WASHINGTON, April 20, 2014 — Hopes that an agreement signed last week between Russia, Ukraine and several other countries would temper tensions in Ukraine were dashed last night after a gunfight in the eastern city of Slavyansk.
The attack reinforces the fact that Ukraine remains in a dangerous situation, precariously close to civil war which could leave leaders powerless to defuse.
According to Russian and Ukrainian media, unknown militants attacked a check point near the town of Slavyansk manned by pro-Russian separatists, killing five.
Russian media is blaming ultra Ukrainian nationalists for the attack, while Ukraine says it was a shootout between criminals.
Russian officials say the ultranationalist Right Sector group was behind the attack. They provided photographs of Right Sector paraphernalia and a business card reportedly left at the scene with the name of the group’s leader, Dmytro Yarosh, as proof.
Russian separatists also claim to have arrested one of the perpetrators, who confessed to being a member of the group.
Moscow notes that the checkpoint was armed only with baseball bats in deference to an Easter truce declared by Kiev yesterday.
The Right Sector posted a response on its Facebook page saying it was not involved in the attack. The group blamed Russia’s Federal Security Service for the incident.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian groups in Slavyansk refuse to leave government buildings. Part of the agreement in Geneva included pro-Russian groups relinquishing control of those buildings.
The deal also requires dissolving illegal militias in Ukraine.
After the attack, Slavyansk rebel leader and self-proclaimed mayor Vyacheslav Ponomarev called on Vladimir Putin to send food and weapons to the separatists, and to deploy “peacekeepers” to the city.
Further heightening tensions, Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk gave an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press where he slammed Putin for his role in Ukraine’s crisis and accused him of trying to re-form the Soviet Union.
The Interior Ministry also called on former members of the Berkut riot police, disbanded over atrocities, to return to service. According to the BBC, the unit was an elite force set up in 1992. It was better trained, better paid, and better equipped than other police units. However, the unit was disbanded after the most recent revolution, when its members were accused of beating, torturing and shooting demonstrators.
Next week, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry will visit Kiev, and world leaders will again attempt to defuse tensions. U.S. troops will also join military exercises in Poland and Estonia to show military strength.
The attack last night suggests that independent armed groups are rising in Ukraine, which will escalate violence in the country. Refusal of pro-Russian separatists to honor the conditions of the Geneva accord and the decision by what appears to be a nationalist group to ignore the Easter truce suggests national leaders have little influence over the militants.
Reforming the Berkut riot police is also dangerous for the government in Kiev. It suggests the interim government lacks military troops to maintain order in the country and highlights its weakness. The riot police may not be completely loyal to the interim government, whose leaders were among its targets just a few months ago. Even if they are loyal, their tactics are unpopular, and will cause further erosion of support for the interim government.
The next week will be critical in determining the direction of peace, or war, in Ukraine. If leaders in Kiev continue to lose credibility, independent armed groups are likely to use violence to pursue their goals, placing Ukraine squarely in the middle of a full fledged civil war.