KIEV, Ukraine — Vice President Joe Biden on Monday embarked on a mission to show U.S. support for Ukraine’s embattled interim leaders as pro-Russia gunmen took over more government buildings in eastern Ukraine and the Kremlin’s top diplomat blamed Washington for the mounting crisis.
Biden was to meet Tuesday with acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, as well as civil society leaders in Kiev, the capital, before flying back to Washington.
Although the White House said the vice president’s visit was intended to underscore U.S. support for “national unity and a successful constitutional reform,” the trip and other recent political missions to Kiev were being cast by Russian officials and media as evidence that Washington was directing the interim government.
U.S. and Russian officials have been trading accusations of failure to enforce an agreement reached in Geneva last week. The accord was aimed at easing the standoffs in eastern Ukraine, including one that erupted into a shootout at a roadblock Sunday.
The Geneva plan called for all “illegal armed groups” to lay down their arms and surrender key government facilities to their “rightful owners.” But the pro-Russia gunmen occupying government offices in a dozen towns and cities have refused to disarm, saying the interim government in Kiev is also an illegal armed group subject to the plan’s provisions.
“It’s still too early to tell if this is going to succeed,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey R. Pyatt told journalists covering Biden’s visit. “The ball is really in Moscow’s court in terms of whether they’re going to take this diplomatic offramp.”
All indications Monday were that the crisis was continuing unchecked.
In the town of Kramatorsk, in the north of the Donetsk region, pro-Russia separatists broke into a police station and kidnapped the police chief, online publication Kramatorsk.info reported.
In Luhansk, capital of the neighboring region of the same name, young separatists in masks and armed with sticks and baseball bats attacked a rally by supporters of Ukrainian unity, calling people “fascists” and “traitors” as they beat them, independent Channel 5 reported. Militants continue to hold the Ukrainian Security Service headquarters in Luhansk and have captured hundreds of firearms, the UNIAN news agency reported.
And in Slovyansk, scene of the Sunday shootout that left at least three dead, a fresh influx of gunmen set up roadblocks at key intersections and commercial sites, said reporter Denis Kazansky of the regional online publication Ostrov.
“Russian commandos are allegedly hiding inside the local police station and running this growing chaos from there,” Kazansky told The Times by telephone.
The gunmen in Slovyansk also detained five journalists — two Ukrainians, two Italians and a Belorussian — for questioning. All but one were released after being roughed up and interrogated, Kazansky said.
Authorities in Kiev blame the spreading confrontation in the east on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last month annexed Ukraine’s Crimea area after a similar campaign of accusations that Russian-speaking citizens were in danger from the new leadership in power since pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted in February.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Washington of having ignited the crisis.
“Instead of giving ultimatums and threatening us with sanctions, Washington should realize in full measure its responsibility for those people they brought to power in Kiev,” Lavrov said during a Moscow news briefing.
Biden’s visit is mostly symbolic, analysts said, but it could serve to remind Moscow that the West is prepared to help the fledgling Ukrainian government as it is being challenged by neighboring Russia.
“The U.S.-leaning interim government of Ukraine still counts very much on getting some financial assistance and maybe more than that from the United States at this crucial moment in its history,” said Kost Bondarenko, head of the Ukrainian Policy Institute think tank in Kiev. “Biden’s visit sends a clear-cut message to Moscow that Washington may not limit its reaction to sanctions alone.”
Loiko reported from Kiev and Williams from Los Angeles.