The United States yesterday accused Russia of sending its agents to stoke a flaring secession crisis in eastern Ukraine that Moscow itself conceded could spill over into civil war."Everything that we've seen in the last 48 hours, from Russian provocateurs and agents operating in eastern Ukraine, tells us that they've been sent there determined to create chaos," Kerry told US lawmakers.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague backed up that message by noting the flareup bore "all the hallmarks of a Russian strategy to destabilise Ukraine".
His accusation came after Moscow yesterday warned Kiev that any use of force in Ukraine's east, where pro-Kremlin militants have seized government buildings in several cities, could tip the country into civil war.
The blunt US charge came as Ukraine's embattled leaders waged an uphill battle to keep their culturally splintered nation of 46 million together after the February ouster of a pro-Kremlin president and subsequent loss of Crimea to Russia.
Ukraine mounted a counter-offensive yesterday by vowing to treat the separatists as "terrorists" and making 70 arrests in a nighttime security sweep aimed at proving the Kremlin's involvement in the secessionist movement.
An urgent deployment of forces saw Kiev also regain control of an administration office in Kharkiv and the security service headquarters of Donetsk, where pro-Russians have declared to create a sovereign "people's republic" and pledged an independence referendum before May 11.
And Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen reaffirmed on a visit to Paris that Moscow -- its forces now massed along Ukraine's eastern frontier -- would be making an "historic mistake" if it were to intervene in Ukraine any further.
Yet the sharply barbed rhetoric has not yet led to a complete breakdown in diplomatic relations similar to the one that had endangered global security in the nuclear-charged decades of the Cold War.
Kerry said he intended to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov "in Europe next week" to discuss preparations for possible four-way talks with Ukraine and EU diplomats.
The West's anxiety stems in part from Russian President Vladimir Putin's vow to use "all means necessary" to protect his compatriots in Ukraine.
The Russian foreign ministry put still more pressure on Kiev yesterday by accusing it of making "military preparations (in eastern regions) that are fraught with the risk of unleashing a civil war."
Russia has also put tough conditions on Washington's four-way talks idea by stressing that negotiations should also include representatives of Ukraine's southern and eastern regions -- a condition implicitly unacceptable to Kiev.