Pro-Russian activists broke into official buildings in three eastern Ukrainian cities on April 6, and have barricaded themselves inside the city hall in Donetsk. The stand off raises the tension. With Russian forces massed just over the border, Ukraine's interim prime minister accused Moscow of plotting to "dismember" the country.
Reflecting the threat, Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov cancelled a trip to Lithuania. He held an emergency meeting with the heads of law enforcement agencies after protesters seized the government building in Donetsk, a state security office in Luhansk. Protesters also stormed the regional government building in Kharkiv, but are reported to have left fairly swiftly. The Ukrainian army also reported the death of an officer in Crimea overnight.
The Ukrainian interim government insists that the action is part of a plan in Moscow to destabilize eastern Ukraine. While Russia insists it has no intention to launch military operations in the south and east of Ukraine, following the annexation of Crimea last month, Kyiv claims thousands of Russian troops remain ready to pounce. Moscow has said it will protect the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a government meeting that the events are part of a plan by Moscow to orchestrate trouble in order to justify a military incursion. "There is a plan to destabilise the situation, a plan for foreign forces to cross the border and seize the territory of the country, which we will not allow," Yatsenyuk said, according to AFP.
"This scenario is written by the Russian Federation and its only purpose is to dismember Ukraine," he added. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov accused Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych - who was forced from office in February following months of street protests and is now in exile in Russia - of "ordering and paying for another wave of separatist turmoil in the country's east".
With the interim government in Kyiv pushing to move the country close to the West, Russia is keeping on the pressure to insist it has a say in the future course of its neighbour. It insists the forces that drove Yanukovych out of the country and are now in control are "illegitimate," and that many are dangerous right wing nationalists that threaten the ethnically Russian population, which makes up a large chunk of the population in the east.
The US and EU says it is making progress in efforts to agree a deal with Russia to calm the situation. However, Moscow insists Ukraine should be federalized.
Yatsenyuk on April 7 reiterated that Kyiv sees federalisation as a dangerous idea that would leave the country open to other regions seeking to follow Crimea in seccession. "Any call toward federalisation is an attempt to destroy the Ukrainian state," the PM said. The plan is merely part of a plan to turn "a part of Ukraine into a slave territory that was under the diktat of the Russian Federation," he claimed.
Tim Ash at Standard Bank calls the stand off in the eastern cities an "acutely dangerous situation". They're "apparently driven by an outfit called "Russian Sector" which seems to be a play on the Right Sector group which led protests during Euromaidan. There had been many reports last week that something was being planned this weekend in the east, and the SBU, the Ukrainian security service agency made numerous arrests last week, and captured significant weapons caches - around 300 guns."
"In Donetsk, the demonstrators - numbering only a few thousand - have reportedly called for a referendum on the future of eastern regions of Ukraine," he continues. "This seems to be a repeat of the script played out in Crimea, but support in other south and eastern cities, including Kharkiv, Luhansk, Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk and Donetsk, seems much weaker/more split than was the case in Crimea."