KIEV: Politics overshadowed Easter observances in Kiev and Moscow late Saturday, with the Orthodox religious leaders in each capital trading barbs over the crisis in Ukraine — while the US reportedly prepared to send ground forces to neighbouring Poland.
Patriarch Filaret thundered to the faithful in pro-West Kiev that Russia was an “enemy” whose “attack” on Ukraine was doomed to failure because it was evil and contrary to God’s will.
In Moscow, the patriarch of the Russian Church, Kirill, in a prayer for Ukraine called on God in turn to put “an end to the designs of those who want to destroy Holy Russia”.
Kirill said that while Ukraine was “politically” separate, “spiritually and historically” it was at one with Russia, and he prayed that it benefit from authorities that are “legitimately elected”.
“We are a single people before God,” he said.
The United States, meanwhile, was putting its faith in its military to press Russia to use its influence to end the crisis by disarming pro-Kremlin fighters in Ukraine’s east.
The Washington Post reported that the US was about to deploy ground troops to Poland and maybe Baltic states to expand NATO’s presence in eastern Europe.
Poland’s defence minister, Tomasz Siemoniak, was quoted saying that Poland, a NATO member, would be taking a lead role in the operation, which comes as Russia has tens of thousands of its troops massed on Ukraine’s border.
Washington has warned Moscow that Ukraine is in a “pivotal period” as pro-Russian rebels there refuse to comply with a Geneva accord reached Thursday by Russia, the US, Ukraine and the EU to disarm and leave occupied public buildings.
US Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that “full and immediate compliance” was needed within “the next few days”.
Kiev’s pro-West government has likewise said it was suspending military operations against the separatists until after Easter, which ends Monday in Ukraine.
Washington, Kiev and many EU states see Russian President Vladimir Putin as pulling the strings in Ukraine’s insurgency, sending in special forces that he repeatedly denies are there.
The Kremlin has snapped back by stressing it has part of its army on Ukraine’s doorstep — a declaration that appeared to be a warning shot that the situation could rapidly deteriorate if Washington were to impose further sanctions.
Putin has switched stances between threatening — saying he “hoped” he would not have to invade Ukraine — to conciliatory, saying “no obstacle” existed to dragging the crisis out of the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War.
But thus far there have been no concrete moves to have the Ukrainian rebels and their suspected Russian brothers-in-arms step down.
Instead, Agence France-Presse journalists in several eastern towns saw the separatist militants remaining barricaded inside government buildings and police stations. The situation on the ground was calm — with many celebrating Easter — but tense.
The separatist leaders in the self-declared eastern Donetsk Republic say they will not vacate public sites until the “illegal” government exits state buildings in Kiev.
If no change happens soon, a spike in tensions could occur when US Vice President Joe Biden makes a scheduled visit to Kiev on Tuesday.
He will be meeting leaders who have taken charge since the February ouster of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych, after months of street protests that turned increasingly deadly.
Russia refuses to see the new Kiev government as legitimate, and the turmoil in Ukraine’s southeast could prove an obstacle to a planned May 25 presidential election.
In concessions to the Russian-speaking militants, Ukraine’s interim president and prime minister have vowed to protect the Russian language, decentralize power and hold off further military action against the separatists until at least Tuesday.
Ukraine’s military has so far proven woefully inept in its efforts to dislodge the separatists. On Friday, the army said it recovered two of six armored vehicles captured by rebels during a disastrous military operation earlier in the week.
A poll published Saturday suggested the majority of inhabitants in Ukraine’s restive east, while suspicious of Kiev’s authorities, had no desire to be subsumed into the Russian Federation.
The Russian-language Weekly Mirror newspaper said 52.2 percent of the 3,200 respondents to the survey by Kiev’s Institute for International Sociology were against coming under Russian rule while 27.5 percent were in favor.