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Pressure of further US sanctions prompts Russia to flex military muscle

It has thousands of troops along the border with Ukraine, ready to act, it says.

A pro-Russian gunman patrols a streets in downtown Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine.
A pro-Russian gunman patrols a streets in downtown Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine.
Image: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

RUSSIA IS UNDER intense US pressure to convince pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine to give up eastern towns they are occupying, after Washington said the situation in the former Soviet republic was in a “pivotal period”.

But with the separatists’ refusal to budge throwing a deal to defuse the crisis into doubt, and US sanctions looming large, Russia was biting back – warning that its military is massed on Ukraine’s border, ready to act.

Meanwhile a poll of inhabitants in pro-Russian hub Donetsk found the majority to believe the current government in Kiev to be illegitimate, but that they do not want to join Russia.

In the nearly dozen Ukrainian towns the pro-Kremlin rebels were holding, the stalemate drags on today.

In the major eastern city of Donetsk, separatist gunmen remained barricaded inside the regional government building. Around 50 of the militants milled around barricades of sandbags and tyres while morning joggers ran by almost oblivious to them.

The failure to implement the agreement hammered out in Geneva on Thursday by the US, Russia, Ukraine and the EU threatened to deepen the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.

Ukraine Pro-Russian gunman. Source: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

US Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov overnight that “full and immediate compliance” was needed of the pact, which calls for the disarmament of “illegal armed groups” and the end to the occupation of seized buildings.

US President Barack Obama has said he wants to see progress within days, otherwise more sanctions would be imposed, on top of those already targeting the inner circle of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin denies his forces have any role in east Ukraine.

On Thursday, however, he dropped an identical denial over Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine last month, to admit the Russian army had in fact been deployed there.

Ukraine Former Ukrainian prime minister and presidential hopeful Yulia Tymoshenko speaks during a press conference in Donetsk. Source: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

The Russian leader said in a television interview to be broadcast later Saturday that the soldiers sent to Crimea would soon receive medals.

In a sign of the current prickly relationship with the West, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov late Friday told Russian television that US threats of more sanctions on Moscow were “absolutely unacceptable” and “one cannot treat Russia like it is a shameful student”.

“Our Western colleagues are trying to push responsibility towards our side. But it must be underlined: it is a collective responsibility,” he said.

He also pointedly declared that there are Russian troops “close to the Ukrainian border”.

“Some are based there, others have been sent as reinforcements due to the situation in Ukraine,” he added.

NATO believes Russia has around 40,000 troops positioned on its border with Ukraine, in a state of readiness for an invasion.

Germany Ukraine NATO AWACS Captain Brandon Snyder of Boise, Idaho, of the E-3A Awacs Component crew controles computer and radar scope screens during a patrol over Romania and Poland caused by the current Ukraine crisis. Source: AP Photo/Frank Augstein

Putin has asserted he has a “right” to send his army into Ukraine, but that he “very much hoped” he would not have to.

52.2 per cent of citizens polled in Donetsk, the focal point of separatist unrest that has seen pro-Moscow militants seize a string of towns,

said they were against joining Russia while 27.5 percent favoured rule from Ukraine’s former Soviet master Moscow.

Among the 3,200 respondents across Ukraine’s entire Russian-speaking southeast, the number of those opposed to Moscow taking control rose to 69.7 percent, according to the poll from Kiev’s Institute for International Sociology published in the Russian-language Weekly Mirror newspaper.

In the Donetsk region, where separatists have declared an independent republic and demanded a referendum on autonomy, 38.4 percent said they backed Kremlin demands to federalise Ukraine and 41 percent said they wanted a decentralisation of power.

Inhabitants in the east remain highly suspicious of Kiev’s interim authorities, who took over from pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych after his ouster in February following months of bloody protests.

- © AFP, 2014

Read: Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels won’t abide by an international agreement reached yesterday >

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