Harriet Salem in Donetsk -
On April 12, armed pro-Russian separatists launched a synchronized attack on strategic sites across eastern Ukraine. In a series of events reminiscent of the buildup to Russia's annexation of Crimea, multiple sites were seized including two police stations with caches of arms and ammunition. Armed local militia set up multiple roadblocks across the Donbas region. Cars with Kyiv plates are reportedly being prevented from passing.
In Slaviansk, a town just 150 kilometres from the Russian border, pro-Russian activists carrying automatic weapons seized government buildings. According to eyewitnesses 80km north, in Kramatorsk, gunmen seized the police station after a shootout with police. No causalities were reported.
On April 12 Donetsk police chief, Kostyantyn Pozhydayev, bowed to the demands of protesters and resigned. His departure has raised questions over whether the region’s police force is still subordinate to Kyiv. Speaking to Ukrainian TV channel 5 Kanal by telephone, Pozhydayev said he quit in a bid to avoid bloodshed.
Following the police chief’s desertion the Donetsk Berkut special police unit - disbanded by Ukraine’s new government for their role in the violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in Kyiv - took control of the city’s Interior Ministry.
Wearing the orange and black striped St George ribbon, a symbol of allegiance with Russia, Vitaliy Vorontsov, a commander of the Berkut told bne that, ”the police have not changed sides because they are, and always have been, with the people. The people in east want their voice to be head, they want a referendum”. He added that the government in Kyiv had “betrayed and persecuted” the Berkut and had “not attempted the to discover the truth of what had happened during the Maidan protests”. Those protests centred on Kyiv's Independence Square, which began in November after former president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sig off on a deal that would've taken Ukraine further into Europe, led to events that ended up with his ousting and a takeover of government by pro-EU forces.
Ukraine’s eastern regions have been rocked by unrest since the new government took the reins of power in February. In Odessa, Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk, a series of protests, violent clashes and building occupations have left one dead and dozens injured.
Pro-Russian protesters have already been holding some regional government buildings for a week. On April 6. demonstrators stormed buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk where they holed up behind barbed wire and barricades and have remained inside ever since.
The Donetsk protesters, who declared their own independent state known as the “Donetsk People’s Republic”, say they feel alienated by the new administration in Kyiv, which they claim has not taken into account the views of the Russian-speaking majority in the east. Despite raising the Russian flag above the building and demanding a referendum on the future status of the Donbas region, the protest leaders say they are not separatists.
On April 10, Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, visited Donetsk for an emergency meeting with local political leaders and businessmen in an attempt to address the protesters concerns. Speaking at the meeting, Yatsenyuk said that he was willing to consider ways to give the eastern regions greater autonomy from Kyiv. In a bid to placate the protestors, he also urged the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, to pass a law drafted by Donetsk protesters that would permit local referendums, which are currently not provided for under Ukrainian law.
The offer was a U-turn on the government’s previous position. Just 48 hours before, the prime minister had issued an ultimatum to the protesters to immediately begin negotiations on a peaceful withdrawal, or face being forcefully removed.
The new administration in Kyiv has come under fire for its failure to engage with citizens in the country's predominantly Russian-speaking east. Yatsenyuk’s trip to Donetsk this week was the first official visit to the troubled region since his government took power in February.
Speaking at a press conference after the prime minister’s visit to the city, the leaders of the Donetsk People's Republic remained on the defensive, denouncing the "junta government" in Kyiv as "fascists and banderas".
"How can we negotiate with those who are preparing an attack against us? There have been promises made, but we will not leave this building until we see results," said Aleksandar Bobkov, a protest leader and an MP for Yanukovych's Party of Regions, adding that the decision was no longer in the hands of the leaders but "those defending building".
The balaclava-clad, baton-wielding protesters guarding the perimeter of the fledgling republic said Yatsenyuk's compromises were too little too late. "We asked him for dialogue before and he did not answer us. Now we will decide what we want, not him. We don't want more autonomy - we want a referendum on full independence," Dima Dzuban, a member of the defence unit guarding the building, told bne.
The role of Ukraine's richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, in negotiations was also dismissed out of hand. "We don't need his support for our republic, we will have the support of Russia which is much richer and more powerful," added Dzuban.
Akhmetov, whose business interests are concentrated in the east of Ukraine personally visited the protesters on two occasions in a bid to quell tensions. Despite being a former member of the ousted president Yanukovych's Party of Regions, the tycoon has been a vocal supporter of Ukrainian unity under the new government.
The professional nature of the latest wave of attacks and the heavy-duty weapons used by the separatists has fuelled allegations that the Kremlin is orchestrating the unrest in Ukraine.
Russia has amassed 40,000 troops on Ukraine's eastern border, according to Nato countries. But Moscow is adamant that troops are conducting military excercises and not preparing for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine’s east. Similar denials were made in the buildup to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, which followed a similar pattern.
The government in Kyiv, still smarting from the loss of the Black Sea peninsula in the south, says it is preparing a special forces “operational response plan”. Minister of the Interior Arsen Avakov wrote on his Facebook page that, “the response will be very tough because there is a difference between protesters and terrorists”.
A major concern is that the east, which is significantly more politically divided than the vehemently pro-Russian Crimea, could descend into bloody local clashes.
On April 12 in Kharkiv a large pro-unity rally was held in response to the wave of armed storms. Praviy Sector, a radical rightwing group which rose to prominence for its aggressive role in the anti-Yanukovych protests, has reportedly called its members to arms and stated that the Ukrainian government could no longer be trusted to protect the country’s territorial integrity.
Unrest could be used as a pretext by Russia for invasion. In March, Russian President Vladmir Putin successfully sought permission from his parliament for permission to use military force to “protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine”.
Losing its east would leave Ukraine landlocked and without its valuable coal and steel industries, whilst Russia stands to gain a much-needed land passage to isolated Crimea.
The West has called for an immediate de-escalation of the situation. "We call on President Putin and his government to cease all efforts to destabilize Ukraine, and we caution against further military intervention," said Laura Lucas Magnuson, spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council. A further round of sanctions against Russia are reportedly being considered.
Meanwhile the Kremlin is turning the economic screw on Ukraine. On April 10 Moscow issued a letter to 18 European states warning that gas supplies to Ukraine could be cut off if Kyiv did not pay its debts. The US has accused Russia of using gas exports as a "tool of coercion" and called the threat of cutting supplies "gas blackmail." In 2009 a dispute between Russia and Ukraine over unpaid gas bills led to gas shortages in several EU countries when it turned off the taps.
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