Pro-Russia separatists occupying government buildings in eastern Ukraine defied a deadline from Kiev to surrender as Moscow promised to “protect” people in the region from violence.
A Russian flag continued to fly over the police headquarters in the city of Slavyansk at 9am (7am BST), the time Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine president, had given gunmen to lay down their weapons.
Masked gunmen continued to man barricades in front of the building, agencies reported.
On Sunday, Mr Turchynov said in a televised address that Kiev was “not going to allow Russia to repeat the Crimean scenario in Ukraine’s east,” referring to Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula last month. He said a “large-scale antiterrorist operation” would be launched to re-establish control of the contested cities.
But Moscow, which has massed tens of thousands of soldiers near the border with eastern Ukraine, showed no sign of scaling back its threat of open intervention in its neighbour.
“Russia is aware of its responsibility for the lives of fellow citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take people under protection,” the foreign ministry said in a statement that comes closest to the language Moscow used to justify its invasion of Crimea.
Moscow’s pledge came as Russia and the US traded fierce accusations at an emergency UN Security Council session on eastern Ukraine called by Russia.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, accused Russia of orchestrating the recent protests and seizures of buildings in eastern Ukraine. “This is the saddest kind of instability – it is completely man-made,” she said. “This ‘instability’ was written and choreographed in and by Russia.”
The escalating tension weighed on European financial markets, which were already under pressure after heavy losses on the Nasdaq on Friday. The FTSE Eurofirst 300 opened 0.3 per cent down on Monday.
The Russian foreign ministry claimed that peaceful demonstrators, who had taken to the streets to express their attitude towards the “destructive position of people who call themselves the Ukrainian authorities”, had been attacked by “rightwing groups”, leaving one dead and many injured.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, earlier said that Kiev was “demonstrating its inability to take responsibility for the fate of the country” and warned that the use of force against Russian speakers “would undermine the potential for co-operation”, including talks due to be held on Thursday between Russia, Ukraine, the US and the EU.
President Vladimir Putin moved swiftly to annex Crimea, in the first land grab in Europe since the second world war, and EU and US worries remain over Moscow’s intentions elsewhere in Ukraine
At the UN, Ms Power said of events in eastern Ukraine: “These are not protests, they are military operations.”
Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN, denied that Moscow was involved in organising the protests. “It is the west that will determine the opportunity to avoid civil war in Ukraine,” he said. “Some people, including in this chamber, do not want to see the real reasons for what is happening in Ukraine and are constantly seeing the hand of Moscow in what is going on.”
Over the weekend, armed pro-Russian men had seized government buildings in several towns across eastern Ukraine, the part of the country where the majority speaks Russian and is often supportive of Moscow.