SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — A column of armoured vehicles flying Russian flags drove into a Ukrainian city controlled by pro-Russia demonstrators Wednesday, dampening the central government’s hopes to re-establish control over restive eastern Ukraine.
One of men aboard the vehicles said they were Ukrainian soldiers who had defected to the pro-Russian side. If that’s true, it raises the spectre of an uprising by defected Ukrainian forces in eastern regions of the country. But a senior lawmaker denied any defections had taken place, instead insisting the men on the vehicles were Ukrainian soldiers conducting a false-flag operation to move about freely.
The six vehicles with troops in camouflage sitting atop entered the city of Slovyansk, a hotbed of unrest against Ukraine’s acting government. Insurgents in Slovyansk have seized the local police headquarters and administration building, demanding broader autonomy for their eastern Ukraine region and closer ties with Russia.
Eastern Ukraine was the support base for Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February after months of protests in the capital, Kyiv, which were ignited by his decision to back away from closer relations with the European Union and turn toward Russia. Opponents of the government that replaced him alleged the new authorities will repress eastern Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking population.
Reflecting the West’s concern, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russian President Vladimir Putin late Tuesday to discuss the situation in Ukraine and preparations for diplomatic talks in Geneva on Thursday.
The Kremlin said Putin told Merkel that “the sharp escalation of the conflict places the country in effect on the verge of a civil war.” Merkel’s office said she and Putin had “different assessments” of the events in Ukraine.
The vehicles stopped near a government building in Slovyansk and flew Russian flags while residents chanted “Good job! Good job!”
One of the men who came in the vehicles, who identified himself only as Andrei, said the unit was part of Ukraine’s 25th Brigade of Airborne Forces and that they have switched to the side of the pro-Russian forces.
“Our bosses made the decision and we obeyed,” he said.
The man’s statement couldn’t be independently confirmed and the Defence Ministry had no comment on the events. At the same time, Serhiy Sobolev, the head of a parliamentary faction, which is part of the governing coalition, asserted that the men who drove the armoured vehicles into Slovyansk under Russian flags were in fact Ukrainian soldiers conducting a false-flag operation.
“These are our military units who used the partisan method of infiltration into the facilities that today are controlled by Russian military forces and those separatists who are financed by them,” Sobolev was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
The uniform worn by some of the men sitting on top of the vehicles was different from that of the gunmen on the ground, many of whom had pro-Russian ribbons attached to their shoulders.
Some onlookers were happy with the pro-Russian forces.
“We will never allow the fascist Kyiv authorities to come here,” said Andrei Bondar, 32, a Slovyansk resident.
But Tetyana Kustova, 35, a sales clerk, was appalled by the unrest.
“They are pushing us towards Russia,” she said. “They are tearing Ukraine into pieces.”
The vehicles arrived from the nearby city of Kramatorsk, where Ukrainian forces sought to re-establish control of an airport on Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, several armoured vehicles were surrounded by crowds of civilians in Kramatorsk, who shouted “army with the people,” and then erupted in jubilation, chanting “Well done,” according to footage posted by a local news website. Moments later, a Russian flag was waved. It was unclear whether these were the same vehicles that later drove into Slovyansk.
The government in Kyiv has struggled to rein in the rebels, as some security forces have switched over to the side of the insurgents.
In Kyiv, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest.
“Russia has got a new export now, apart from oil and gas: Russia is now exporting terrorism to Ukraine,” Yatsenyuk told a Cabinet meeting. “Russia must withdraw its sabotage groups, condemn terrorists and liberate all administrative buildings.”
“We have now realized that our Russian neighbours decided to build the Berlin Wall and want to begin a new Cold War, but before that they are performing acts of ’hot’ terror,” Yatsenyuk said.
In the regional capital of Donetsk, armed militias seized the mayor’s office, according to another AP reporter on the scene.
Kyiv authorities and Western countries say tens of thousands of Russian troops are stationed near the border with Ukraine and fear that unrest in the east will be used by Moscow as a pretext for a military incursion.