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Ukraine strives to fix crisis as ambush shows war closer

LiveMint logoLiveMint 14-05-2014 Daryna Krasnolutska

Ukraine urged Russia to condemn separatists in its eastern regions after seven government troops died in an ambush in a signal that the ex-Soviet republic may be sliding closer to outright civil war.

After weeks of skirmishes between government troops and rebels in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions, more than 30 attackers struck a convoy on Tuesday near the city of Kramatorsk, killing six paratroopers. One of the eight who were wounded also died on the way to the hospital, Interfax reported. Acting defence minister Mykhaylo Koval said Ukraine’s east was embroiled in an undeclared war with Russia.

The ambush was the rebels’ deadliest attack against Ukraine’s military since they began a campaign to secede after Russia annexed Crimea in March. It followed a pact by activists in Luhansk and Donetsk to join forces and signalled the conflict is intensifying, said Dmitry Orlov, director general of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications in Moscow.

The violence in Ukraine is building into regular warfare between militia and the Ukrainian armed forces, and that means the threat of civil war is growing, Orlov said by phone on Wednesday. Even so, we can’t yet say that this threat is close to becoming reality. It’s just a small part of Ukraine’s population that supports these hostilities.

Russia ‘engaged’

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) says Russian President Vladimir Putin is supporting the separatists with special forces and intelligence agents. His government has also massed about 40,000 troops on Russia’s western border with Ukraine, a country of 45 million people sharing borders with European Union (EU) and NATO member states Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk urged Russia to condemn the insurgent groups and do all it can to stabilize the situation. The crisis has fuelled the worst standoff between Russia and its cold war foes since the fall of the Iron Curtain, with the US and EU slapping sanctions on companies and people close to President Vladimir Putin.

Russia is already engaged in supporting Russian-led protesters and terrorists, Yatsenyuk said in Brussels on Tuesday.

The escalation ended a five-day rally in Russian stocks. The Micex Index slid 0.3% to 1,381.02 at 11:33am in Moscow. The ruble strengthened 0.3% to 34.7238 per dollar, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Ukraine’s hryvnia was 0.5% weaker to the dollar, bringing its loss to 31% since the start of the year.

Round-table meeting

Europe is trying to increase diplomatic efforts, with German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visiting Kiev and on Tuesday in a bid to broker talks between the central government and pro-Russian separatists.

Yatsenyuk and acting President Oleksandr Turchynov also prepared to host a meeting today of lawmakers, regional state administration heads, religious leaders, and former presidents to find a way out of the crisis, the government said in a statement on its website yesterday.

Representatives of democracy advocates the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OCSE) will also attend. It’s unclear whether any separatists will be present, as the government said it won’t talk with gunmen and terrorists.

Russia will face new sanctions if Ukraine’s scheduled presidential election on 25 May is disrupted, French President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday in Tbilisi, Georgia, which fought a war with Russia over a breakaway region in 2008.

Aid plans

EU foreign ministers this week froze the assets of companies for the first time in the conflict, including oil and natural-gas producer Chernomorneftegaz, after they were expropriated during Crimea’s annexation. They added 13 people to a list of individuals facing asset freezes and travel bans for destabilizing Ukraine and threatened more measures, along with the US, to target entire Russian industries.

Ukrainian finance minister Oleksandr Shlapak said the government will sell $1 billion of US-backed bonds in the near future to help shore up the government’s coffers.

I’m sure we’ll get the U.S.-backed money before the election, Shlapak told Bloomberg in an interview.

EU will soon give Ukraine a first €600 million ($823 million) of a €1.6 billion aid package, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said on Tuesday.

The aid pledges followed an agreement by the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic and neighbouring Luhansk to unite on Tuesday, a day after they declared themselves sovereign states. Donetsk said 90% of voters backed splitting from Ukraine in a 11 May referendum that was rejected by the US and EU as illegitimate and marred by irregularities. Luhansk reported a similar result.

Referendum split

Russia’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that a reluctance of the Kiev authorities to engage in real dialogue with the representatives of the regions was an obstacle to de-escalation and said the referendum results showed the country was in deep crisis.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel followed by saying she was not interested in the results of the referendums, which echo events that preceded Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula Crimea from Ukraine in March. The rebels have seized administration buildings and television towers in at least 10 cities and towns in the country’s east.

In our eastern regions we have an undeclared war, Koval told reporters in Kiev on Tuesday. Our neighbouring country unleashed the war, sending special forces and saboteurs into our territory.

A majority of Ukrainians, or 56%, believe their country is at war with Russia, according to a poll by the Kiev- based Razumkov Center. About 53% want to join the European Union—ousted president Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an EU association agreement triggered the crisis—whereas two-thirds see Russia as brotherly and friendly, according to the 25-29 April poll of 2,012 people. Bloomberg

With assistance from Jonathan Stearns, Ian Wishart, Jones Hayden and Patrick Henry in Brussels, Gregory Viscusi and Helene Fouquet in Paris, Piotr Skolimowski in Warsaw, Stepan Kravchenko, Anna Andrianova, Elena Mazneva and Anton Doroshev in Moscow, Catherine Dodge in New York, Terry Atlas in Washington, Isis Almeida in London, Andras Gergely in Budapest and Volodymyr Verbyany and Kateryna Choursina in Kiev.

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