Eastern Ukraine turmoil seen as prelude to Russian invasion

Pro-Russian activists declare 'Donetsk Republic'

The 'Novorossiya' flag in the 'Donetsk Republic'. [Reuters]

Separatist action in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russia demonstrators have occupied public buildings shows a “second stage” of special operations by Russia is under way aimed at breaking up Ukraine, its interim president said today (7 April).

Oleksander Turchinov, in a televised appeal to the people, said the action in three cities of eastern Ukraine – Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk – showed that the enemies of Ukraine were “playing out the Crimean scenario”, a reference to the pro-Russian takeover of the peninsula and its annexation by Russia.

“We will not allow this,” he said.

Warning that some separatist activists had taken up arms, Turchinov said: “Anti-terrorist measures will be carried out against those who had taken up weapons.”

The Commission said they were following the events with concern.

“Any political demands in Ukraine need to be pursued by non-violent means, it means in line with democratic standards and the rule of law”, said Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. She added that the EU strongly supported Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity and continued to call for de-escalation of the crisis and for avoidance of further destabilisation of the country.

Asked about the readiness of the EU to impose a new wave of sanctions to Russia in case of further escalation, Kocijancic said that work was ongoing and that the aim was to be ready “as soon as possible”.

Protests in eastern Ukraine, in which pro-Russian activists seized public buildings in three cities, are part of a plan to destabilise Ukraine and bring in Russian troops, Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said earlier today.

Saying Russian troops were within a 30 km zone from the Ukrainian border, Yatseniuk told a government meeting: “An anti-Ukrainian plan is being put into operation […] under which foreign troops will cross the border and seize the territory of the country”.

Pro-Russian protesters in the east seized official buildings in three cities – Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk – on Sunday night, demanding that referendums be held on whether to join Russia.

A similar move preceded a Russia-backed takeover of Crimea in March followed by annexation of the peninsula by Russia.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Monday that the main regional administration building in Kharkiv had been cleared of “separatists”.

But police said protesters occupying the state security building in Luhansk had seized weapons and highway police had closed off roads into the city.

‘Strong evidence’ Russia amassed troops

The US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said Russia had amassed tens of thousands of troops near the border with Ukraine and called on Moscow to take steps to de-escalate the situation.

“We have strong evidence that there are tens of thousands of forces on the border and again not in their normal peacetime positions or garrisons,” Daniel Baer told reporters after an emergency meeting of the 57-member OSCE held today over the issue.

The Russian delegation did not address the meeting, Baer and other diplomats said.

“What the Russian Federation should be doing is taking steps to de-escalate the crisis. They have played a principal role in the crisis and there are clear practical steps they can take to de-escalate,” including engaging with the international community and allowing inspections of troop movements, he said.

The German government is “very worried” about events at the weekend in eastern Ukraine, which included the seizure of state buildings by pro-Russian protesters, a spokesman said today.

“The latest developments in Donetsk and in Kharkiv are something which we are all very worried about in the German government,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert.

“We must urgently renew our appeal to all those in positions of responsibility to help stabilise the region and avoid such escalation,” he told a news conference.

Czech President wants NATO troops sent to Ukraine

The West should take strong action, possibly including sending NATO forces to Ukraine, if Russia tries to annex the eastern part of the country, Czech President Milos Zeman said on Sunday.

“The moment Russia decides to widen its territorial expansion to the eastern part of Ukraine, that is where the fun ends,” Zeman said in a broadcast on Czech public radio.

“There I would plead not only for the strictest EU sanctions, but even for military readiness of the North Atlantic Alliance, like, for example, NATO forces entering Ukrainian territory,” Zeman said.

Ukrainian officer killed in Crimea

A Russian soldier shot dead a Ukrainian naval officer in eastern Crimea, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said today, the second Ukrainian death reported since Russia took control of the Black Sea peninsula.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has praised the military’s largely bloodless takeover of Crimea after it voted in a referendum last month to join Russia but the death may boost the already high tension between Russia and Ukraine.

“The Russian marine killed the unarmed officer. He killed the major with two shots,” said Ukrainian navy spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov.

The defence ministry spokesman said the soldier had been preparing his belongings to leave for the Ukrainian region of Mykolaev on Wednesday when an argument broke out with Russian servicemen.

The officer, Stanislav Karachevsky, who was married and had two children, was killed with an AK-74 on the fifth floor of the dormitory where he lived, he said.

A defence ministry statement said another Ukrainian soldier had been beaten by Russian servicemen and detained, but gave few details.

The first reported death occurred in Simferopol when an unknown gunman shot and killed a Ukrainian serviceman while he was manning a tower overlooking a vehicle pool at the base.

A defence ministry statement said the attackers had been wearing Russian military uniforms and were holding the base commander in a nearby building. 

With increasingly alarming reports from Ukraine on the occupation of government buildings and growing tensions in cities in eastern Ukraine, Rebecca Harms, President of the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament, called on the OSCE mission to Ukraine to immediately and consistently carry out its duties:

"The OSCE, as the guardian of European security in Ukraine, must make its presence felt. The OSCE has until now kept a disappointingly low profile, making little difference, and has dashed the hopes that had been placed on its Ukraine mission. Much time has already been wasted on agreeing a common line, even though this mission was decided on weeks ago. Having acted too late on the conflict in Crimea, the OSCE must now show that it has the will and the means to act as a common security organization. The mission must carry out its observations where it really can make a difference. And it must now produce credible reports on events in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv and Transnistria in particular.

"The OSCE Mission should also ensure that it closely follows Russian military movements on the border with Ukraine, and that it shares this information publicly. Because at the moment, it is one word against another - Vladimir Putin speaks of the withdrawal of Russian troops but NATO has not seen any evidence of this.”


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