A fighter jet flies above as Ukrainian soldiers sit on an armoured personnel carrier in Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine
That term was duly used to describe yesterday’s bloodshed in Slavyansk, a town of 100,000 people under the total control of separatists.
The fact that “provocation” is the word of the day shows how dangerous this crisis has become. More than anything else, Ukraine’s government fears an unstoppable Russian invasion. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the Ukrainian prime minister, believes that President Vladimir Putin has a “dream to restore the Soviet Union”.
But Mr Putin would need an excuse – or a “provocation” – before he could order the 40,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s eastern frontier to advance.
Last Sunday, Ukraine’s leaders risked handing him that pretext when they announced a military offensive against the separatists in Donetsk region. As it turned out, this operation swiftly became a fiasco when Ukrainian soldiers surrendered their weapons rather than confront pro-Russian civilians.
Now that a Ukrainian assault seems unlikely to provoke Mr Putin, incidents such as the one in Slavyansk pose the greatest danger. Vyacheslav Ponomaruv, the separatist mayor of the town, duly called on Russia to send “peacekeeping” troops to Donetsk to “protect” the Russian-speaking population.
If Mr Putin wants to invade, he can argue that he was merely answering the pleas of his compatriots, who were dying in mysterious gun attacks that Ukraine’s own government was, at the very least, incapable of preventing.
But the Ukrainian authorities fear that Mr Putin is in the business of manufacturing his own excuses. They see the hand of Russian intelligence behind yesterday’s incident – and indeed all the occupations in Donetsk. Western governments broadly agree: they interpret the sudden birth of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” – and the promise to hold a referendum on the region’s status by May 11 – as evidence of a Russian plan to dismember Ukraine.