Early Sunday morning three people were shot and killed from two vehicles during a violent gun battle near a checkpoint outside the city of Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine, a region controlled by armed pro-Russian separatists.
The latest violent actions in eastern Ukraine threaten to derail a fragile Geneva accord reached just last Thursday between Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the EU.
Government authorities from Kiev and Moscow each blamed the other side on Sunday for carrying out the deadly gun attack and enflaming an Easter truce.
Pro-Russian separatists controlling checkpoints around Slavyansk said that a far-right Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector with past ties to Kiev were responsible for the gun assault while leaders from Right Sector denied that they were behind the shooting and blamed armed pro-Russian separatists of following direct orders from Moscow.
The three new fatalities mark the first round of deadly violence since the Geneva accord was reached on Thursday which calls for the disarming of illegal armed groups in Ukraine.
Today a senior negotiator from The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was sent to the region to begin negotiating the surrender of pro-Russian separatists who are occupying government buildings across several cities in eastern Ukraine with a population closely split between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians.
Monitors from the United States, Ukraine, Russia, and the EU will be invited to the region in advance of an important Ukrainian presidential election held in May.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has already said that military force could be used in Ukraine if the rights of ethnic Russians are not respected, although it remains unclear what the litmus test will be for Russia when determining the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine have been violated and the pretext established for an immediate Russian invasion.
Russia sent military troops into Crimea in March to “protect” local defenses even though the overwhelming majority of Crimeans are ethnic Russian with strong cultural ties to Moscow.
Last week during Putin’s annual interview Direct Line which was broadcast live on Russian stations, he admitted that Russian soldiers’ presence in Crime was necessary to protect the local population from armed radicals and to implement the holding of a referendum vote to become annexed into Russia.
Today armed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine remain defiant and are refusing to turn over their arms.
Separatists’ demands include holding a referendum vote across the restive region of eastern Ukraine with 40,000 Russian troops waiting in the wings massed along the Ukraine-Russian border conducting “military exercises” according to Russian officials in Moscow.
Last week NATO signaled a stronger willingness to fortify defense forces and increase its presence in NATO countries around the Baltic region that border Russia.
The United States and the EU have accused Moscow of orchestrating the pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine and threatened to take sanctions a step further from the limited sanctions already placed on Russian officials over Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea.
Economic based sector sanctions in the oil and banking sectors are being given stronger consideration while Russia continues to display little willingness to use their influence to defuse the violent occupation of government buildings by pro-Russian separatists.
Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak was interviewed on Fox News Sunday which aired today.
Kislyak was questioned about the deadly gun attack that killed 3 earlier this morning outside the city of Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine.
He responded by claiming that the attack was instigated from people who are representative of the outright movement in the Ukrainian political spectrum.
When questioned further if the Russian government will tell the separatists to leave the occupied buildings in eastern Ukraine, Kislyak offered a nuanced answer that equally places the burden on Kiev to put and end to Ukrainian nationalists.
“We signed the Geneva agreement. That is a message in itself. What is important is that all the measures provided for in the Geneva statement are equally applied throughout Ukraine, not only in the east but also in Kiev” Kislyak said.
Kislyak reiterated that message later in the interview when he was asked if Russia can get the militias to stand down.
“First of all, we are going to do whatever is necessary in order to see the Geneva agreement implemented, because it’s in the best interest of Ukrainians and best interest of everybody including ourselves. But it has to be a process that includes all as a part of this effort we are going to work with all the parties involved. And I would underline once again the word — all militias need to be disarmed” Kislyak said.