Move follows Russia’s stern warnings of military intervention
Kiev has halted its crackdown on pro-Russian protesters in eastern Ukraine in the face of Russia’s stern warnings of military intervention.
The Ukrainian forces’s advance on the rebel-held city of Sloviansk on Thursday was called off shortly after Russia announced large-scale war games on the border with Ukraine.
For the first time in recent history of the Russian armed forces the Defence Ministry said it was launching a military drill because of an “aggravation of the situation” in a neighbouring country.
A ranking Ukrainian government official told the Interfax news agency that the military assault on Sloviansk had been halted due to “a high risk of Russian troops crossing the Ukrainian border.”
Ukraine’s Acting Defence Minister Mikhail Koval said Russian troops had advanced within one kilometre of the border, while Ukrainian journalists claimed they could even read “Peacekeeping Force” signs painted on the Russian armour.
Russia’s United Nations envoy Vitaly Churkin confirmed that military intervention was a last option.
“The Federation Council has given the Russian President a mandate to use armed forces on the territory of Ukraine. This opportunity is always there. But, of course, we would rather not avail of it,” Mr. Churkin said on Rossiya 1 TV channel on Thursday evening.
Kiev on Friday announced a “second phase” of its “anti-terrorist operation” in the east.
“There will be no storming of Sloviansk. We have decided to completely blockade the city to prevent the terrorists from receiving reinforcements and avert casualties among peaceful civilians,” Sergei Pashinsky, acting head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, said at a press briefing in Kiev.
However, anti-government protesters did not rule out that the Ukrainian military would try to storm the city again.
“They have encircled Sloviansk and are trying to infiltrate Right Sector militants into the city to support their assault,” Vyacheslav Ponomarev, “people’s mayor” of Sloviansk, told a press conference on Friday.
Meanwhile, protesters on Friday destroyed a Ukrainian army helicopter and a small aircraft with a rocket grenade launcher at an airfield in Kramatorsk, about 20 km from Sloviansk. Kiev acknowledged the attack.
The escalation of tension in eastern Ukraine has undermined the chances of the April 17 Geneva peace agreement negotiated by Russia, the United States, the European Union and Ukraine. The accord called for an end to violence by all sides and disarmament of all militants.
The United States and Russia have blamed each other for lack of progress in implementing the Geneva roadmap.
West planning sanctions
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday that the U.S. and Europe were preparing sanctions against broad sections of the Russian economy if Moscow mounts a military incursion into Ukraine.
Moscow, in turn, has accused Washington of encouraging Kiev to use force against the pro-Russian protesters.
“Washington should force the current Ukrainian leaders to immediately stop the military operation in the southeast and pull back the military and security forces,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued late on Thursday.
“We hope Washington fully realises its responsibility for what is going on.”