Ukraine’s new Western-backed leaders have blamed Russian agents and the ousted pro-Kremlin president for organising two days of carnage in Kiev that killed nearly 90 supporters of closer EU ties.
The explosive allegation were levelled on Thursday only moments after Russia lashed out at NATO for building up the defences of ex-Soviet nations and brandished the threat of further hikes in the price Ukraine must pay for gas after ousting its Kremlin-backed leaders.
The February unrest in Kiev has left deep scars on a nation trying to overcome the most trying episode in its post-Soviet history.
The furious battle for Ukraine’s future between Moscow and the West has exposed the deep divide that splits the nation of 46 million between those who see themselves as either culturally tied to Russia or a part of a broader Europe.
Those tensions exploded on February 18 when gunshots in the heart of Kiev heralded the start of nearly three days of pitch battles between riot police and protesters – some armed with nothing more than metal shield – that killed scores.
Both sides have blamed the other for starting the violence.
Acting interior minister Arsen Avakov presented his initial findings to reporters on Thursday. His conclusion was decisive and potentially devastating for the new leaders’ future relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Avakov said that deposed president Viktor Yanukovych had issued the “criminal order” to fire at the protesters while agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) helped him plan and carry out the assault.
“FSB agents took part in both the planning and execution of the so-called anti-terrorist operation,” Avakov told reporters.
But an FSB spokesman told Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency that Ukraine’s allegations were patently false.
AFP reporters in February saw some protesters who were armed with hunting rifles and pistols.
But their number was small and a predominant majority of the tens of thousands who came out the streets were either unarmed or carrying wooden or metal shields.
Europe’s worst security crisis in decades appeared to be only gaining momentum on Thursday as NATO boosted the air power of ex-Soviet and communist nations that Putin still views as part of Russia’s strategic domain.
The 28-nation bloc has said firmly it did not intend to get militarily involved in Ukraine even if the ominous Russian force now massed along its eastern frontier made a push against its neighbour after annexing the flashpoint Crimea peninsula last month.
But the Alliance has vowed to review both its immediate strategy and historic mission after conceding that a Russian strike against Ukraine – a non-NATO member with an ill-equipped and underfunded army – could be both decisive and quick.
The US Air Force this week sent 10 F-15 fighters to help NATO expand its military presence in the three tiny ex-Soviet Baltic nations – a decision whose wisdom was angrily questioned on Thursday by Russia.
“We have addressed questions to the North Atlantic alliance,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters.
“We are awaiting not simply an answer, but an answer that will be fully based on the rules that we have (previously) agreed.”
Lavrov added that up to 40,000 Russian troops that US and EU officials believe are now staging snap military exercises near Ukraine were following all agreed international norms.