Ukraine’s acting president said Tuesday that a military operation to wrest control of cities in eastern Ukraine from pro-Russian militants has begun.
Oleksandr Turchynov said that the “antiterrorist” operation began in the early morning hours in the northern Donetsk region, where the majority of the cities commandeered by pro-Russian forces are located.
“Overnight, an antiterrorist operation began in the north of Donetsk. But it will be phased, responsible and balanced. The purpose of the actions, I stress once again, is to protect the citizens of Ukraine,” he told Ukraine’s parliament, according to Interfax.
The swelling unrest is posing a major challenge to the new authorities in Kiev. The country’s military is ill-equipped to face off with pro-Russian forces who have barricaded themselves inside buildings in city centers in the east, once the key base of support for ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. A major operation to roust them could be bloody.
All weekend, pro-Russia protesters – some with masks and guns – seized government buildings throughout Eastern Ukraine. On Monday, the latest target was a police station in Horlivka.
In Slovyansk, which emerged as a key city in the recent wave of unrest, there was no sign of the Ukrainian military and the mood remained calm, although many shops were closed. A man guarding a barricade outside the city’s main police station, which was seized on Sunday, said the protesters were prepared for any assault.
“If they attack, we will fight them,” said the man, who only gave his name as Denis.
Nearby, four well-equipped men in camouflage uniforms and carrying automatic weapons, patrolled the streets. Reporters who took photos of the men were ordered by men guarding the building to erase their cameras’ memory cards and told to leave the area.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that any use of force by Ukraine’s government to quell unrest in the east could derail upcoming talks in Geneva on Thursday between the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and the European Union.
“It is unacceptable to use force to sort out the current situation in the southeast of Ukraine. Starting work on genuine constitutional reform, which would heed the interests of absolutely all regions of Ukraine, should become the key to settling the crisis,” he said at a news conference in Beijing, according to the Interfax news agency.
Turchynov on Sunday threatened a full-scale military operation after separatist protests spread to a string of cities in the east, but on Monday offered a possible concession when he said he wasn’t opposed to a national referendum on granting greater autonomy to regions–a key demand by the protesters.
Russia has also called for Ukraine to change its constitution and switch to a federal system that would grant greater independence to regions, particularly in the east, which are more heavily ethnic Russian and have closer ties to Moscow economically.