There was a lot of speculation from intelligence analysts last week that Russian forces were poised to roll across the border into Ukraine at any moment. Others speculated that Russian president Vladimir Putin would wait until some incidents occurred to justify intervention, in the name of protecting ethnic Russians living in Ukrainian cities. It was thought that Putin, an old KGB hand, would not be above quietly engineering such unrest.
That’s exactly what the Ukrainian government is now accusing Russia of doing, as pro-Russian mobs – in at least one case armed with guns – seized control of government buildings in three eastern Ukrainian cities. Government forces ultimately regained control of one city, but buildings in the other two remain occupied. Sky News reports Ukrainian Prime Minister Aresniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of trying to “dismember” his country:
Thousands of irate pro-Russian activists broke through police lines on Sunday and occupied the administration buildings in the big industrial cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk as well as the headquarters of the regional security service in Lugansk.
AFP reporters saw pro-Russian activists leave the Kharkiv government headquarters on Monday morning even while a few hundred of their supporters continued to rally outside.
But the situation in the other two cities remained tense amid unconfirmed reports that pro-Russians had also stormed the security building in Donetsk.
Yatsenyuk said Russia had helped orchestrate the occupations in order to find an excuse for a full-on invasion that would punish Ukraine for February’s ousting of its Moscow-backed president and the decision to seek a political and economic alliance with the West.
‘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 told a government meeting.
‘This scenario is written by the Russian Federation and its only purpose is to dismember Ukraine.’
That’s not a wild accusation, since Moscow is indeed seeking to give eastern Ukrainian cities with heavy Russian populations greater autonomy from the government in Kiev, which Russia portrays as a gang of ultra-nationalist fascists who can’t wait to get busy oppressing citizens of Russian heritage. So far, there hasn’t been much in the way of actual oppression, but maybe the Russians are hoping a few more violent demonstrations will provoke the Ukrainians into doing something unfortunate.
For example, throwing firecrackers at the police might just spook one of them into responding with bullets:
In the day’s most violent protest nearly 100 activists broke away from a crowd of 2000 rallying in Donetsk to storm and occupy the government seat.
They threw firecrackers at police and ripped away several of their shields before raising the Russian flag above the 11-story building.
Some in the bustling city of one million chanted ‘Give us a referendum’ and ‘NATO go home’.
Police in the eastern city of Lugansk were forced to fire tear gas at a few hundred protesters who broke into the local security service building to try to win the release of 15 pro-Russian activists arrested earlier in the week.
If Russia is pursuing a “softer” approach to realizing its objectives in Ukraine, they’ll keep their troops parked ominously on the border while unrest rips through these eastern cities, turning up the pressure on the Ukrainian government to drive some hard bargains. Perhaps the Ukrainians will ultimately conclude their eastern territory is more trouble than it’s worth, and allow them to secede via referendum, as Crimea did. In fact, according to the New York Times, the protesters in Donetsk were calling for both Russian troops and an independence referendum over the weekend, with one speaker addressing the crowd in Russian to “proclaim the creation of the sovereign state of the People’s Republic of Donetsk.”
The Times also reports that a Ukrainian major was shot and killed in his dormitory after a “confrontation with Russian troops”:
[Vladislav] Seleznev, the Defense Ministry spokesman, said that the Ukrainian soldier had been collecting his belongings in preparation to leave Crimea when an argument broke out with Russian service members, Reuters reported Monday.
Mr. Seleznev said that the altercation involved several Ukrainian and Russian soldiers and that there were no other injuries. He said a Russian soldier armed with an automatic weapon entered the dormitory and shot Major Karchevskiy, who was unarmed.
Ukraine???s provisional government in Kiev has ordered its forces to withdraw from Crimea, but an unknown number of military personnel remain on the peninsula as part of the transition, in which some military equipment is being returned to mainland Ukraine.
Mr. Seleznev said that a second Ukrainian officer, Capt. Artem Yarmolenko, was detained by Russian forces for questioning and possibly taken to Sevastopol, where the Russian military has its headquarters in Crimea.
If Putin wants to play rough, his parliament has already given him authority to use military force in defense of ethnic Russians in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government says it will not allow Russian troops to cross its border.