DONETSK, Ukraine – As top Ukrainians spoke of imminent invasion and the West threatened the Kremlin with more sanctions, Moscow said Friday that pro-Russian separatists would not lay down their arms in eastern Ukraine until activists relinquish control over key sites in Kiev.
The tough talk came as tensions heightened on the ground, with Russian fighter jets reported crossing into Ukrainian airspace and a team of unarmed foreign military observers detained by pro-Russian forces in Slovyansk, the heart of the separatist movement in the east.
Last week, an agreement was reached in Geneva calling on all armed groups to lay down their weapons and hand over occupied cities. With that agreement in tatters, both sides exchanged warnings Friday.
Accusing the West of plotting to control Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared that pro-Russia insurgents in the country’s east would disarm and leave the territory they have occupied only if the Ukrainian government clears out a protest camp in Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan, and evicts activists from other occupied facilities.
The West wants – and this is how it all began – to seize control of Ukraine because of their own political ambitions, not in the interests of the Ukrainian people, Lavrov said.
Ukraine’s reaction was swift.
The world has not yet forgotten World War II, but Russia is already keen on starting World War III, said Ukraine’s acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The heightened rhetoric came as U.S. officials reported that Russian fighter jets flew into Ukrainian airspace several times during the past 24 hours in what one called a provocation.
It wasn’t clear what the intent was, but the aircraft could have been testing Ukrainian radar or making a show of force, the officials said.
The flights came as Russia increased military exercises along the Ukraine border, including moving a broad array of aircraft, infantry and armored troops – further inflaming fears of a potential Russian incursion.
In another worrying development, a group of foreign military observers traveling under the auspices of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe were detained by pro-Russia separatists in Slovyansk.
The German-led team was accused of possessing suspicious materials, said Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the town’s self-proclaimed separatist mayor. She said they were unharmed and would be released after further investigation.
Meanwhile, as the U.S. and its European allies were poised to impose new sanctions on Russia’s struggling economy, the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s cut its credit rating to near junk, saying tensions over Ukraine were causing investors to pull money out of the country.