The tensions soar in Ukraine while the U.S. President Barack Obama threatened Russia, on Friday, with new sanctions, as the Ukrainian Prime Minister also came with strong words against Moscow.
Russia’s drastic actions may lead to conflict in Ukraine as military confrontation in Europe is imminent, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned.
He also accused Russia with aiming to occupy his country “militarily and politically,’ and said Moscow wants to start a third world war.
His tough statement came amid a sharp escalation in tensions.
Russia’s defense chief ordered military drills Thursday near the border of eastern Ukraine after Ukrainian forces said they’d killed five pro-Russian militants in an operation to clear roadblocks near the city of Slavyansk.
Serhiy Pashinskiy (chief of staff to acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov) said Friday: that the operation had now entered its “second stage,” aimed at encircling Slavyansk and cutting off additional supplies or support.
Yatsenyk said he needs an explanation about Russia’s presence to its troops on Ukraine’s border within 48 hours, however, 24 hours later, Kiev is still waiting for an official response.
At the same time, he said, the world is lined up with Kiev in its efforts to restore stability and preserve “the system of world security that Russia wants to destroy.”
On Friday, there were 13 people detained including foreign observers and military officials at the entrance of Slavyansk as confirmed by Ukraine’s Interior Ministry. The ministry said that the captors were unknown, but the detainees were taken under the custody of a security office which is controlled by the pro-Russian separatists. The detainees are seven European representatives from the Organization for Security and Co-operation, five Ukrainian military representatives, and a bus driven.
It’s under negotiations to secure their release, the ministry reported.
Meanwhile, top U.S. officials are targeting Russia’s economy undergoing more punitive international actions if Moscow continues to escalate the situation.
In a phone call Friday, Obama and European leaders agreed that Russia has failed to do its part to de-escalate tensions, the White House said.
The Russians never supported a deal reached last week to ease the tensions, nor have called off militant groups to put down their weapons, the White House said. To the contrary, Russia made it worse through its rhetoric and military exercises.
At a news conference Friday, in South Korea, Obama said there will be targeted sanctions that are “ready to go.”
Obama said: “I think it’s important for us not to anticipate that the targeted sanctions that we’re applying now necessarily solve the problem.”
“What we’ve been trying to do is continually raise the costs for Russia of their actions while still leaving the possibility of them moving in a different direction. And we will continue to keep some arrows in our quiver, in the event that we see a further deterioration of the situation over the next several days or weeks.”
Obama also applauded the unity of other countries in condemning Russian “meddling” in Ukraine.
According to senior U.S. officials, the additional sanctions could come as early as Friday.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called Russia’s actions in Ukraine “a full-throated effort to actively sabotage the democratic process through gross external intimidation.”
“If Russia continues in this direction,” Kerry added, “it would not just be a grave mistake, it will be an expensive mistake.”
Russia also rise up its rhetoric Thursday.
President Vladimir Putin told Russian state media that “if the Kiev regime has started to use the army against the population inside the country, it, beyond any doubt, is a very serious crime.”
Putin said it would have consequences for Ukraine’s interim leaders and for relations between the two countries.
Moscow argues that the government in Kiev, which took power after ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine, in February, is illegitimate.
On Friday, the International Criminal Court said chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda had opened a preliminary investigation into alleged crimes committed in Ukraine while Yanukovych was in power.
As the investigation continues, from November 21 to February 22, when street protests against Yanukovych’s government took place that resulted in bloody confrontation with security forces.
In order to ease the crisis, foreign ministers for Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union agreed to a deal in Geneva, Switzerland.
However, that pact, which called for all sides to refrain from violence and for illegal militia groups to disarm and leave occupied buildings, appears to have wavered, if not failed.
Pro-Russian militants remain holed up in government buildings in around a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine.
Efforts by the Ukrainian security services to dismantle them risk provoking more violence or perhaps direct Russian intervention.
Pashinskiy, the Ukrainian President’s aide, said Friday that the militants were equipped with new Russian weapons, and that intelligence indicated they had set up bases in civilian sites, a kindergarten and hospital.
The evidence suggests, Pashinskiy said that “terrorist actions in the east are directly managed by Russian troops in Slavyansk and that the so-called separatist groups are being coordinated by Russia directly.”
There was an explosion reported overnight at a police checkpoint in the southwestern city of Odessa.
An American journalist, Simon Ostrovsky, who was released Thursday from detention by pro-Russian militants in Slavyansk, as he described his experience at their hands in a piece for Vice News.
Ostrovsky, whom militants taken custody Monday night while reporting for Vice News, said he was blindfolded, beaten, tied up and accused by his captors of belonging to the CIA, FBI and a Ukrainian ultranationalist group.
But he said “had it pretty easy” because he was freed, while other detainees held in the same damp cellar still remain in captivity.
The United States accused Russia of supporting separatist militants in terms of weapons as the allegation of which Moscow denies, saying these are simply local “self-defense” units. NATO and the United States have raised a concern over an estimated 40,000 Russian troops massed near the Ukrainian border.
Russian circumvents the situation and accuses the United States of “running the show” in Ukraine and says it must do more to hold Kiev to its side of the Geneva deal, saying the interim government must disband right-wing ultranationalist groups.
Obama said Friday that the Ukrainian government had been acting in accordance with the Geneva agreement, including offering amnesty to those who will lay down their arms.
In addition, he said: “What we have not seen in Russia speaking out clearly, condemning the pro-Russian militias that have taken over these buildings.”
Kerry on a similar note Thursday, praising what he called positive efforts by Ukraine’s government to implement the Geneva deal while rapping Moscow for having “refused to take a single concrete step in the right direction.”
Kerry warned that the “window to change course is closing” for Russia, and that its leaders face a choice.
“If Russia chooses the path of de-escalation, the international community – all of us – will welcome it. If Russia does not, the world will make sure that the cost for Russia will only grow,” he said.
It’s hard to judge how much they will hurt Russia until additional U.S. sanctions are announced. Targeted individual lawmakers and businessmen seen as close to Putin as well as a bank, Rossiya, believe to serve the Russian President and senior officials. The EU has also imposed its own asset freezes, and visa bans.
Russia increased interest rates for a second month running Friday in an effort to limit the economic damage of rising tensions over Ukraine. The rating agency, Standard & Poor’s, cut Russia’s credit rating to one notch above junk, citing a flight of capital from the country.
The Russian ruble lost more aground Friday, taking its losses against the dollar to 8.4% since the start of the year. Russia’s benchmark Micex index also slipped by 0.7%, extending its decline so far this year to 14.5%.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev acknowledged that the impacts of the sanctions were affecting Russia’s economy.
Any further sanctions could hurt the EU, as well as Russia, since the two have deep trade ties and nearly a third of Europe’s natural gas comes from Moscow.
Putin condemned the Ukrainian government’s “attempts to use the army against civilians” in a phone call made Friday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Kremlin said, according to RIA Novosti.
As the situation escalates the two leaders noted the importance of holding talks soon between Russia, the EU and Ukraine on the security of gas supplies as soon as possible.