By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
KYIV, UKRAINE (BosNewsLife)-- The NATO military alliance has warned Russia against making what it calls an "historic mistake" by supporting calls for secession in eastern Ukraine, that Moscow itself admitted could spill into a civil war.
In one of his strongest remarks to date, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Tuesday that Europe is facing a security crisis as Russia allegedly supports separatists in eastern Ukraine.
"Russia's illegal aggression against Ukraine is the greatest challenge to Europe's security in a generation," he told reporters. "I urge Russia to step back and not escalate the situation in east Ukraine," Rasmussen added, during a seminar on NATO reforms.
His remarks came while Ukrainian authorities said special forces recaptured the main government building from pro-Russian protesters in the eastern city of Kharkiv. Some 70 people were detained in what officials called an anti-terrorist operation.
Rebels demanding a referendum on independence from Ukraine are holding out in at least two other Ukrainian cities, Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukraine's Deputy Foreign Minister Danylo Lubkivsky accused Moscow of paying Russian residents to help fuel tensions, but warned his nation would defend itself.
"If Russia goes ahead [with military action] we will defend ourselves. Ukraine will protect itself," he stressed.
"And we will fight for our independence and statehood. In this case obviously we will ask for military support and for military action," he warned.
Russia denies wrongdoing, saying Ukraine should avoid military preparations that could spark a civil war. Turbulence in the Ukraine's eastern regions has also triggered violence in Kyiv.
Moscow also has defended the presence of as many as 40,000 Russian troops near Ukrainian borders for what it called "military exercises", after Russian forces already annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
On Tuesday, scuffles broke out in Parliament, which passed a law envisaging long jail terms for "acts against the country’s territorial integrity" effectively targeting separatists.
With Ukraine in turmoil, Russia and the West seem more divided than ever over the future of this strategic former Soviet nation.