Ukraine crisis: Russia 'to respond if its interests' attacked

Sergei Lavrov, Russian FM: "You cannot avoid the impression they [US] are running the show"

Russia will respond if its interests in Ukraine are attacked, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said, drawing a parallel with the 2008 Georgian war.

Speaking to Russian state TV channel RT, Mr Lavrov also accused the US of "running the show" in Ukraine - a claim Washington dismissed as "ludicrous".

Russia's foreign ministry also repeated its call for Kiev to withdraw military units from the east of Ukraine.

Ukraine's government faces an armed revolt there by pro-Russia separatists.

At the scene

As you drive into Krasnoarmiisk, a large sign declares "Glory to the Coal Miners!".

This is an industrial town and people here are proud of their working tradition. One resident told me: "We're too busy working to play politics."

But not everyone is "too busy".

On the square outside the local administration building, 100 people gathered to demand a referendum on greater autonomy for the Donetsk region.

The town square meeting appeared to have been organised by activists from the city of Donetsk 70km (43 miles) away. Some of the local residents in the crowd seemed suspicious of the visitors.

An argument broke out in front of me between two ladies. One said she supported a united Ukraine and claimed the crowd was being "duped" by separatists; the other denounced the government in Kiev and praised Russia and the Soviet Union.

Kiev and the West say Moscow commands gunmen in eastern Ukraine - something Russia denies.

'Aggressive rhetoric'

In recent weeks, pro-Russian militants have seized administrative buildings in at least a dozen towns in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

They have installed their own officials, in similar tactics to those used to take over the Ukrainian region of Crimea earlier this year.

The US has called on Moscow to ask pro-Russian gunmen to lay down their weapons and leave public buildings. It has also urged Russia to tone down its aggressive rhetoric or face further sanctions.

The Kiev authorities responded to the occupation of official buildings and roadblocks by carrying out an "anti-terror" operation in eastern Ukraine.

The military operation became bogged down and was suspended over the Easter period before resuming on Tuesday.

An armed man in military fatigues stands guard outside the security service (SBU) regional building seized by the separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk on April 23 Pro-Russian gunmen largely control at least nine cities in Donetsk region
Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, 22 April The Russian foreign minister said Moscow would defend its "legitimate interests"
Joe Biden, left, talks to Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk during a meeting in Kiev, April. 22 Joe Biden had talks on Tuesday with Ukrainian leaders including PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk (r)

The internal affairs ministry now says it has "freed" the town of Sviatohirsk, north of rebel-held Sloviansk, of pro-Russian armed groups.

No-one was hurt, it said. The ministry's claim has not yet been independently confirmed.

'Like in Georgia'

In his interview with Russia Today, Mr Lavrov said it was "quite telling" that Kiev had re-launched its "anti-terrorist" operation in the east on Tuesday during a visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden.

"If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia for example, I do not see any other way but to respond in full accordance with international law," Mr Lavrov said.

The BBC visits Ukrainian soldiers on the border with Russia

Russian fought a brief war with Georgia in the summer of 2008 after Georgia sent troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia to regain control from the Russian-backed rebels.

Responding to Mr Lavrov's interview, US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said "many" of his claims "are ludicrous and... not based in fact".

Thousands of Russian troops have massed along Ukraine's borders in recent weeks.

Mr Lavrov also reiterated accusations that Kiev had failed to fulfil commitments laid out in the 17 April Geneva accord designed to end the crisis.

The Russian foreign ministry statement accused Kiev and the West of distorting the agreement, which called for illegal armed groups to be disarmed.

The ministry said the West insisted only on the need for pro-Russian groups to put down their weapons.

Unrest began in Ukraine last November over whether the country should look towards Moscow or the West.

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