The UN warned that the human-rights situation in eastern Ukraine is deteriorating rapidly, but they don’t put the blame on the Ukrainian government. Most of the blame, according to a new report released this morning, belongs to the so-called “pro-Russian separatists” that have seized buildings and power locally in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The “impunity” of armed groups and their attacks on peaceful demonstrations of dissent have turned the region into an arena of humanitarian crisis:

Armed groups are increasingly undermining the rights and basic freedoms of people in eastern Ukraine, the United Nations said Friday, expressing concern at the rising number of killings, abductions, beatings and detentions of journalists, politicians and local activists.

“Primarily as a result of the actions of organized armed groups, the continuation of the rhetoric of hatred and propaganda fuels the escalation of the crisis in Ukraine, with a potential of spiraling out of control,” the United Nations said in its second report on the issue in a month, which was released simultaneously in the Ukrainian capital Kiev and in Geneva.

The actions and impunity enjoyed by armed groups “remain the major factor in causing a worsening situation for the protection of human rights,” the United Nations said.

The report, compiled by a 34-strong team of human rights monitors in the capital, Kiev, and four other cities, names only the “Slovyansk self-defense unit” in the eastern city of Donetsk but reports several instances of attacks by other pro-Russian activists on rallies in support of Ukrainian unity and against lawlessness. “In most cases, local police did nothing to prevent violence, while in some cases it openly cooperated with the attackers,” the report states.

The United Nations expressed particular concern about increasing abductions and unlawful detentions in eastern Ukraine that appeared to be targeting journalists and to be controlled by the Slovyansk unit, reporting that by May 5 it was aware of 17 unlawful detentions in the Donetsk region alone.

This puts an altogether different light on the referenda held this past weekend in the region. Russia in particular claimed legitimacy for the results, which supposedly showed that 9 in 10 Ukrainians in the area wanted independence from the government in Kyiv. This report shows that the people whose support Russia claims have been oppressed and intimidated into acquiescence — or worse.

Russia laughably complained about the legitimacy of the UN’s investigation:

“The complete lack of objectivity, blatant discrepancies and double standards leave no doubts that (the report’s) authors were performing a political put-up job aimed at clearing the name of the self-declared authorities in Kiev,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Discrepancies and double standards certainly sounds applicable to the referenda, too — even in Crimea, which Russia used as an ex post facto validation for its seizure of the peninsula. AFP has a report on Donetsk which gives a decently objective view of the situation there:

The US and Europe are looking at expanding the sanctions if Russia doesn’t back down in eastern Ukraine before the May 25th elections:

Although Western nations have threatened additional sanctions against Russia, Hague said they were not willing to give an “exact definition” of what would provoke them or what form the measures would take.

“If we set a red line, Russia knows that it can go up to that red line,” he said at a news conference. “Efforts to disrupt the election may take many different forms. That’s not something we can define in advance,” but it will be “what determines the attitude of the whole Western world” toward Russia.

In separate comments, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said, “If Russia or its proxies disrupt the election, the United States and those countries represented here today in the European Union will impose sectoral economic sanctions as a result.”

Asked whether the West would be watching for direct Russian interference or hold Moscow accountable for the actions of the pro-Russian separatists, Kerry said a judgment would be made based on “attitude and behavior.”

“I’m not going to start laying out the whole series of definitions except to say to you that it is clear what proxies mean,” he said.

A senior State Department official said earlier that “we have been pretty clear in being able to pinpoint and expose . . . when Moscow’s hand has been behind past disruptions.” The official added, “We’ve seen it in the past — we’ve seen personnel, we’ve seen money, we’ve seen weapons, we’ve seen coordination, we’ve seen actual actors. So all of those things are possible again in this context.”

The “red line” phrase is an albatross anyway, especially in regard to Russia. It’s better for the West to be ambiguous on this point after the embarrassing overstep on Syria. The West should already have applied sectoral sanctions long before this — long before Crimea’s annexation, but certainly in its immediate aftermath. Had the West acted with strength at that time, Russia may not have been so bold in eastern Ukraine, and the human-rights crisis may have been avoided.

The problem with ambiguity, though, is that it makes it too easy for the West to claim that the threshold for action wasn’t met, even if Russia is still interfering in the Ukrainian election. They need to discredit the May 25th vote in order to keep momentum on the side of their provocateurs in Luhansk and Donetsk. Even this tough talk leaves plenty of room for escape hatches for Western nations without the stomach for a real economic battle.