US, Russia up pressure ahead of Ukraine talks
Russia and the US ramped up the pressure Wednesday as Washington's top diplomat touched down in Geneva for high-stakes talks on the escalating crisis in Ukraine, where the government is losing control of the separatist east.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is due to meet his Russian, Ukrainian and EU counterparts Thursday in a bid to defuse soaring tensions in the ex-Soviet republic, where pro-Russia militants have taken control of parts of the nation's southeastern industrial heartland.
The crunch talks come after a military operation ordered by Kiev to oust the separatists collapsed, with militants showing no sign of budging and even humiliating the government by seizing army vehicles originally dispatched to clear them out.
The situation was such that a concerned NATO said it was deploying more forces in eastern Europe and called for Russia to stop "destabilising" Ukraine, which has been in deep turmoil since the ouster of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych in February.
- Will diplomacy win? -
But all eyes were now on whether diplomacy could save the day at the Thursday talks between Kerry, Russia's Sergei Lavrov, Ukraine's Andriy Deshchytsya and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
"It has been difficult to get real dialogue going between Russia and Ukraine," a US State Department official, who wished to remain anonymous, told reporters.
"The idea here is to try to provide a space where the US and the EU can sit with Russia and Ukraine, and can look first and foremost for ways to de-escalate the security situation."
Washington and Kiev's priorities at the talks include trying to get Russia to demobilise the militias, which Ukraine says are backed by the Kremlin. Moscow denies any links to them.
Minutes after landing in Geneva on Wednesday, Deshchytsya called on Russia to stop supporting "terrorist activities" in the east.
He also set out a string of other demands that will be difficult to meet, such as asking Moscow to confirm that Crimea -- which it annexed last month -- "is an integral part of Ukraine".
For its part, Russia's foreign ministry claimed Washington was backing Kiev's "war on its own people" in strident language that made any concession at the talks seem unlikely.
And Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that the much-hyped "anti-terrorist operation" launched by Kiev's new, interim leaders had pushed the country dangerously close to civil war.
But on Wednesday evening, it was clear the operation had had no success.
In the flashpoint eastern town of Slavyansk, insurgents who had occupied state buildings since Saturday were given a hero's welcome by locals after they seized six armoured vehicles from government troops.
In another apparent humbling in the nearby town of Kramatorsk, Ukrainian troops -- some weeping -- handed over the firing mechanisms of their rifles to pro-Moscow protesters who had surrounded their column of 14 armoured personnel carriers in return for a promise that they could leave in their vehicles.
- Threat of more sanctions -
The United States and European Union have already imposed sanctions on key Russian and Ukrainian political and business officials, including members of Putin's inner circle.
But if the meeting ends in failure, Western countries are prepared to slap Moscow with tougher, broader economic and financial sanctions meant to hurt its already struggling economy.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that the US was "actively preparing" new sanctions against Russia, amid signs that Washington may be ready to target the country's key mining, energy and financial sectors.
But in the meantime, as Kiev's push to reclaim authority unravelled, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced Wednesday that the alliance would deploy additional forces in eastern Europe.
"We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water... and more readiness on the land," he said, while adding that a political solution was the only way forward.
Authorities in Kiev also ratcheted up the verbal attacks on Russia, with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accusing Moscow of trying to build "a new Berlin wall".
The situation in Ukraine's southeast is similar to what happened in the Crimean peninsula before it was annexed by Russia last month.
Ukrainian intelligence said Wednesday it had intercepted communications showing that the same Russian agents who oversaw the seizure of Crimea were now coordinating the unrest in the east.
And there are fears that a forceful military response by Kiev could prompt a devastating counterstrike by Russian troops who are waiting to act on Putin's vow to "protect" Russian-speakers in the neighbouring state.
© 2014 AFP