MOSCOW -- Ukraine's interim government on Tuesday made good on threats to move against pro-Russia separatists occupying eastern cities, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to demand U.N. condemnation of the use of force in the neighboring country.
In a call to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Putin "emphasized that the Russian side expects the United Nations and the international community to clearly condemn the Kiev authorities' anti-constitutional military operation in Ukraine's southeast," the Itar-Tass news agency reported.
Russia-backed militants who have seized government and security facilities in at least 10 towns and cities in eastern Ukraine were under fire in the city of Slavyansk, Russian news media reported, casting the operation to recover Ukrainian government control as a violent strike against civilians.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that the Kremlin might boycott a diplomatic gathering in Geneva on Thursday that is intended to work toward a negotiated solution to the Ukraine crisis.
"You can't send in tanks and at the same time hold talks," Lavrov told journalists in Beijing after meeting his Chinese counterpart. "The use of force would sabotage the opportunity offered by the four-party negotiations in Geneva."
The Geneva meeting would be the first to include Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, in the quest for resolution of the Russia-Ukraine conflict ignited by the Feb. 21 ouster of Kremlin-allied Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. Moscow argues that opposition leaders who took power after Yanukovich fled to Russia are unelected and illegitimate and therefore unable to make commitments in the name of the Ukrainian people.
The United States and the European Union, the other two political forces involved in the Geneva meeting, have accused Putin of provoking armed confrontations in eastern Ukraine to destabilize the country and gain influence over areas with a significant Russian minority.
President Obama told Putin in a Monday night phone call that he was gravely concerned about "Russian government support for the actions of armed, pro-Russian separatists." Putin, while not overtly denying it, said the accusations that the Kremlin was directing the unrest were "speculations based on inaccurate information."
Putin called on Obama to use his influence with the Ukrainian government to dissuade it from moving aggressively against the separatists occupying government facilities in the east. Ukraine's eastern and southern areas are home to a large ethnic Russian minority. Many Ukrainians in the area speak Russian as their first language and depend for their living on factories and mines that produce goods for export to Russia.
Ukraine's move to end the armed occupations was described by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov as an operation that would be carried out "step by step, responsibly, cautiously" to prevent injury to civilians he said had been subjected to propaganda telling them they were being rescued by the armed groups.
"The aim of these actions is to protect the citizens of Ukraine, to stop terror, to stop criminality, to stop attempts to tear Ukraine to pieces," Turchynov told a parliamentary session in Kiev.
The "anti-terrorist operation" recaptured a military airport between two of the cities where Russian forces have barricaded themselves in key government buildings. The airport that Turchynov told parliament had been "liberated" Tuesday lies between Kramatorsk and Slavyansk, both seized last week by gunmen.
"This is a very dangerous situation…. We believe Russia is absolutely complicit," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC on Tuesday.
As evidence of Russia's hand in the eastern Ukraine unrest, Hague described the weekend invasion and seizure of Ukrainian seats of power in the east as “a very well-coordinated operation … people with identical arms, who are well-trained, well-equipped, proceeding in exactly the same way they did in Crimea."
To deny that the instigators of the confrontations aren't acting on behalf of Moscow "defies all common sense,” Hague said.
The first day of military operations to oust the gunmen appeared to make limited progress, with recovery of the airport and a standoff in Slavyansk between an armored column of Ukrainian troops and the battened-down Russians inside government buildings surrounded by barbed wire and stacks of tires.
A Ukrainian SU-24 jet flew over the airport firing at separatist positions, and troops using armored vehicles followed with a ground assault, the UNIAN news agency reported.
Earlier Tuesday, the Ukraine Security Service identified the leader of the armed group holding a police station and administrative building in Slavyansk as Igor Strelkov, a Russian military intelligence officer. The security service said Strelkov had attempted to recruit fighters for the operation that seized the administrative building in Kharkiv and had been involved in coordinating the Russian takeover of Crimea in late February.
Dmitry Tymchuk, who heads the Kiev-based Center for Military and Political Research, deemed the Ukrainian government's initial push against the Russian militants a success.
"We pushed the enemy away from the military airport near Kramatorsk, making way for the next move on Slavyansk, one of the most important strongholds of the terrorists coordinated by Russian agents," Tymchuk told The Times.
He said that although the results were modest, there were no casualties on either side reported by the Ukrainian military.
Some Russian news media reported as many as 11 dead in the operation but provided no source for the information.
Loiko reported from Moscow and Williams from Los Angeles.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times