Ukraine crisis: Country is close to civil war, warns Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the Ukrainian government launched a round of peace talks in Kiev, which excluded pro-Russian separatists

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly warned on Wednesday that Ukraine is "as close to a civil war as you can get", as heightened tensions in the region show little sign of easing.

Mr Lavrov told Bloomberg that Russia has ties with Ukraine that exceed geography.

“Kiev is the mother of the Russian cities,” he said, adding: “Russian language, Russian religion, orthodox Christianity, was born in the territory of Ukraine as it stands now.”

“We do not consider ourselves foreigners,” he told reporters.

His comments come after Ukraine’s government commenced talks aimed at decentralising power, but not which did not involve the pro-Russia rebels who declared independence from Kiev in two eastern regions this week.

To start Wednesday’s meeting, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov told attendees that authorities were “ready for a dialogue”, but not one involving armed pro-Russia militants who have seized buildings and fought government troops across eastern Ukraine.

Read more: A country is born in Donetsk... but not for long

Spiritual leaders, lawmakers, government figures and regional officials listened to his speech, as part of a peace plan crafted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a security group that also includes Russia and the United States.

“Let's have a dialogue, let's discuss specific proposals,” Turchynov said.

“But those armed people who are trying to wage a war on their own country, those who are with arms in their hands trying to dictate their will, or rather the will of another country, we will use legal procedures against them and they will face justice,” he said, a day after pro-Russian separatists allegedly killed seven Ukrainian soldiers and wounded seven others in an ambush near Kramatorsk.

On Wednesday, around 15 men arrived at a military base in Donetsk armed with automatic weapons, and demanded that the soldiers pledge allegiance to the self-proclaimed rebel Donetsk People's Republic, said Viktoria Kushnir, a spokeswoman for Ukraine's National Guard.

Insurgents in the east, bolstered by Sunday’s apparently landslide pro-independence referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk, shrugged off the round-table talks as meaningless.

"We haven't received any offers to join a round table and dialogue," said Denis Pushilin, an insurgent leader in Donetsk.

"If the authorities in Kiev want a dialogue, they must come here. If we go to Kiev, they will arrest us," he said.

Asked if they would be willing to take part in discussions if the round table was held in the east, Pushilin told reporters that “talks with Kiev authorities could only be about one thing: the recognition of the Donetsk People's Republic.”

Meanwhile, Oleksandr Efremov, leader of the Party of Regions in the Ukrainian parliament, the support base of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, said he hoped that the discussions will be held in the east “where things are perceived in a different way.”

He also called on the government to withdraw its troops from the Donetsk region and called on Ukrainian authorities to understand that people are genuinely suspicious of the new government that came to power after Yanukovych fled to Russia in February.

President Oleksandr Turchynov (C) speaking during the opening of round-table talks on Ukraine's crisis (AFP) President Oleksandr Turchynov (C) speaking during the opening of round-table talks on Ukraine's crisis (AFP)
The Ukrainian government, however, has said it will not stop its "anti-terrorist campaign" in eastern cities, since declared ‘People’s Republics’. 

The OSCE has given itself the task of ending fighting in the region, and calls on all sides to refrain from violence - offering an amnesty for those involved in the unrest and urges talks on decentralization and the status of the Russian language.

While European officials and Russia back the OSCE road map, the United States views its prospects for success with skepticism.

Sawsan Chebli, a spokeswoman for German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Ukraine's acceptance of the round-table format was a step in the right direction, whether the pro-Russia separatists were invited or not.

The OSCE itself would not comment on the talks.

Prior to the negotiations, Ukraine and the West accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, where insurgents declared independence for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Defense Minister Mykhailo Koval claimed that the insurgents were being aided by Russian servicemen, charges Russia has vehemently denied.

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