SLOVYANSK, Ukraine – Ukraine launched an offensive against separatist forces for control of a besieged eastern city Friday, while clashes between pro- and anti-government activists in the previously calm southern port of Odessa led to a fire that police said killed 31 people.
The first serious offensive by the government in Kiev and the dozens of deaths in Odessa sharply escalated the crisis that has led to the worst tensions between Russia and the West since the Cold War. The Kremlin said the battle for the separatist-held city of Slovyansk effectively destroyed the Geneva pact aimed at cooling the unrest in the deeply divided country.
In Washington, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama warned that Russia could be hit by new sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union if it continues disruptive actions in Ukraine. Previous sanctions are showing signs of significant effect on the Russian economy.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that NATO should reconsider its relationship with Russia in light of its incursion into Ukraine, which should bury the idea that the end of the Cold War brought permanent peace to Europe.
Both sides said two Ukrainian helicopters were shot down by the insurgents near Slovyansk, killing two crew members, while authorities said an additional seven people also died.
The Ukrainian Security Service said one helicopter was downed with a surface-to-air missile, adding that the sophisticated weapon undercut Russia’s claims the city of 125,000 people was simply under the control of armed locals.
Unlike eastern Ukraine, Odessa had been largely tranquil since the February toppling of President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. But clashes erupted Friday between pro-Russians and government supporters in the key port on the Black Sea coast, 330 miles from the turmoil in the east.
According to Ukrainian news reports, the pro-Kiev demonstrators broke up an encampment of Moscow supporters outside the trade union building.
The latter took refuge in the building, which then caught fire.
Odessa police spokesman Volodymyr Shasbliyenko told AP the fire apparently was caused by Molotov cocktails.
In Washington, Hagel expressed satisfaction with the way European allies have responded to Russian actions in Ukraine.
But over the long term, he said, we should expect Russia to test our alliance’s purpose, stamina and commitment. He called this a clarifying moment for a NATO alliance that had grown used to the idea of a benign Russia to its east.
NATO has had a formal relationship with Russia since 1997, although last month the alliance declared that it was suspending cooperation with Moscow in light of the Ukraine problem.
In a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, Hagel renewed a familiar U.S. call for increased defense spending by European members of NATO, saying that even a united Europe still faces great dangers.
He dismissed the notion advanced by some critics that U.S. support for the expansion of NATO, starting in the late 1990s, is responsible for Russia’s recent aggressive moves. Poland and other central and eastern European nations that once were in the Soviet sphere of influence are now NATO members.
The historical record now speaks clearly for itself, he said. And it makes clear that NATO has sought partnership, not conflict, with Russia.