Separatists seize army vehicles, humiliating Ukraine forces
Separatists flew the Russian flag on armoured vehicles taken from the Ukrainian army today, humiliating a Kiev government operation to recapture eastern towns controlled by pro-Moscow partisans.
Six armoured personnel carriers were driven into the rebel-held town of Slaviansk to waves and shouts of "Russia! Russia!". It was not immediately clear whether they had been captured by rebels or handed over to them by Ukrainian deserters.
Another 15 armoured troop carriers full of paratroops were surrounded and halted by a pro-Russian crowd at a town near an airbase. They were allowed to retreat only after the soldiers handed the firing pins from their rifles to a rebel commander.
The military setback leaves Kiev looking weak on the eve of a peace conference on Thursday, when its foreign minister will meet his Russian, US and European counterparts in Geneva.
So far, the United States and European Union have imposed only targeted sanctions against a list of Russian and Ukrainian individuals and firms in retaliation for Moscow's seizure and rapid annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, completed last month.
The EU took a step towards imposing harsher sanctions by informing its member states of the likely impact of proposed measures on each of them. Countries have a week to respond before the European Commission starts drawing up plans.
As Secretary of State John Kerry flew into Geneva, a senior US official noted that President Barack Obama had put the onus on Moscow to calm the crisis. "With regard to sanctions, the President has been very clear that if Russia does not take this opportunity to de-escalate, the costs are going to go up," the official told reporters.
Moscow has responded to the overthrow of its ally Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in February by announcing its right to intervene militarily to protect Russian speakers across the former Soviet Union, a new doctrine that has overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy.
Russia has massed thousands of troops on near the Ukrainian frontier. A Reuters reporting team that visited the border area late last week and again on Wednesday said Russian military activity had increased markedly over the past few days, with more troops and vehicles on the roads.
The U.S. official said that the Geneva meeting aimed to calm the situation in largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine and discuss constitutional reforms to protect the rights of minorities in the country.
"The idea here is that they (Russian leaders) would stop aiding and abetting and supporting these separatists and that they would pull their troops back from the borders," he said.
At one site in an open field in Russia's Belgorod region about 20 km (12 miles) from the frontier there were now 10 large army tents and about 20 military trucks, far more than last week, although a squadron of attack helicopters had left.
The Ukrainian government confirmed that six of its armoured vehicles were now in the hands of separatists. Photos of their number markings showed they were among vehicles deployed earlier in the government's attempted "anti-terrorist" operation.
Kiev had sent the convoy of paratroops to capture an airfield, the start of an operation to reclaim towns held by separatists who have declared an independent "People's Republic" in the industrial Donbass region.
The Ukrainian government and its Western allies believe Russian agents are coordinating the uprising. Moscow denies it is involved and says Kiev is precipitating civil war by sending troops to put down the revolt.
The Kiev government is seeking to reassert control without bloodshed, which it fears would precipitate a Russian invasion. Its operation is the first test of Kiev's under-funded army, which had until now played no role in six months of internal unrest. The government seems to have resorted to using troops after losing faith that police in the east would stay loyal.