KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s failure to enforce its own ultimatums and its appeal Monday to the United Nations to send peacekeepers laid bare a grim reality for the shaky government in Kiev, where political leaders and security forces have few reliable ways to confront Russian-backed separatists in the restive east.
A deadline set by Ukraine’s acting president for the start of a “large-scale anti-terrorist operation” in the east passed without any clear police or military intervention. Meanwhile, pro-Russian extremists seized yet another government building in the Donetsk region, bringing to at least nine the number of eastern towns now swept up in a spiraling insurgency.
The country’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, asked the U.N. to send peacekeepers. But the move was widely viewed as an act of desperation, given that Russia holds a veto at the U.N. Security Council and is unlikely to agree to such a request.
The confused and passive response underscored Kiev’s limited options in challenging pro-Russian fighters and their backers in Moscow.
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Too assertive a response could cause heavy civilian casualties and play into Moscow’s narrative that Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine are threatened and need protection. Too timid a response risks inviting more meddling from Moscow or giving free rein to local armed extremists.
Ukraine’s armed forces, demoralized and underequipped, are so short of funds that when the government ordered them on high alert last month as Russian forces seized Crimea, a Ukrainian billionaire had to buy the military fuel.
Ukraine’s intelligence agency, the State Security Service, known as SBU, is so riddled with Russian informers that when CIA director John Brennan visited Kiev over the weekend on a supposedly secret trip, Russian state media swiftly revealed his visit and declared it evidence that Washington is calling the shots in Ukraine and pushing for a crackdown in the east.
Even Alfa, an elite Ukrainian special operations unit that takes pride in taking on perilous missions, has appeared feckless in its response to the unrest in the east.
It lost an officer Sunday to gunfire, apparently from the pro-Russian side in Slovyansk. The force has made no headway since in entering the city, never mind freeing government buildings there from unidentified gunmen.
As with other arms of Ukraine’s security and intelligence services, some members have divided loyalties and seem disinclined to engage in a fight against pro-Moscow extremists that would put elderly women and other residents who support the gunmen in the line of fire.
Alfa, under investigation for its role in cracking down on protesters in the capital during the uprising against the ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, did not deploy, as expected, to remove pro-Russian fighters from Slovyansk on Monday.
The government’s failure to take back control of Slovyansk and other eastern towns has humiliated and infuriated Ukrainians who had hoped that the ouster of Yanukovych would allow their country to move out of Moscow’s shadow toward Europe.
“We have been left defenseless,” shouted a uniformed Cossack from a stage in Kiev’s Independence Square, the focal point of three months of protests against Yanukovych.
Kiev’s Independence Square has echoed in recent days with angry denunciations of authorities for their failure to crush separatists in the east and calls for citizens to take up arms to defend the country.
A recent opinion poll in Donetsk suggested that less than a third of the population wants to join Russia, far less than the proportion that wants Ukraine to remain intact. Donetsk residents who support Kiev increasingly wonder why a pro-Russian minority has been able to run amok.
U.S., Europe prepare to expand sanctions
WASHINGTON — President Obama warned President Vladimir Putin of Russia on Monday against further disruption of eastern Ukraine even as the United States and Europe prepared to expand sanctions against leading Russian figures in the next few days.
After a weekend of meetings, the White House was working on a list of new targets who would be barred from traveling to the United States or whose assets here would be frozen, officials said. Among them is Igor Sechin, a longtime Putin ally and the president of Rosneft, the largest state-owned Russian oil company, which has a major joint venture with ExxonMobil.
European ministers agreed Monday on a list of their own.
The U.S. sanctions would also be imposed on a Russian institution that is deemed part of the crony network supporting Putin, officials said. But they added that Obama does not plan to place more crippling measures on whole sectors of the Russian economy unless the Kremlin escalates its actions.
The White House wants to hold those sanctions in reserve should Moscow invade Ukraine or seek to annex its eastern regions, as it did Crimea.
The New York Times