A Ukrainian security force officer is deployed at a checkpoint set on fire and left by pro-Russian separatists near Slaviansk April 24, 2014. Ukrainian forces clashed with pro-Russian militants as they closed in on the separatist-held city of Slaviansk on Thursday, seizing rebel checkpoints and setting up roadblocks as helicopters circled overhead. Reuters journalists saw a Ukrainian detachment with five armoured personnel carriers take over the checkpoint on a road north of the city in late morning after it was abandoned by separatists who set tyres alight to cover their retreat. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Ukrainian forces moved in and killed at least two pro-Russia insurgents in the country's tumultuous east Thursday, an escalation that prompted new threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In an immediate reaction, Russia's defence minister said troops massed near Ukraine's border were starting new military exercises.
The statements by Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu sharpened anxiety over the prospect of a Russian military incursion into Ukraine. Russia's foreign minister warned a day earlier that any attack on Russian citizens or interests in eastern Ukraine would bring a strong response.
In Kyiv, Ukraine's acting president accused Russia of backing separatists in the east and demanded that Moscow stop its intimidation campaign and leave his country alone.
Oleksandr Turchynov said in an address to the nation Thursday that Russia was "co-ordinating and openly supporting terrorist killers" in eastern Ukraine, where government buildings in at least 10 cities have been seized by pro-Russia gunmen.
Turchynov said Russia must pull back its troops from the Ukrainian border and "stop the constant threats and blackmail."
In St. Petersburg, Putin decried what he described as Ukraine's "punitive operation" and threatened Kyiv with unspecified consequences.
"If the Kyiv government is using the army against its own people this is clearly a grave crime," Putin said.
Russia said the United States must force the current Ukrainian leadership to immediately stop the military operation.
In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said telephone talks planned for Wednesday and Thursday between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of States John Kerry had not taken place "for reasons that did not depend on Moscow."
Russia already has tens of thousands of troops stationed in regions along its border with Ukraine. The latest Russian military exercises will involve ground troops in the south and the west and the air forces patrolling the border, Shoigu said.
NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow sharply criticized Russia for making "veiled threats" and said Russia should pull its troops back to their barracks.
The Ukrainian government and the West have accused Russia of directing and supporting the insurgents and worry that Putin would welcome a pretext for a military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Putin denies that any Russian agents are operating in Ukraine, but insists he has the right to intervene to protect the ethnic Russians who make up a sizable minority in eastern Ukraine.
Average person wants a vote, not violence
On the streets, the average Ukrainian is living normally and wants a non-violent solution to the crisis, CBC foreign correspondent Nahlah Ayed said from the country's east.
"They're horrified to think that there'll be any type of war," she told CBC News Network.
People on the government side hope the planned May 25 election will solve their problems, while pro-Russians want a referendum to express their opinion on Ukraine's future, she said.
Earlier in Tokyo, U.S. President Barack Obama accused Moscow of failing to live up to "the spirit or the letter" of a deal last week to ease tensions in eastern Ukraine. If that continues, Obama said, "there will be further consequences and we will ramp up further sanctions."
With no appetite in the U.S. for a military response, Obama is largely banking on Putin caving under a cascade of economic sanctions targeting his closest associates. But the success of that strategy also depends on European nations with closer financial ties to Moscow taking similar action, despite their concern about a boomerang effect on their own economies.
"I understand that additional sanctions may not change Mr. Putin's calculus," Obama said on a Tokyo visit. "How well they change his calculus in part depends on not only us applying sanctions but also the co-operation of other countries."
Also on Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Yatsenyuk expressed his appreciation of Harper's announcement that Canada would send up to 500 observers to Ukraine to monitor the upcoming presidential elections.
The two leaders reviewed progress on bilateral cooperation discussed during Harper's visit to Ukraine on March 22.