“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.”