KIEV: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has thrown a $17-billion lifeline to recession-wracked Ukraine, whose president has admitted that authorities are powerless to prevent pro-Russian militants over-running the east of the country.
The Washington-based IMF said that $3.2 billion would be available immediately, as the West tries to shore up the government in Kiev which has put its armed forces on “full combat alert” amid fears of a Russian invasion.
As tensions remained high, Ukraine staged a military drill in the government quarter in central Kiev early on Thursday, involving some 10 armored personnel carriers and soldiers armed with Kalashnikov rifles.
IMF chief Christine Lagarde said “urgent action was necessary” to prop up the Ukrainian economy, which the fund predicts will shrink by 5.0 percent this year, as the crisis takes its toll on industry and consumers.
The immediate deployment of aid may also help Kiev pay a bill to Russian state-owned gas firm Gazprom the company calculates at $3.5 billion.
Russia has threatened to turn off the taps to Ukraine—and by extension to several European countries—if the bill is not paid in full, amid the worst East-West showdown since the Cold War.
Talks were due to take place on Friday in Warsaw between the European Union, Russia and Kiev over the gas dispute.
The IMF aid comes with strings attached, include slashing fuel subsidies, reducing endemic corruption, and capping salary increases.
The package is part of a total rescue plan worth some $27 billion from Western powers for the former Soviet republic.
The deal was approved by the IMF’s 24-member board, including a representative from Russia, which the West accuses of fomenting unrest in the eastern regions of the country to destabilize its neighbor.
The lifeline came as the country’s interim president admitted the police was “helpless” after pro-Russian separatists tightened their grip on towns and cities in the east, spearheaded by armed men Kiev suspects are sent by the Kremlin.
On Wednesday, rebels stormed the town hall and police offices in the city of Gorlivka, adding to the dozen locations they control in the restive eastern regions.
Pro-Russian militants also seized the council building in the city of Alchevsk without encountering resistance.
The interior ministry said on Thursday that between 30 and 50 of its law enforcement officers were being held in the flashpoint city of Slavyansk, where militants are also detaining seven European monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Interim president Oleksandr Turchynov placed his forces on “full combat alert” in the face of what he called a “real threat” of Russia starting a war against the former Soviet republic.
He said the priority now was to stop the spread of what he called “terrorism,” seemingly admitting much of the east was already lost.
Rebels in the east have vowed to hold a “referendum” on independence on May 11, two weeks before a nationwide presidential vote that US Vice President Joe Biden has described as “maybe the most important election in Ukrainian history.”
Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who is a frontrunner for the May 25 presidential election, said Russia had already started an “undeclared war” against her country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied his forces are operating in eastern Ukraine, but Moscow has an estimated 40,000 troops parked on the border.
As tensions mount between Kiev and Moscow, Ukraine late on Wednesday arrested the Russian defense attache and told him to leave, accusing him of spying.