Fighting between Ukrainian security forces and pro-Russia militants in eastern Ukraine has left at least five militants dead, with Russian President Vladimir Putin calling it a “crime” and threatening “consequences.”
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said Thursday that its forces, together with army units, had killed five pro-Russia militants and destroyed three of their checkpoints in the eastern city of Slovyansk.
Separately, Ukrainian officials said that police had driven pro-Russia separatists out of the city hall in the eastern city of Mariupol, and that an attack by armed separatists on an army base in the town of Artemivsk had been repelled.
Kyiv earlier this week relaunched an “anti-terrorist” operation against armed pro-Russians who have taken over government buildings in about a dozen eastern cities and towns. Some of the separatists are demanding the right to vote on whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
Ukraine’s government, along with the U.S. and others in the West, sees an undercover campaign by Russia aimed at creating a pretext for possible incursion followed by a Crimea-style annexation of some regions.
Under an international accord signed in Geneva last week, illegal armed groups, including the militants occupying about a dozen public buildings in Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking east, were supposed to disarm and disband.
Russia starts drills
Russia started military drills near the border with Ukraine on Thursday in an apparent response to operations by Ukrainian forces against pro-Russia separatists and NATO exercises in eastern Europe, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying.
“If this military machine is not stopped, it will lead to greater numbers of dead and wounded. Planned exercises by NATO forces in Poland and the Baltic countries do not foster normalization of the situation surrounding Ukraine either…. We are forced to react to such a development…,” the Interfax news agency quoted Shoigu as saying.
The minister said that starting on Thursday, battalions of tactical groups would begin exercises in regions of Russia bordering Ukraine. According to Shoigu, the drill will also involve the air force.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon says it has noticed Russian troop movement along Ukraine’s border but added that it was “too soon to tell exactly what it is,” according to a U.S. Defense Department spokesman.
Ukraine has asked Moscow, under OSCE security arrangements, to explain and give details of its military exercises near the border within 48 hours, the Foreign Ministry said on Thursday.