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KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine edged closer to a new round of hostilities Wednesday after the government in Kiev said it's resuming operations to oust militants from eastern cities and Russia pledged to defend its citizens in the neighboring country.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country is prepared to retaliate if its "legitimate interests" are "attacked directly," drawing a parallel with its actions during a 2008 war over the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia. A military operation is under way after its suspension for the Easter holiday, with security agencies seeking to eliminate all militias operating in Kramatorsk, Slovyansk and other cities, Ukraine's First Deputy Prime Minister Vitali Yarema told reporters in Kiev Wednesday.
"Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation," Lavrov said in an interview Wednesday with the state-run television broadcaster RT. "If we are attacked, we would certainly respond."
With international efforts to defuse the crisis grinding to a halt, the United States said it will send 600 troops for exercises in four countries bordering Russia, days after NATO bolstered the defense of frontline member states in eastern Europe. The opposing sides traded blame over the unrest as Ukraine stepped up accusations of Russian involvement in the killing of a politician and Russia pointed to signs of the U.S. meddling in the situation.
"We have seen signs that the Geneva agreement is being implemented, at least by the Ukrainians," Michael Mann, spokesman for the European Union's foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, told reporters in Brussels Wednesday. "We call on all parties to the joint statement on Ukraine to make sure that all terms are fully implemented, in particular for Russia to use its leverage to ensure an immediate end to what is going on in eastern Ukraine."
A week after NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance will upgrade contingency plans, hold more military drills in eastern Europe and step up air and naval policing on its flanks, the U.S. announced plans to send airborne infantry to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Company-sized units of 150 troops each from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team based in Vicenza, Italy, will arrive this week in the four nations — all members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — for a month of training, Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday.
The soldiers may stay in the region until year-end, Latvian Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma said in an interview with Latvian Independent Television.
"This is a tangible representation of our commitment to security obligations in Europe and to the alliance" and comes in response to the crisis in Ukraine, Kirby said Tuesday.
A U.S. warship, the USS Taylor, planned to enter the Black Sea yesterday, to "promote peace and stability in the region," according to the U.S. Sixth Fleet. The French frigate Dupleix will arrive in the area April 26-27, Russia's state-run news agency Itar-Tass reported, citing an unidentified diplomat.
Russia has continued previously unscheduled military drills with exercises of its naval forces in the Caspian Sea that started today, according to the southern military district's press service.
The government in Kiev accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin of stirring unrest and exploiting the situation to possibly lay the groundwork for an invasion. The separatists who took over buildings in eastern Ukrainian cities have said they're not bound by the Geneva agreement.
Putin has parliamentary approval to deploy troops in Ukraine to protect Russian speakers and those of Russian heritage.