Ukrainian President Deploys Commandos to Quell Pro-Russian Protesters

Paul D. Shinkman

The interim leader of Ukraine's new government on Tuesday followed through on weekend threats to crack down against pro-Russian protesters who have seized government buildings along the eastern portion of the country near the Russian border.

Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said the "anti-terrorist operation" began Tuesday in the northern sections of the Donetsk region, roughly 60 miles from the Russian border.

"It will be conducted step by step, responsibly, carefully," he said to the Ukrainian parliament Tuesday morning, according to state news service Ukrinform. The main purpose of the actions is to stop terror and crime, to protect Ukrainians and to stop attempts to tear the country apart.

Turchynov warned he would deploy Ukrainian special operations troops to root out the activists who have barricaded themselves inside government buildings in at least 10 separate towns near the border. The new Ukrainian government and its Western supporters have claimed that the Russian government is directly propping up the militants.

[READ: Ukraine Pleads for U.N. Help With Protesters]

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday the evidence "is compelling" that Russia is supporting these actions.

"The Ukrainian government has arrested a number of Russian intelligence agents in Ukraine, many of them armed," he told reporters, in response to a question about Russia's involvement. "There's evidence that protesters have been paid to take the actions that they've taken. And, as you note, you saw this coordinated effort in a number of cities across eastern Ukraine all at once that sure didn't look organic to observers from the outside."

Russia is trying to pursue a course aimed at destabilizing Ukraine, he said. "That is very concerning to the United States and to our partners and allies."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the Ukrainian operation unacceptable, according to the state-run RIA Novosti.

"We categorically condemn and demand the cease of so-called initiatives to send security forces and army divisions that are in breach of the norms of Ukrainian and international law to quash protests," he said from China, where he met with his counterpart, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Lavrov thanked the Chinese government for what he says is an unbiased stance on the standoff in Ukraine.

Chinese leaders have said the crisis in Ukraine must be solved by dialogue, not confrontation.

Ukraine's governance remains fragile, after monthslong anti-corruption protests that began in late 2013 and eventually ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Before fleeing to Russia, where he remains, Yanukovych signed a deal promising reforms that would by the end of 2014 reinstate the political system that existed prior to the 2004 Orange Revolution.

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The Obama administration and other Western powers insist Russian agents are operating on Ukraine's sovereign territory, and are organizing the protests or masquerading as protesters. Leaders on both sides have noted that the situation might descend into all-out civil war.

"Bloodshed in Ukraine again. The country is on the verge of civil war. That is sad," wrote Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in a post on this Facebook page early Tuesday. Medvedev served as the Russian president between Vladimir Putin's terms. He called the situation in Ukraine a tragedy, caused by the local government's inability to preserve law and order in east Ukraine.

Acting President Turchynov said civil war is not an option in Ukraine. He vowed to control proposals by some members of parliament to give weapons to civilians in some eastern towns to defend themselves.

"The government gives weapons only to those who come to work in the police, or who is going to serve with the National Guard or armed forces," he told the Ukrainian parliament. "When we open free access to weapons, it would also mean free access to the separatists, and it means we push Ukraine into the abyss of civil war."

"There will be no civil war in Ukraine," he said. "End of story."