Ukraine readies troops and warns of Russian invasion

Eastern rebels take more official buildings and vow to boycott May 25th election

A  pro-Russian protester  inside a regional government building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Reuters/Marko Djurica

A pro-Russian protester inside a regional government building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Reuters/Marko Djurica

Thu, May 1, 2014, 01:00

Ukraine’s interim president has put troops on full combat alert for a possible Russian invasion and ordered his security services to thwart Moscow’s alleged plans to wreck this month’s elections.

Oleksandr Turchinov issued his instructions yesterday, as anti-government rebels seized official buildings in more towns across eastern Ukraine and vowed to boycott a May 25th presidential vote that Kiev hopes will stabilise the country and strengthen pro-EU authorities Russia refuses to recognise.

“I once again return to the real danger of the Russian Federation beginning a land war against Ukraine,” he told a me- eting of regional governors in Kiev. “Our armed forces have been put on full combat alert.”

Bemoaning the failure of police across eastern Ukraine to prevent militants seizing control of buildings in more than a dozen towns and cities, Mr Turchinov told officials their “number-one task is to prevent terrorism spreading from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to other Ukrainian regions”.

Trying to ‘prevent election’
“The Russian leadership is doing everything to prevent the election,” he added. “But the election will take place on May 25th.”

Mr Turchinov warned that “sabotage groups” acting on Russia’s orders intended to destabilise a swathe of southern and eastern Ukraine, including the regions around the major cities of Odessa and Kharkiv, in the coming days.

“I am addressing the leaders of these regions and security officials about the necessity to strengthen their efforts. We expect acts of sabotage. According to our intelligence information, they are being prepared.”

Ukraine is entering a series of holidays that culminates on May 9th with Victory Day, when Russian-speakers across the former Soviet Union celebrate the defeat of fascist Germany. It will have intense resonance in Ukraine and Russia this year, because Moscow and anti-government figures in Ukraine have depicted its new leaders as a “junta” backed by Russian-hating “fascists”. Russian president Vladimir Putin insists he has the right to invade southeastern Ukraine to protect its Russian-speakers.

Military exercises
Further raising tension in Kiev, where fights broke out on Independence Square on Tuesday night between ultra-nationalists and pro-government “self- defence” volunteers, was an announcement of special military exercises last night. Officials told Kiev residents not to be alarmed if they saw “servicemen and armoured vehicles” moving through the capital. The exercises were to be conducted by the state protection agency, not the army.

Kiev, the US and EU say armed groups in the east are co-ordinated by Moscow’s agents, but they enjoy support among locals who are suspicious of new leaders from western and central Ukraine, whom they regard as hostile to Russia.

The Kremlin accuses the West of orchestrating a pro-western “coup” in Ukraine, and insists the country’s rebels are just angry locals.

Top Russian officials have cast doubt on the legitimacy of the May 25th elections. On a visit to Moscow yesterday, rebel leader Denis Pushilin insisted his self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic” would not take part in or recognise the vote.

Protesters in Donetsk and Luhansk plan to hold independence referendums on May 11th.