The White House on Tuesday backed a crackdown by Ukraine’s interim government against pro-Russian militants, arguing that Kiev had a responsibility to enforce “law and order” within the nation’s borders.
Ukrainian forces traded gunfire at a military airport in the eastern city of Kramatorsk as Kiev extended its “anti-terrorist” offensive across the country.
Separatists have erected barricades, attacked police stations and taken over government buildings in nearly a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine. The Obama administration accuses Moscow of backing the insurgents.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said that although “the use of force is not a preferred option,” the government had to respond to provocations.
Russian news media claimed that separatist protesters had been injured and killed, and Russian President Vladimir Putin asked the United Nations to condemn what the Kremlin said were anti-constitutional actions by Ukraine’s government.
In the call to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Putin said Kiev’s use of force had made the situation in Ukraine significantly worse, according to the Kremlin.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Ukraine was on the brink of civil war.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to discuss the crisis with foreign ministers from Russia, Ukraine and several European nations in Geneva on Thursday.
Moscow and Washington blamed each other for the rising tensions.
The Kremlin and its allies were enraged by a weekend trip to Kiev by CIA Director John Brennan, which they link to Kiev’s counteroffensive against the separatists.
Carney said Brennan’s trip was routine, and rejected accusations that Brennan approved of or provided intelligence for Kiev’s moves as “baseless assertions.”
The White House blames Putin for undermining the Ukrainian government and stirring up separatists in the East, where ethnic Russians predominate.
An estimated 50,000 Russian troops have massed on Ukraine’s eastern border, stoking fears of invasion. A Russian jet repeatedly buzzed an American destroyer in the Black Sea on Saturday. And the White House said it suspects militia movements in eastern cities were intended to provoke an armed response that the Kremlin could cite as justifying a Russian attack.
The White House’s response to Russia has been limited to the imposition of sanctions on a bank used by the Kremlin and Putin allies.
The administration has made it clear it does not want to take military action, and efforts to impose tougher sanctions have been complicated by the reluctance of European nations with lucrative ties to Moscow.
Brennan’s visit and Tuesday’s endorsement of Kiev’s crackdown, however, suggests a more muscular White House effort than followed Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea last month.
Despite the shift, foreign policy experts say the U.S. wants a negotiated solution that avoids more violence.
One possibility that has been floated is a referendum that would have international backing.
Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s interim president, told parliamentary leaders earlier this week he was open to holding a constitutional referendum alongside the presidential elections that would weaken the control of Kiev over the separatist regions within the former Soviet republic.
“The U.S. doesn’t have any particularly strong stake in how exactly this shakes out, but they do have the principle that the Ukrainians get to decide it, not the Russians,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Carney said “any decision about the borders of Ukraine, about the status of regions within Ukraine in relation to the center, the degree of autonomy that any region of Ukraine might have in relation to the center, can only be decided and approved by the Ukrainian people.”
Observers say Russia has considerable leverage in the fight with Ukraine and dispute with Washington.
Moscow hopes to undermine Ukraine’s pro-Western government, which was formed only in the past six weeks.
Ukraine’s chaos heartens the Kremlin, said Sam Charap, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, because it undermines Kiev’s control.
Ukraine’s military action risks “killing potentially some of their own people at a time when the country is more divided than it is or has been,” he said.
Such violence hurt the pro-Russian government toppled by protesters earlier this year, and it could haunt the new government, Charap said.
This story was updated at 7:50 p.m.