Tension as Russia issues veiled threat to Ukraine

Russia’s foreign minister yesterday promised a firm response if its citizens or interests come under attack in Ukraine – after Ukraine announced a renewal of its “anti-terrorist” campaign against those occupying buildings in its troubled east.

US reporter Simon Ostrovsky in Slovyansk earlier this month, along with a masked proRussia gunman. Picture: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s comments bolstered wide concern that the country could use any violence in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for sending in troops.

Large contingents of Russian troops – tens of thousands, according to Nato – are in place near the Ukrainian border.

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“Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation,” Mr Lavrov said in an interview with Kremlin-funded satellite TV channel RT. “If 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.”

President Vladimir Putin has previously said Russia would be justified in protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, has ­ordered resumption of an “anti-terrorist operation” against pro-Russia forces that have seized police stations and government in at least ten cities and towns in eastern Ukraine.

The order came after the bodies of two people allegedly abducted by pro-Russia insurgents, including a local politician, were found on Tuesday.

However, yesterday there were no reports of any actions taken by the Ukrainian military or security services.

Pro-Russia forces yesterday said they are holding an American journalist, saying he was suspected of spying for Ukrainian ultra-nationalists.

Simon Ostrovsky, a journalist for New York-based Vice News, has not been seen since Tuesday in the eastern city of Slovyansk.

The fluent Russian-speaker, who also holds an Israeli passport, has been covering the crisis in Ukraine for several weeks, latterly reporting about the groups of masked gunmen seizing government buildings in cities in the east of the country.

Insurgents in the east are defying last week’s international agreement created in Geneva that called for all sides to disarm militant groups in Ukraine and to vacate public buildings they are occupying.

Members of the nationalist Right Sector movement have occupied two buildings in the capital, Kiev, for months, but Ukraine authorities have said that the priority is to get the gunmen in eastern Ukraine to vacate the government buildings they hold.

Stella Khorosheva, a spokeswoman for pro-Russia insurgents in Slovyansk, confirmed Mr Ostrovsky was being held at a local branch of the Ukrainian security service that gunmen seized more than a week ago.

“He’s with us. He’s fine,” Ms Khorosheva said. She dismissed claims they were keeping Mr Ostrovsky hostage, saying the insurgents were not seeking to “exchange him for someone”.

“[We] need to be careful because this is not the first time we’re dealing with spies,” Ms Khorosheva said when asked why Mr Ostrovsky was being held captive.

She said he is suspected of spying for the Right Sector “and other enemy organisations”.

In Washington DC, state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said American authorities are “deeply concerned” about Mr Ostrovsky’s detention, which she said violated the agreement between Russia, Ukraine, the European Union and the United States reached last week.

She said: “We condemn any such actions … We call on Russia to use its influence with these groups to secure the immediate and safe release of all hostages in eastern Ukraine.”

US vice-president Joe Biden visited Kiev on Tuesday to offer support to Ukraine’s beleaguered interim government.

Ukraine’s acting government has accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest in eastern Ukraine, which it fears Moscow could use as a pretext for an invasion. Last month, Russia annexed Crimea.