DONETSK, Ukraine – Russia’s foreign minister warned Wednesday that attacks on Russian citizens or interests in Ukraine would bring a firm response and drew a comparison to the circumstances that opened the war with Georgia in 2008.
“Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, a day after Ukraine announced it was re-launching a campaign against pro-Kremlin insurgents occupying government facilities in the mostly Russian-speaking east.
“If we were attacked we could certainly respond,” Lavrov said, speaking on the Kremlin-funded satellite TV channel RT.
Lavrov’s warning came as the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a separate statement demanding that Ukraine pull its armed forces out of the crisis-ridden region.
“If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia, I do not see any other way but to respond in full accordance with international law,” Lavrov said, referring to the 2008 war that led to the breaking away of the Georgian republic of South Ossetia.
In that conflict, Russia launched an invasion of Georgia after it unleashed an artillery attack on the capital of the separatist region, where Russian peacekeeping forces were stationed. However, unlike the conflict with Georgia, Russia has denied having troops or agents in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian warnings came as an accord reached last week in Geneva to defuse the Ukraine crisis continued to crumble, with pro-Russian insurgents in the east defying calls to disarm and to vacate the buildings they are occupying.
On Tuesday, Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, ordered resumption of an “anti-terrorist operation” against the pro-Russia forces. However, the highly publicized move produced little action on the ground Wednesday.
A previous campaign to reclaim seized buildings showed few results before it was suspended last week. Ukrainian forces claimed to have regained control of one small airport, but insurgents also seized armored vehicles and reports said some Ukrainian soldiers had switched sides.
“Security forces are in a state of disorganization and demoralization,” said Kiev-based political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko. “Today, most of them don’t want to fight for anyone because they don’t know who is going to win tomorrow and how all of this will end.”
The army is underfunded and poorly equipped after years of corruption and mismanagement under Viktor Yanukovych, the Russia-friendly president who fled the country in February after months of protests.
Yanukovych’s ouster sparked wide anger in his support base in Ukraine’s east. The insurgents, who claim Ukraine’s post-Yanukovych government consists of nationalists who will suppress the east’s large Russian-speaking population, are demanding regional autonomy or even annexation by Russia, like the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea last month.
The insurgents, whom Kiev and the West claim have Russian backing and direction, have occupied buildings in at least 10 eastern cities.
It’s a strategy that Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says appears to be “spreading across the map like ink blots.”
“They are a long ways away from merging into a large area, but this strategy is proving quite effective at challenging the power and authority of the Kiev government, undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity and spreading the insurgency over a vast region that otherwise the Russian military would struggle to occupy and control,” he wrote in an analysis.
In analyst Fesenko’s view, it’s impossible for Ukraine to restore control over the insurgent region by force.
“Now the task is to block the spread of the separatist virus,” he said.
The heart of the insurgent region – centered on the eastern city of Slovyansk, 100 miles west of the Russian border – has fallen into lawlessness. The Kiev government’s order to resume military operations in the east came after the bodies of two people allegedly abducted by pro-Russia insurgents were found in the area.
On Wednesday, pro-Russia forces in Slovyansk said they were holding an American journalist, saying he was suspected of spying for Ukrainian ultra-nationalists.
Simon Ostrovsky, a journalist for Brooklyn-based Vice News, has not been seen since early Tuesday in Slovyansk. The fluent Russian-speaker who also holds an Israeli passport has been covering the crisis in Ukraine for weeks and was reporting about the masked gunmen seizing government buildings.
Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for the Slovyansk insurgents, confirmed that Ostrovsky was being held.
“He’s with us. He’s fine,” she told The Associated Press.
“(We) need to be careful, because this is not the first time we’re dealing with spies,” Khorosheva added, saying Ostrovsky is suspected of spying for Right Sector, a far-right nationalist group despised by the pro-Russia forces.
She dismissed claims he was a hostage, saying the insurgents were not seeking to “exchange him for someone.”
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. authorities were “deeply concerned” about Ostrovsky’s detention.
“We condemn any such actions, and all recent hostage-takings in eastern Ukraine, which directly violate commitments made in the Geneva joint statement,” she said. “We call on Russia to use its influence with these groups to secure the immediate and safe release of all hostages in eastern Ukraine.”
The crisis in Ukraine has provoked clear anxiety in Western Europe. Poland, which borders Russia and Ukraine, conducted its first major security exercise in decades on Wednesday.
In addition, Dutch, British and Danish fighter jets scrambled after a pair of Russian bombers approached their airspace over the North Sea. The Russian TU-95 Bear jets were escorted by the NATO members’ aircraft until they departed.
And the presidents of four post-Soviet republics and Ukraine’s foreign minister were meeting in Prague with EU nations Thursday to try to figure out how to stop Russia from blocking their increased ties.