OVYANSK, Ukraine — The Ukrainian military landed airborne troops at an airport about 25 miles south of here Tuesday, raising tensions with Russia in the opening phase of what the government in Kiev called a wider military operation to confront pro-Russian militants in the eastern part of the country.
Later in the day, a column of armored personnel carriers flying Ukrainian flags approached Slovyansk from the north, parking for a time beside a highway and setting up a checkpoint. Of all the cities in the east, Slovyansk seemed to have fallen most completely under the control of pro-Russian separatists, who have erected massive defensive barricades outside the buildings they occupy.
The Ukrainian authorities said the movements were the first in a campaign to drive separatists from government buildings in as many as 10 cities in eastern Ukraine. The initial steps suggested that the government in Kiev, which had been hesitant to do anything to play into Moscow’s narrative that Russian-language speakers are in need of protection, was now willing to use the military to try to restore order in some places.
In a conflict that has revealed deep East-West fault lines, the White House praised the move as a measured step toward restoring law and order, while President Vladimir Putin of Russia told the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, in a phone call that he expected “clear condemnation” of the “anticonstitutional” operation by the international community. The Russian stock market fell by 3 percent on war jitters.
At the small military air base in the town of Kramatorsk, Ukrainian soldiers quickly took control, holding at bay separatists who had surrounded the field’s perimeter, which is guarded by a barbed wire fence. At some point the commander of the operation, General Vasily Krutov, left the base to speak to a crowd of protesters numbering about 500 to urge them to disperse. But the crowd remained hostile, and when he turned to head back to the base he was roughed up, people in the crowd said, shoved hard enough that his hat fell off.
The situation, described by local reporters as a “mob scene,” persisted into the early evening, with the crowd occasionally surging forward through a gap in the fence and soldiers firing into the ground in front of those who approached too close. Witnesses said that at least two people were injured by the shots.
Russian television — which has consistently sought to play up grievances by pro-Russian activists who the West says are a tool of Russian intelligence — introduced its evening broadcast by announcing that “The illegal, criminal government in Kiev launches a war against its own people.”
The checkpoint the Ukrainian military established on a highway north of Slovyansk provided a further sign that the operation this time represented more than just words. Speaking to reporters following the armored column, Krutov delivered a sharp warning to any gunmen on the road ahead, saying, “they must be warned that if they do not lay down their arms, they will be destroyed.”
While there were no credible reports of casualties, Krutov later told the Associated Press that his forces had repelled a force of 30 men in green uniforms without insignia, shorthand for the unmarked Russian regulars who infiltrated and overran Crimea.
Ukraine seemed to teeter toward a run on bank deposits on Monday. The central bank was compelled to raise one of its key interest rates to 9.5 percent from 6.5 percent to slow the rapid slide of the national currency, the hryvnia, as people withdrew deposits and converted savings into hard currency.