Maks Levin/Reuters

Russia warns Ukraine’s crackdown could spark ‘civil war’

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accuses Russian agents of instigating ‘chaos’ as possible pretext for military action

As Ukraine announced an “anti-terrorist” operation Tuesday in the southeastern city of Kharkiv — where pro-Russian separatists seized a regional administration building — the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that Kyiv’s crackdown “could lead to an outbreak of civil war” and Washington accused Russia of using agents to stir the unrest, possibly as a pretext for military intervention.

Over the past couple days, pro-Russian separatists have seized government buildings in several cities in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian sentiment is highest.

A day after separatists seized a government building and declared an independent republic in Donetsk, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said authorities in Kharkiv had arrested about 70 “separatists” suspected of “illegal activity related to separatism, the organization of mass disorder, damage to human health” and other issues during demonstrations that Kyiv and its Western backers allege were orchestrated by Moscow to destabilize Ukraine.

In a separate incident, Ukrainian law enforcement authorities said Tuesday that the armed pro-Russian separatists who seized the regional government building in Lugansk on Sunday night have mined the building with explosives and are holding 60 people hostage. The separatists, who have refused to allow media inside the building, denied those charges but told Reuters they would not leave “until the end.”

“Once you’ve taken up arms, there’s no turning back,” said one of the men, Andrei, who confirmed his group was in possession of 200-300 Kalashnikovs and some stun grenades, but not explosives.

Speaking before a Senate panel on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the incidents “could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention, just as we saw in Crimea” – a reference to the Russian takeover and subsequent annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula in March.

"It is clear that Russian special forces and agents have been the catalyst behind the chaos of the last 24 hours," Kerry said.

Earlier Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied responsibility for the trouble in Kharkiv and other Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine. “One should not seek to put the blame on someone else,” Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow.

He reiterated Moscow’s position that Ukraine’s largely Ukrainian-speaking, pro-Europe western half — represented by the government in Kyiv — and the predominantly Russian-speaking east have been irreparably divided. "We are deeply convinced ... that the situation cannot be calmed down and changed into national dialogue if the Ukrainian authorities go on ignoring the interests of the southeastern regions of the country," Lavrov said.

The Russian warning of civil war is cause for alarm for Kyiv and its Western allies, which are wary about Russia’s heightened military presence along Ukraine’s eastern border. They accuse Moscow of stirring unrest to destabilize Ukraine on the heels of an uprising that saw its pro-Russian president deposed amid calls for greater European integration.

After the declaration of independence in Donetsk on Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the United States was ready to impose further sanctions against Russia, a threat Kerry reiterated on Tuesday.

Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry told Lavrov the demonstrations appeared to be part of a "carefully orchestrated campaign with Russian support."

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen echoed that accusation, urging Moscow on Tuesday to “step back.”

“Russia’s illegal aggression against Ukraine is the greatest challenge to Europe’s security in a generation,” he told reporters Tuesday. “If Russia were to intervene further in Ukraine, it would be a historic mistake. It would have grave consequences for our relationship with Russia, and it would further isolate Russia internationally.”

Pro-Russian demonstrators have increasingly called for a rejection of Kyiv’s new leaders. As recently as Monday, they said they would support a Russian military incursion in Ukraine’s east.

“In the event of aggressive action from the illegitimate Kyiv authorities, we will appeal to the Russian Federation to bring in a peacekeeping contingent,” an unidentified protester told a crowd of about 1,000 in Donetsk on Monday, according to Reuters.

Ukrainian authorities have thus far reeled in their response to separatist protests, perhaps aware that a violent attack on ethnic Russians could present Moscow with a pretext for military intervention. But Tuesday’s announcement of an “anti-terrorist” operation employed harsher rhetoric than before.

"An anti-terrorist operation has been launched,” said Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov via his Facebook page. “The city center is blocked along with metro stations. Do not worry. Once we finish, we will open them again."

Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov had previously pledged that "anti-terrorist measures" would be taken against protesters who had armed themselves. Turchynov said the actions in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lugansk showed that Russia was “playing out the Crimean scenario."

In his Tuesday news conference, Lavrov said Moscow was ready to take part in talks with Brussels and Washington over the future of Ukraine, but he insisted the ex-Soviet country’s Russian-speaking east and south be represented in the negotiations.

“Indeed, we are ready to consider a multiparty format in which the Europeans, the United States, Russia and the Ukrainian sides are represented,” Lavrov told reporters.

Russia has been pushing a plan of a federalized Ukraine in which regions of the country of 46 million would have broad powers of autonomy.

Ukraine, which is drawing up its own plan for decentralization, linked to regional development, says Russia aims to break up the country and redirect Ukraine from its current path toward greater European integration.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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