colonel in the Russian army giving instructions to Horlivka police officers, who appeared to have switched loyalties after their station was stormed.
Russia has repeatedly denied that it has soldiers or operatives on the ground in east Ukraine. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “I don’t think denials of Russian involvement have a shred of credibility.” He also advocated further sanctions against Moscow.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said there were “very clear and disconcerting parallels between what is happening in eastern Ukraine and leading up to the annexation of Crimea,” noting the pro-Russian fighters had weapons “you can’t buy at army surplus stores.”
Mr. Baird will travel next week to the capitals of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia and Latvia to discuss the crisis in Ukraine.
There were signs of disagreement Monday inside the Kiev government over what to do next. After his ultimatum passed, Mr. Turchynov demoted Vitaliy Tsyhanok, head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU)’s anti-terrorist centre, and appointed his deputy, Vasyl Krutov, to take his place. The interim President then tried to reach out to the separatists who eight days ago proclaimed a “Donetsk People’s Republic” – suggesting the government could hold a nationwide referendum on the future of Ukraine alongside the presidential elections scheduled for May 25.
That idea predictably fell flat. The men who control the Donbass don’t want a national referendum in which most Ukrainians would surely vote to keep the country together. They want a separate ballot on the future of their Russian-speaking region, which presses up against the Russian border and is economically reliant on Moscow. Kiev says regional referendums are not permitted under the country’s constitution.
Rebuffed, Mr. Turchynov later proposed that a United Nations peacekeeping force aid the Ukrainian army in retaking the seized buildings in the east of the country. The suggestion seemed fanciful given that Russia would almost certainly use its veto at the UN Security Council to ensure such a mission never takes place.
The shifting plans are less of an indication of Mr. Turchynov’s indecision than they are a sign of how few good options his government now has in the face of the extreme pressure Russia is placing on Ukraine.
Moscow considers Mr. Turchynov’s government – which came to power after protesters demanding closer ties with the European Union forced the Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych to flee – illegitimate and calls Mr. Yanukovych’s ouster a Western-backed coup.
Mr. Putin’s coterie considers Ukraine part of Moscow’s historic “sphere of influence” and want to see the country adopt a new constitution that gives more autonomy – and guarantees Russian influence – over the Russian-speaking east and south of the country.
Kremlin-connected analysts have told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Putin will consider all options – up to and including the further use of force – to make sure that Ukraine never joins the EU or the NATO alliance. They say economic sanctions are very unlikely to convince Mr. Putin to change course.
With a report from Reuters
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