Tensions rose in Ukraine’s eastern regions as gunmen seized two police stations and attacked three others, prompting the government in Kiev to accuse Russia of “external aggression” to destabilize the country.
Protesters took over the regional police station in Donetsk yesterday, sparking the local police chief’s resignation. About 20 gunmen in camouflage gear blocked off the police and security service headquarters in nearby Slovyansk, seizing weapons, the Interior Ministry said.
Police stations in Krasnyi Liman and Kramatorsk came under assault as police exchanged fire with unidentified attackers, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said. Police also prevented unknown people from seizing a police department in Horlivka as Ukraine sent special-forces troops to contain the situation, he said.
In an echo of demonstrations in Crimea that preceded Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, spreading pro-Russia protests have rattled Ukraine’s industrial heartland. The Ukrainian government warned that the disturbances threaten to derail four-party talks scheduled for this week. Government buildings were recently seized in the cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk, near the border across which NATO said about 40,000 Russian troops are massing in combat readiness.
“The Ukrainian government treats today’s events as evidence of external aggression from Russia,” Avakov wrote on his Facebook account yesterday. “For armed terrorists, there will be zero tolerance.”
Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine’s acting president and parliamentary speaker, called an emergency meeting of the country’s National Defense and Security Council last night in Kiev to discuss the deteriorating situation in the east. The session lasted through midnight.
“Members discussed anti-terrorist measures and issues related to stabilizing the situation on Ukraine’s east,” according to a statement, released on the parliament’s website.
U.S. and allied intelligence reports indicate that some of yesterday’s demonstrators infiltrated cities in eastern and southern Ukraine during the last month or more as part of a Russian plan to divide Ukraine into federated regions, some of which may hold referendums to rejoin Russia, as Crimea did, the officials said.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the reports, which they stressed aren’t conclusive, two officials said that the assessment by U.S. and NATO intelligence analysts continues to be that Russian President Vladimir Putin prefers using a campaign of provocation, propaganda, bribery and subversion -- rather than an outright invasion by Russian troops -- to retake some of parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.
If such a campaign is successful, one of the officials said, the remainder of Ukraine would be left landlocked, deprived of its industrial belt, dependent on Russia for energy and unable to pursue closer ties with western Europe.
“We are very concerned by the concerted campaign we see underway” in eastern Ukraine “by pro-Russian separatists, apparently with support from Russia, who are inciting violence and sabotage and seeking to undermine and destabilize the Ukrainian state,” U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said in response to a request for comment.
“We saw similar so-called protest activities in Crimea before Russia’s purported annexation,” Magnuson’s statement said. “We call on President Putin and his government to cease all efforts to destabilize Ukraine, and we caution against further military intervention.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a call yesterday to his Russian counterpart, expressed strong concern that the attacks in eastern Ukraine were orchestrated and similar to the violence that served as a prelude to the Crimean annexation, according to an e-mailed statement from a U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be named under department policy.
Kerry stressed to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia will face additional consequences if it doesn’t de-escalate the tensions in Ukraine’s eastern areas, according to the statement.
The U.S and other countries, as part of their response to the Crimea annexation, over the last month have enacted economic sanctions targeting Russian officials and businessmen -- including Putin allies -- and a bank.
Canada widened its sanctions yesterday to cover a Crimean oil and gas company and two Crimean officials it said “bear responsibility for the crisis.” In a statement, the Canadian government also said it would “continue to work with allies and like-minded countries to apply pressure to Russia until it de-escalates the situation in Ukraine.”
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Ukraine April 22 to “discuss the latest developments in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists, apparently with the support of Moscow, continue an orchestrated campaign of incitement and sabotage to destabilize the Ukrainian state,” his office said in an e-mailed statement.
In Slovyansk yesterday, local social media described how camouflaged gunmen with automatic weapons, resembling those in unmarked uniforms in Crimea, barricaded the road to prevent police buses from entering the city, according to a report by the Interfax news service.
In Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, about 1,000 pro-Kremlin and pro-government protesters rallied at separate downtown squares yesterday. No clashes were reported. Police detained 70 people traveling by bus to Kharkiv after finding them armed with knives, clubs and Molotov cocktails, the Interior Ministry said on its website.
Putin has been ratcheting up pressure on Ukraine, threatening to halt gas shipments to the country. A stoppage may also hurt supplies to the rest of Europe, he said.
The European Union plans to help Ukraine pay its gas bill and there’s “no reason to panic” over shipments of the fuel, European Union Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said in an interview with the Austrian radio station ORF. Biden will also “consult on the latest steps to enhance Ukraine’s short- and long-term energy security.”
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on April 11 sought to ease tensions among Russian speakers in the country’s east who are demanding greater autonomy. The government in Kiev wants to increase the powers of regions and to resolve the crisis that’s gripping the country as soon as possible, Yatsenyuk told reporters.
During a march through Donetsk yesterday, people celebrated officers of the riot police unit Berkut, which fought protesters during the deadly clashes in Kiev in February that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, addressing reporters alongside Yatsenyuk yesterday, urged the holding of a referendum on decentralization alongside the Ukraine presidential election scheduled for May 25.
While only 8 percent of Ukrainians nationwide want their region to secede, in Donetsk province the figure is 18 percent, according to an opinion poll by the Kiev-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation. The creation of an independent state in southern and eastern Ukraine is backed by 11 percent, according to the March 16-30 survey conducted among 2,010 respondents in 24 Ukrainian regions including Crimea and the capital, Kiev.
Preparations for this week’s four-party talks in Geneva are underway, with no agreement on the schedule or format of the discussions, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in statement on the ministry’s website.
Kerry and Lavrov, as well as Ukrainian and EU officlials, are among the diplomats planning to meet on April 17.