US Vice President Joe Biden is to begin a two-day visit to Ukraine amid Russian outrage over a deadly weekend shootout in the rebel east that shattered a fragile Easter truce.
Washington has warned Moscow that time is running out for the implementation of an accord signed between Russia, Ukraine and the European Union in Geneva last Thursday that was meant to ease tensions in the crisis-hit country.
Moscow in turn has warned that it will not tolerate further US sanctions if the deal falls apart, while stressing that it has tens of thousands of troops massed on Ukraine’s doorstep.
Biden was expected to reassure Ukrainian leaders of America’s continued support during his visit to Kiev beginning on Monday.
The US and its NATO allies have bolstered military deployments in eastern Europe. Washington and Brussels have also pledged billions to shore up Ukraine’s battered economy.
In Ukraine’s restive east, the situation appeared calm early on Monday, with pro-Kremlin separatists still in control of public buildings they have occupied for over a week.
“There was no shooting overnight,” rebel Yevgen Gorbik told AFP, while wearing camouflage and a military cap and standing at a barricade in the flashpoint town of Slavyansk.
“We will only shoot if attacked,” he added.
Gorbik summed up the bellicose posturing and political jockeying by saying: “Currently, we have a virtual president in Ukraine, a virtual army, and a virtual war.”
On Sunday, though, the bullets were real in a shootout at a roadblock near the rebel-held town of Slavyansk. It killed at least two of the separatist militants.
Pro-Moscow insurgents in Slavyansk and the Kremlin blamed the attack on Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), an ultra-nationalist group that was at the vanguard of Kiev street protests which forced the February ouster of pro-Moscow former president Viktor Yanukovych.
But Ukrainian officials and Pravy Sektor dismissed the allegation as Russian propaganda.
A spokesman in Kiev for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Michael Bociurkiw, said the organisation currently had 100 monitors in Ukraine, more than half of them in the east.
It plans to triple that number this week.
However, its teams were encountering some difficulties in travelling around the separatist east, particularly into Slavyansk, because of insecurity and insurgent-manned roadblocks, he said.
President Barack Obama last week said Russia has days to prevail upon the rebels to abide by the Geneva accord, otherwise it risks more Western sanctions on top of those already levelled at Putin’s inner circle.
Russia, which last month annexed Crimea after sending in Russian troops, retorted that Washington should not treat it like a “shameful schoolboy”.