SLAVIANSK, Ukraine/ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow rebels on Thursday as they closed in on the separatists’ military stronghold in the east, and Russia launched army drills near the border in response, raising fears its troops would invade.
The Ukrainian offensive amounts to the first time Kiev’s troops have used lethal force to recapture territory from the fighters, who have seized swaths of eastern Ukraine since April 6 and proclaimed an independent “People’s Republic of Donetsk”.
Ukraine’s acting president accused Moscow of supporting “terrorism at the state level” against his country for backing the rebels, whom the government blames for kidnapping and torturing a politician found dead on Saturday.
“The window to change course is closing,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned in a hastily arranged appearance in the State Department, where he cited President Barack Obama’s comments earlier on Thursday that Washington was ready to impose new sanctions if Moscow did not alter its policy.
In unusually blunt comments, Kerry accused Russia of using propaganda to hide what it was actually trying to do in eastern Ukraine - destabilize the region and undermine next month’s planned Ukrainian presidential elections.
“So following today’s threatening movement of Russian troops right up to Ukraine’s border, let me be clear,” Kerry said. “If Russia continues in this direction, it will not just be a grave mistake, it will be an expensive mistake.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said sanctions were “dishonorable” and destroyed the global economy, but that so far the damage to Russia had not been critical.
With Washington frustrated by the reluctance of some European nations to act, Obama was expected to speak to European leaders on Friday to try to nudge the European Union towards fresh sanctions against Russia, sources familiar with the matter said.
The sources said Obama was expected to hold a conference call on Friday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
The Ukrainian Interior Ministry said its forces, backed by the army, had removed three checkpoints manned by armed groups in the separatist-controlled city of Slaviansk.
“During the armed clash, up to five terrorists were eliminated,” it said in a statement. It said one person on the side of government forces had been wounded.
A rebel spokeswoman in Slaviansk said two fighters had died in a clash in the same area, northeast of the city center. Slaviansk’s separatist self-proclaimed mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, quoted on a local news site, said one man was shot dead and another badly wounded on the northeastern outskirts of the city. He said the dead had been unarmed.
The Kremlin, which says it has the right to invade its neighbor to protect Russian speakers, has built up forces - estimated by NATO at up to 40,000 troops - on Ukraine’s border.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Moscow had launched military drills near the border in response to “Ukraine’s military machine” and NATO exercises in Eastern Europe. Kiev demanded an explanation within 48 hours of action on the border.
Russia seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine last month after Putin overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy by announcing the right to use military force in neighboring countries.
An invasion of mainland Ukraine’s industrial heartland would be a far more serious action. It had seemed beyond contemplation only weeks ago but now looks like a real threat, although the full extent of Putin’s territorial ambitions remains a mystery.
In St Petersburg, Putin said it would be a very serious crime against their own people if the authorities in Kiev had used the army in eastern Ukraine.
“It is just a punitive operation and it will of course incur consequences for the people making these decisions, including (an effect) on our interstate relations,” Putin said in a televised meeting with regional media.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel voiced concern about reports of Russian military activity, telling reporters in Mexico City: “This is dangerously destabilizing and it’s very provocative.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry responded that it was up to Washington to halt the Ukrainian military action and “force the Kiev authorities, who are wards of the United States, to restrain themselves and not use force”.
Reuters journalists saw a Ukrainian detachment with five armored personnel carriers take over a checkpoint on a road north of Slaviansk in the late morning after it was abandoned by separatists who set tires alight to cover their retreat.
The troops pulled back two hours later and it was unclear if Kiev would risk storming Slaviansk, a city of 130,000 that has become the military stronghold of a movement seeking annexation by Moscow of Ukraine’s industrialized east.
‘FINISH WHAT WE HAVE STARTED’
At another checkpoint set up by the Ukrainian military, a soldier said they were there to instill law and order.
“Those separatists, they violated the constitution, they are torturing the country, they violated laws, they do not recognize the authority of police, so the army had to move in and we will finish what we have started, so help me God,” he said.
Under an accord signed by Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the EU in Geneva last week, illegal armed groups are supposed to disarm and go home, including the rebels occupying about a dozen buildings in the largely Russian-speaking east.
Washington accuses Moscow of sending agents to coordinate the unrest in the east, as it did before seizing Crimea. Russia denies it is behind the uprising and says the separatists are responding spontaneously to hostility from Kiev. Russia made similar denials over Crimea until Putin acknowledged last week his troops had indeed acted alongside local militia.
“At the state level, Russia is supporting terrorism in our country,” Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksander Turchinov, said in a national address on Thursday. “Armed criminals have taken over buildings, are taking citizens, Ukrainian and foreign journalists, hostage and murdering Ukrainian patriots.”
Turchinov called for the eastern offensive this week after the apparent torture and murder of a pro-Kiev town councilor whose body was found on Saturday near Slaviansk.
Volodymyr Rybak had disappeared after being filmed trying to take down a separatist flag while attempting to enter the rebel-held town hall where he worked in Horlivka, near Slaviansk.
“He was bruised and punctured from head to toe ... it’s clear they tortured him,” said Aleksander Yaroshenko, a family friend who accompanied Rybak’s widow when she identified his body at the morgue. “The police have lots of details, they have CCTV footage, they should know who did this,” he told Reuters.
Rebels in Slaviansk released U.S. citizen Simon Ostrovsky, one of three journalists they were believed to be holding.
Moscow called for Kiev to release “political prisoners”, including a pro-Russian activist named Pavel Gubarev.
So far, the United States and the EU have taken only mild action against Moscow, imposing visa bans and asset freezes on a few Russians, measures Moscow has scoffed at as meaningless. Washington and Brussels both say they are drafting more serious sanctions and will impose them if the Geneva deal collapses.
Even without serious sanctions, Russia’s confrontation with the West has hurt its economy as fearful investors send their money abroad. Mutual funds specializing in Russia and Eastern Europe were the 30 worst performers out of 3,489 equity funds for sale in Britain in the three months ending in March.
But Moscow also flexed its economic muscles, with the government suggesting foreign firms that pull out may not be able to get back in. A source at Gazprom said the Russian gas exporter had slapped an additional $11.4 billion bill on Kiev. Ukraine is negotiating to reverse east-west pipelines so that it can receive gas from Europe if Moscow cuts it off.
In NATO-member Poland, the first group of a contingent of about 600 U.S. soldiers arrived on Wednesday, part of an effort by Washington to reassure Eastern European allies who are worried by the Russian buildup near Ukraine’s borders.
But NATO and the United States have made clear they will not use military force to protect Ukraine itself.
Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, slid into unrest late last year when Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich rejected a pact to build closer ties with Europe. Protesters took over central Kiev and he fled in February. Days later, Russian troops seized control of Crimea.
Unarmed mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are in eastern Ukraine trying to persuade pro-Russian gunmen to go home, in line with the Geneva accord.
Reuters reporters have not been able to establish that any Russian troops or special forces members are on the ground, although Kiev and Western powers say they have growing evidence that Moscow has a presence. Masked gunmen in the east, widely referred to as “green men”, wear uniforms without insignia.
Additional reporting by Alexander Reshetnikov and Gleb Garanich near Slaviansk, Alissa de Carbonnel in Donetsk, Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets, Richard Balmforth and Alastair Macdonald in Kiev, Denis Dyomkin in Birobidzhan, Russia, Mark Felsenthal in Tokyo, Alessandra Prentice and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, David Alexander in Mexico City, and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Christian Lowe, David Stamp, Philippa Fletcher, Peter Graff and Peter Cooney; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Paul Tait