SLOVYANSK, Ukraine – Russia announced new military exercises Thursday involving ground and air forces near its border with Ukraine, swiftly responding to a Ukrainian operation to drive pro-Russia insurgents out of occupied buildings in the country’s tumultuous east.
The Ukrainian move, which killed at least two people, brought new threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who denounced it as a “punitive operation.”
“If the Kiev government is using the army against its own people, this is clearly a grave crime,” Putin said.
Putin’s statement and the announcement of new military maneuvers sharpened anxiety over the prospect of a Russian incursion into Ukraine. Russia’s foreign minister warned a day earlier that any attack on Russian citizens or interests in eastern Ukraine would bring a strong response.
Secretary of State John Kerry quickly denounced the Russian actions, and in unusually blunt language warned that unless Moscow took immediate steps to de-escalate the situation, Washington would have no choice but to impose additional sanctions.
“Following today’s threatening movement of Russian troops right up to Ukraine’s border, let me be clear: If Russia continues in this direction, it will not just be a grave mistake, it will be an expensive mistake,” Kerry said. “The window to change course is closing.”
Accusing Russia of fomenting unrest and separatist sentiment in eastern Ukraine following its annexation of the strategic Crimean Peninsula, Kerry added: “Nobody should doubt Russia’s hand in this.
“What is happening in eastern Ukraine is a military operation that is well-planned and organized, and we assess that it is being carried out at the direction of Russia,” the U.S. secretary of state said.
Ukraine’s acting president accused Russia of backing the separatists in the east and demanded that Moscow stop its intimidation campaign, and leave his country alone.
Oleksandr Turchynov said in an address to the nation Thursday that Russia was “coordinating and openly supporting terrorist killers” in eastern Ukraine, where government buildings in at least 10 cities have been seized by pro-Russia gunmen.
Turchynov said Russia must pull back its troops from the Ukrainian border and “stop the constant threats and blackmail.”
Russia already has tens of thousands of troops stationed in regions along its border with Ukraine. The latest Russian military exercises involve ground troops in the south and the west and the air forces patrolling the border, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.
Ukraine and Russia reached a deal in Geneva last week to defuse the crisis, but pro-Russian insurgents in the east – and nationalist militants in Kiev – have defied calls for all sides to disarm and to vacate the buildings they are occupying.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said military and special police forces killed “up to five terrorists” while destroying three checkpoints north of Slovyansk on Thursday.
Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the Slovyansk insurgents, said two pro-Russia fighters were killed at a checkpoint in the village of Khrestyshche, 6 miles north of the city. At least 10 Ukrainian government armored vehicles were seen on the road north of Slovyansk and two helicopters circled over the area. Troops ordered residents to keep away during the operation.
Near the town of Makatikha, several miles north of Slovyansk, pro-Russia militia set fire to rows of car tires in an apparent attempt to reduce the visibility from the air. An AP reporter saw about two dozen militiamen manning checkpoints along the road earlier in the day.