KIEV — Vowing that the United States would never recognize Russia’s “illegal occupation” of Crimea, Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday reiterated America’s support of Ukraine, declared that “no nation has the right to simply grab land from another,” and called on Russia to stop supporting masked gunmen who have seized government buildings across the east of the country.
Biden’s remarks, made during a meeting with Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, signaled strong US backing for the shaky new government in Kiev that Moscow does not recognize and condemns as the illegitimate fruit of a putsch engineered by the West.
In recent weeks, officials in Washington, including President Obama, have issued a string of warnings to Russia threatening increasingly harsh economic sanctions if the Kremlin does not help to deescalate the crisis in eastern Ukraine. But those seem to have gone largely unheeded.
Biden’s stern words, accompanied by a pledge of a further $50 million in US aid and help to break Ukraine’s dependency on Russian energy supplies, underscored how little trust now exists between Washington and Moscow, despite their joint role in brokering an international accord Thursday in Geneva that sought, so far with little effect, to defuse the crisis.
Illustrating the volatility of the standoff in eastern Ukraine, the country’s acting president called Tuesday for a renewed effort to force the pro-Russian militants from the buildings they are holding after a failed attempt last week. In that effort, a column of 21 armored vehicles was commandeered by pro-Russian forces with the aid, the West says, of Russian special forces operatives.
“I call on the security agencies to relaunch and carry out effective antiterrorist measures,” the acting president, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, said in a statement, “with the aim of protecting Ukrainian citizens living in eastern Ukraine from terrorists.”
Turchynov was reacting to a statement Tuesday by the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, which said that one of the “brutally tortured” bodies found in a river there this week was that of Volodymyr Rybak, an official from the nearby town of Gorlovka and a member of the president’s political party.
The pro-Russian mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, attributed the killings to Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist group, but he did not offer any evidence to back his statement.
Ponomaryov also announced that members of Slovyansk’s pro-Russia militia had detained Simon Ostrovsky, an American video journalist from Vice News, and were holding him in the captured headquarters of the Ukrainian Security Service in Slovyansk.
In an e-mailed statement, Vice said it “is aware of the situation and is in contact with the United States State Department and other appropriate government authorities to secure the safety and security of our friend and colleague, Simon Ostrovsky.”
Biden, echoing the view of Ukrainian authorities that the unrest in the east has been instigated and, in some places, directly assisted by Russian military and intelligence personnel, called on Russia to “stop supporting men hiding behind masks in unmarked uniforms,” the so-called green men who have seized government buildings in at least 10 towns and cities.
“It’s time for Russia to stop talking and start acting — act on the commitments they made” in Geneva, Biden said, adding that Ukraine, through an amnesty law and other steps, was trying to live up to its commitment.
Russia, however, blames Kiev for the slim results of the Geneva agreement, which called for the disarming of gunmen and the freeing of occupied buildings. While Washington and Kiev focus on pro-Russian militants holding buildings in the east, Moscow insists that the main reason for the continuing unrest is the Kiev government’s failure to rein in groups like Right Sector, which are still occupying City Hall and the central post office in Kiev.
Since the ouster in February of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, Russia has repeatedly denounced Ukraine’s new leadership as dominated by extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis who threaten not only ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in the east but Jews and other minorities. After meeting in Kiev with Ukrainian officials and local Jewish leaders, however, David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said Tuesday that “the government is committed in word and, we believe, in deed to fighting xenophobia and anti-Semitism.”
Russian allegations of anti-Semites on the rampage in Ukraine, Harris said in an interview, were “a dangerous, Machiavellian game” that only endangered Jews.
“This is not the first time in history that the Jewish community has been put in the middle of such a game,” he said.
In a statement to Ukraine’s parliament after his meetings with Yatsenyuk and Turchynov, Biden spoke of the “humiliating threats” faced by Ukraine and said the United States was “ready to assist.” But he also emphasized that Ukraine needed to put its own house in order, calling on it to “fight the cancer of corruption that is endemic in your system right now” and to reduce its crippling dependence on Russia for supplies of natural gas.
He applauded parliament for moving to change Ukraine’s Constitution to devolve more power to its diverse regions, including the mainly Russian-speaking east.
In an effort to calm pro-Russian separatists, the government in Kiev has promised to grant more autonomy to local authorities to run their own affairs.