Ukraine to take on 'aggressors' as Russia threatens retaliation

A deal last signed last week in Geneva is at risk of crumbling as Ukraine and the US continue to trade barbs with Russia

Ukraine's government on Wednesday announced a renewed security operation to crack down on pro-Russian armed groups, and Russia threatened retaliation for any such moves, as an international deal to defuse their ongoing standoff came under increasing strain.

Prompted in part by the discovery Tuesday of the body of a Ukrainian politician, officials in Kyiv decided to renew what they call an "anti-terrorist operation" against militias, many with separatist aims, who have seized control of about a dozen public buildings in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks.

"The security forces are working on the liquidation of illegal armed groups" in the country’s east, First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Yarema told reporters. "The corresponding activities will be carried out in the near future, and you will see the results."

But it was unclear what steps Kyiv would take to restore its authority in the mainly Russian-speaking east – especially after Russia said Wednesday that it would counter any operations by the Ukrainian government against Russian "interests."

“If we are attacked, we would certainly respond,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with Russia Today, a Kremlin-funded satellite channel. “Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation.”

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Lavrov made explicit reference to Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia – which led to the breakaway of two republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia – and said Russian intervention in Ukraine would be fulfilling international law, not breaking it.

Whether or not Ukraine goes forward with its intention to root out the armed militia groups occupying buildings, its leaders believe they would have Washington’s backing.

"We have obtained the support of the United States, that they will not leave us alone with an aggressor. We hope that in the event of Russian aggression, this help will be more substantive," said Yarema.

On Tuesday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Kyiv, offering a new aid package of $50 million to Ukraine.

Biden called on Moscow to pull back the troops that have built up on Ukraine’s borders and to help persuade rebels to disarm. The U.S. has repeatedly warned Russia it faces “mounting costs” if it fails to ensure full implementation of the Geneva agreement signed last week.

The accord – struck by the U.S., the European Union, Russia and Ukraine – stipulates that armed demonstrators who were occupying government buildings must give up their positions. It also mandates and end to violence and provocative actions on all sides.

Since then, Kyiv has largely suspended military operations in the east, but the agreement has come under significant trouble, with Washington and Moscow each putting the onus on the other side to ensure that the deal is properly implemented. 

In his interview Wednesday, Lavrov rejected U.S. concerns and said Washington was engaging in reckless international behavior.

“Ukraine is just one manifestation of the American unwillingness to yield in the geopolitical fight. Americans are not ready to admit that they cannot run the show in each and every part of the globe from Washington alone,” he said.

The U.S. and NATO have made clear they will not intervene militarily in Ukraine. But the Pentagon said this week that it was sending about 600 soldiers to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland for infantry exercises. Troops arrived in Poland on Wednesday and were expected in the remaining three countries in the coming days.

The Kyiv government and its Western supporters accuse Moscow of using covert agents to foment unrest in eastern Ukraine. Moscow denies that and says people in the east rose up spontaneously against a government in Kyiv – which Russia says is illegitimate and aligned with far-right nationalists.

Detained reporter

In other developments, pro-Russia forces admitted Wednesday they have detained an American journalist, saying he was suspected of spying for Ukrainian ultra-nationalists.

Simon Ostrovsky, a journalist for Brooklyn-based Vice News, has not been seen since early Tuesday in the eastern city of Slovyansk. Ostrovsky has been covering the Ukraine crisis for weeks and was reporting about the groups of masked gunmen seizing government buildings in one eastern Ukrainian city after another.

Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for pro-Russia insurgents in Slovyansk, confirmed that Ostrovsky was being held at a local branch of the Ukrainian security service that gunmen seized more than a week ago.

"He's with us. He's fine," Khorosheva told The Associated Press. She dismissed claims that they were keeping Ostrovsky hostage, saying the insurgents were not seeking to "exchange him for someone."

The State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about Ostrovsky’s kidnapping.

“We condemn any such actions, and all recent hostage takings in eastern Ukraine, which directly violate commitments made in the Geneva joint statement,” said State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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