A civil war may be brewing in Ukraine analysts say, after tensions heightened between Kiev and Moscow in the wake of increasingly violent clashes between pro-Russian protestors and Ukrainian forces.
Pro-Russian separatists, who have been calling for a referendum vote to secede from Ukraine for over a week, hoisted the Russian flag on Ukrainian army armored vehicles Wednesday.
The move mocks the pro-Western Ukrainian government's attempt to reassert control on the region, less than 24 hours before crucial talks will be held in Geneva to determine the country's future.
On Sunday, the Ukrainian government launched an "anti-terrorism" operation in eastern Ukraine, following violent pro-Russian protests and the seizure of government buildings. The move saw one Ukrainian official killed and five injured, as well as untold casualties on the protestors' side.
The clash only heightened tensions in the region, with Moscow now calling the Ukrainian government "an illegitimate gang of fascists" and declaring intent to invade Ukraine militarily, according to Reuters. Several more government buildings have been seized in the wake of the killing.
On Wednesday, Kiev confirmed that six armored vehicles in eastern Ukraine had been manned by protestors, and proved via photo evidence that they were tanks originally intended to retake control of the town of Kramatorsk during Sunday's operation.
"A column was blocked by a crowd of local people in Kramatorsk with members of a Russian diversionary-terrorist group among them," it said. "As a result, extremists seized the equipment."
A spokesman for the separatists said otherwise, however, and stated to Reuters that the tanks seen Wednesday had been willingly given to them by soldiers who deserted the campaign.
Another operation to retake the region failed Tuesday, after several Ukrainian army soldiers willingly deserted the takeover, saying they are unwilling to suppress their own people.
In the meantime, Kiev has sent paratroops to retake towns held by the separatists, who - weary of a referendum vote that has not been set yet - have already declared the Donbass region an independent "People's Republic."
Eastern Ukraine has been the seat of pro-Russian tensions since earlier this month, when neighboring Crimea held a controversial referendum vote and was annexed by Moscow after a de facto military invasion of the region.
The annexation led to a bold call from Ukraine's now-deposed President, Viktor Yanukovych, to hold referendums nationwide - and let other provinces decide their national allegiances to either Russia or Ukraine.
Analysts suspect the move may have escalated tensions in eastern Ukraine and could have contributed to the current crisis there.
Meanwhile, increasingly hostile rhetoric between Moscow and Kiev has escalated the crisis on the diplomatic front, and raised concerns that Thursday's talks between the two countries' foreign ministers will be fruitless in ending the conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a telephone call late on Tuesday that Kiev had "embarked on an anti-constitutional course" by using the army.
"The sharp escalation of the conflict puts the country, in effect, on the brink of civil war," the Kremlin quoted him as saying.
Ukraine, for its part, continues to insist that the entire sequence of events, which began with the de facto military invasion and subsequent referendum vote in Crimea, was purposely orchestrated by Moscow.
The Kyiv Post reports Wednesday that another report along those lines has surfaced, this time from Ukraine's Security Service of Ukraine's (SBU) counter-intelligence department. That report claims that Russia is purposely allowing unrest to continue in eastern Ukraine, taking advantage of the crisis to complete yet another de facto military invasion.