KRAMATORSK/SLAVIANSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – Separatists flew the Russian flag on armored vehicles taken from the Ukrainian army on Wednesday, humiliating a Kiev government operation to recapture eastern towns controlled by pro-Moscow partisans.
Six armored personnel carriers were driven into the rebel-held town of Slaviansk to waves and shouts of “Russia! Russia!”. It was not immediately clear whether they had been captured by rebels or handed over to them by Ukrainian deserters.
Another 15 armored troop carriers full of paratroops were surrounded and halted by a pro-Russian crowd at a town near an airbase. They were allowed to retreat only after the soldiers had handed over the firing pins from their rifles to a rebel commander.
The military setback leaves Kiev looking weak on the eve of a peace conference on Thursday, when its foreign minister will meet his Russian, U.S. and European Union counterparts in Geneva.
Moscow has responded to the overthrow of Moscow-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in February by declaring the interim Kiev government an illegitimate gang of fascists. It has also announced its right to intervene militarily across the former Soviet Union to protect Russian speakers, a new doctrine that has overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy.
The EU took a step towards imposing tougher economic sanctions on Russia by informing its member states of the likely impact of proposed measures on each of them. Countries have a week to respond before the European Commission starts drawing up plans for sanctions on energy, finance and trade.
To keep the sensitive material from leaking, each of the 28 member states was told only of the expected risks its own economy would face. The information was handed to each EU ambassador in a sealed brown envelope.
Russia seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last month, and its armed supporters have now taken control over swathes of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.