Ukraine crisis: Militants, army face off in east amid soaring tensions

Russian military forces in Perevalne

DONETSK, Ukraine (CNN) — 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.

In Slaviansk, north of Kramatorsk and about 100 miles from the border with Russia, pro-Russian militants now appear to be firmly in control of the town, according to CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh on the ground.

The atmosphere seemed more relaxed than it was a few days ago, with many residents apparently welcoming the presence of pro-Russian forces and their seized military vehicles.

At the same time, on the road toward Slaviansk, CNN’s Phil Black encountered a heavily fortified and well organized police checkpoint — and saw signs of a large military buildup. Attack helicopters passed overhead while armored vehicles and troop carriers rumbled by.

But despite the heightened military activity, there has so far been no effort to move into the town itself, he said, where the pro-Russian protesters are digging in and consolidating their power.

The unrest is a major test for the new interim government, as it seeks to hold Ukraine together ahead of elections scheduled for next month and to avoid bloodshed.

Putin: ‘Brink of civil war’

The dramatic scenes in eastern Ukraine come a day after armored columns rolled through the farmland of eastern Donetsk province, proudly flying Ukrainian flags as residents watched and wondered what might come next.

Putin warned then that the escalating conflict in Ukraine “essentially puts the nation on the brink of civil war.”

Although Ukraine has been more subdued in its characterization — no doubt in part because of concerns that Russia might use violence as a pretext to intervene directly — it’s clear that the leadership’s patience is wearing thin.

After days of urging pro-Russian militants to vacate buildings they have seized, on Tuesday they sent in troops.

Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, announcing what he called an “anti-terrorist operation” to restore order to the country’s east, said its aim was to “stop attempts to tear Ukraine to pieces.”

Some success followed — the President’s office said Ukrainian special forces had taken control of the airfield in Kramatorsk by the end of the day. Witnesses had reported hearing gunfire and the sound of aircraft apparently coming from the airfield.

But the latest events in Donetsk province suggest the government strategy may be losing momentum.

Nearly 30 armed people seized the mayor’s administration building in Donetsk city on Wednesday, spokesman Maksim Rovinskiy said. They are demanding federalization and a new law that paves the way for a local referendum, Rovinskiy said, adding that there had been no violence.

In addition, two Ukrainian soldiers, one of them an officer, have been taken hostage by “extremists,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Wednesday.

The soldiers were seized Tuesday near the town of Krasny Luch, in the Luhansk area, as they tried to fix a military vehicle by the roadside, the ministry said. It is working to secure their release.

Some locals gathered near Kramatorsk airfield Tuesday evening to see for themselves what was going on — and to voice their unhappiness over the actions of the interim government in Kiev, which took power after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted following weeks of street protests.

One man told CNN the arrival of soldiers from elsewhere in the country would only deepen the divisions within Ukraine.

“We don’t recognize that government’s authority,” he said. “We’re normal people without arms; they came in on helicopters, shot at peaceful people. After all this, it’s unlikely west will be friends with east.”

Many protesters are calling for greater federalization, or devolution of power to the regions — a demand Russia has also voiced and which Kiev has said it will consider. However, the Ukrainian government is determined to prevent the country from breaking up.

At the same time, while there is a strong pro-Russian sentiment in the region, it is not as widespread as was seen in Crimea — annexed last month by Russia after a controversial referendum.

Breakaway Transnistria

Separately, Russia’s state ITAR-Tass news agency reported that authorities in Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region had asked Russia to recognize the enclave as a sovereign independent state.

The request put forward by Transnistria’s separatist parliament was addressed to the Russian Federation Council and President Vladimir Putin.

It was not immediately possible for CNN to independently confirm the report.

“Transnistria does not legally differ from the Crimea, and the process of reunification with Russia should be held on the Crimean scenario,” Itar Tass quoted lawmaker Vyacheslav Tobuh as saying.

The report said a delegation of lawmakers from Transnistria would travel to Moscow on Thursday.

Until now, Russia has officially recognized Transnistria as being part of Moldova. Landlocked Transnistria is far from Russia, wedged between Moldova and Ukraine, with about 30% of its population ethnic Russian. A 2006 referendum in Transnistria produced a 97.2% vote in favor of joining Russia.

During a trip last month to Moscow, the speaker of Transnistria’s separatist parliament urged Russia to incorporate the region. Moldova warned Russia not to consider any move to take over Transnistria in the same way it wrestled Crimea away from Kiev.

Ukrainian leaders and commentators have compared events in Crimea to what happened in Georgia in 2008. Then, cross-border tensions with Russia exploded into a five-day conflict that saw Russian tanks and troops pour into the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as well as Georgian cities. Russia and Georgia each blamed the other for starting the conflict.

Diplomatic efforts

Amid mounting international concerns regarding eastern Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday the alliance had agreed on a package of further military measures to reinforce the Western military alliance’s “collective defense” in light of the events in Ukraine.

“We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on the land,” Rasmussen said, speaking after a meeting of NATO ambassadors in Brussels, Belgium. He stressed NATO backs a political solution to the crisis and urged Russia to stop destabilizing Ukraine.

“Our decisions today are about defense, deterrence and deescalation. They are entirely in line with our international commitments,” he said.

“They send a clear message NATO will protect every ally and defend against any threat against our fundamental security. This is our firm commitment.”

Rasmussen said NATO fully backs talks due to take place Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland, between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

The West has repeatedly called on Russia to withdraw some 40,000 troops that NATO says it has massed near Ukraine’s border. Moscow insists they are merely conducting military exercises.

Asked if Russia was likely to be angry about NATO ground defense measures, Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, told reporters: “It will be very hard to see them as anything except for defensive measures, and they will be measures designed to assure our allies.”

Lavrov: ‘They are spreading lies’

The pro-Russian uprising in Ukraine’s east follows Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, a move that emboldened other pro-Russian Ukrainians in the country’s east. Russia has said it reserves the right to intervene to protect the rights of ethnic Russians in the region.

But Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking Tuesday in Beijing, rejected accusations from the West that Russia is fomenting the unrest and supporting the militants.

“They make up lies to justify their aggressive plans. They are spreading lies, things that Russian Federation intended or not intended to do, alleging that Russia organized it all,” he said.

“I have never heard such nonsense. What it means is to refuse one’s own people the right to express their opinion and protest against lawlessness and discrimination.”

By Laura Smith-Spark and Tim Lister

CNN’s Tim Lister reported from Kramatorsk and Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London. CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Kellie Morgan, Susannah Palk, Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Chelsea J. Carter, as well as journalist Azad Safarov, contributed to this report.

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