DONETSK, Ukraine — International negotiators rushed to eastern Ukraine on Saturday to seek the release of European military monitors who were captured Friday and promptly branded “spies” by the pro-Russia militia that seized them.
The detention of the monitors instantly raised the stakes in an already fraught drama pitting the Ukrainian government against motley bands of separatists who have overtaken city halls across the country’s eastern half.
Although the standoff in Ukraine has for months been a proxy fight between Russia and the West, the imprisonment in a makeshift separatist jail of military officers from NATO countries threatens to draw the West more directly into the conflict.
Russia said Saturday that it would do all it could to win the release of the detained men, who include a total of eight military monitors from Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Denmark and Sweden, as well as five Ukrainian military escorts. But as of Saturday night, leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic in the city of Slovyansk remained adamant that they had no intention of freeing the officers, accusing them of espionage. Ukrainian officials said they feared that the men would be used as human shields.
The standoff raised fresh questions about the ability of any government — whether Ukrainian or Russian — to control events in a region where security is perilous and where shadowy militias hold growing sway.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is monitoring events in Ukraine and trying to broker local peace deals, said it would keep its monitors out of Slovyansk until further notice and that it was carefully watching conditions in other cities.
“It’s a very fluid security situation in a lot of these areas,” said Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE monitoring mission here. “We’re definitely taking more precautions.”
Bociurkiw said that OSCE monitors visited Slovyansk last week, and that they had met with the pro-Russian activists who took over the city’s government buildings this month. “It was tense, but there was an understanding achieved,” Bociurkiw said.
The detention of the monitors Friday, Bociurkiw said, was “entirely unexpected.”
The detained men are military officers who also were here under OSCE auspices, but under a separate mission from the civilian observers.
OSCE dispatched a team to eastern Ukraine on Saturday and was leading negotiations aimed at securing the monitors’ release, according to officials from OSCE and from Germany, which led the mission.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to discuss the situation Saturday, according to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement. Steinmeier’s spokeswoman declined to discuss the call.
Lavrov also spoke Saturday with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Kerry urged Lavrov to help free the monitors, while Lavrov called on Kerry to force Kiev to halt its military operations against anti-government forces in southeastern Ukraine.
The standoff comes at a critical time in Western decision-making over how hard to punish Russia for its meddling in Ukraine. In a statement released Saturday morning, the Group of Seven announced that it would impose new sanctions against Moscow, and officials indicated that they could come as early as Monday.
Germany, which has extensive economic ties to Russia, has led the call in the West for restraint in dealings with Moscow. But the detention of the officers, including four Germans, in Slovyansk could alter that balance.
It was not clear why the monitors, who were in military uniform but unarmed, decided to try to enter Slovyansk on Friday. The city, which has been known for weeks as a hotbed of separatist sentiment, was especially tense after a deadly Ukrainian military assault on several separatist checkpoints just a day earlier.
OSCE officials said they were not aware of the reason for the visit, and Germany declined to comment.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Saturday that it was “taking all measures possible to resolve the situation.” But it added that the Ukrainian authorities “should have cleared the inspectors’ presence, activity and security in the regions . . . where a military operation has been launched against the people of their own country.”
The self-appointed “people’s mayor” of Slovyansk, Vyacheslav Ponomariov, told Russian news media that his men had detained the monitors on suspicion of spying, and that they had subsequently confiscated military maps that he said prove the accusation. The monitors were traveling on a bus that had been stopped at a checkpoint on the way into the city.
In an appearance on Russian television, Ponomariov showed off the officers’ military ID tags, badges and medals. “They were soldiers on our territory without our permission,” he said. “Of course they are prisoners.”
He suggested that the men could be exchanged for pro-
Russia activists being held by Ukraine.
A spokeswoman for Ponomariov, Stella Khorosheva, said the detainees were being treated well.
“We give them food and water,” said Khorosheva, who expressed frustration that the monitors were receiving so much attention from the Ukrainian news media “when they ignore those taken captive by illegal junta in Kiev.”
The pro-Russia forces argue that the Ukrainian government, which came to power in February after massive street protests that ousted the president, is illegitimate. They have called for a referendum early next month that would allow eastern Ukraine substantial autonomy from Kiev.
Ukrainian authorities and Western governments have accused Russia of covertly instigating the unrest in eastern Ukraine to destabilize the country, and possibly to justify an invasion. Tens of thousands of Russian troops are massed on the Ukrainian border, and they have engaged in increasingly aggressive maneuvers in recent days.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told reporters Saturday that Russian military aircraft “crossed and violated” Ukrainian airspace seven times overnight and that the incursions were designed “to provoke Ukraine to start a war.”
Russia has said it is simply conducting drills and has no intention of invading Ukraine, but there were signs along the border with Russia on Saturday that Ukraine was in a state of heightened alert. Military helicopters passed overhead, and at the lonely frontier crossing at Marynivka, the Ukrainian military erected a dozen large concrete anti-tank blocks.
Vehicles continued to move between the countries, though the traffic was light.
At a nearby Ukrainian Border Guard garrison, troops defended the locked entrance and scanned the rutted two-lane farm road with binoculars.
“But nobody has seen any Russians,” said the maintenance manager at a hilltop war memorial called Savur-Mohyla, which commemorates the Red Army’s battle against German forces in 1943.
The worker, who was hoeing weeds and said he had lived in a nearby village all of his life, declined to give his name because he works for the state.
He said that in his village, most residents would rather be part of Russia, because they think their wages and pensions would improve. Polls show that most Ukrainians — even those in the heavily Russian-speaking east — disagree and would rather stay in Ukraine. The surveys also show strong resistance to the idea of a Russian invasion.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The worker pointed at the country road that passed through the farms and orchards from Russia, just a few miles away.
“A Russian column traveling 30 mph with some helicopter support could be in Slovyansk in three hours,” he said. “There's really no Ukraine army here to stop them if they want to come.”
Booth reported from Marynivka. Alex Ryabchyn in Marynivka and Michael Birnbaum in Moscow contributed to this report.