Ukraine vows to block pro-Russian moves in restive east

Kiev mobilises national guard and seeks western monitors as Crimea breaks away

People  attend a pro-Russian rally after a day of voting in Simferopol, Ukraine. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty

People attend a pro-Russian rally after a day of voting in Simferopol, Ukraine. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty

Mon, Mar 17, 2014, 01:01

As Crimea moved to join Russia last night, Kiev and western allies sought to stabilise eastern Ukraine, amid fears that Moscow may extend its military incursion beyond the Black Sea peninsula.

Ukraine said a new national guard would help boost security in largely Russian-speaking areas of the country where pro-Moscow provocateurs are allegedly fomenting unrest, and called for international observers urgently to start monitoring those regions.

Moscow claims to be protecting ethnic Russians in Crimea from “fascist” gangs linked to the new pro-western government in Kiev, and the Kremlin insists it has the right to use military force to defend Russian communities elsewhere in Ukraine.

After deadly street fights in recent days in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv, Moscow said it was considering “numerous requests for the defence of peaceful citizens” in Ukraine. Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin expressed “concern” over clashes he blamed on “radical groups [acting] with the connivance of Kiev’s authorities”.

Russian war games
Ukrainian officials claim the fighting was started by Russian “agents” who crossed the nearby border to cause trouble and create a pretext for Moscow’s military intervention, and Kiev is alarmed by thousands of Russian soldiers taking part in war games near the Ukrainian frontier.

Pro-Russian protesters in Donetsk smashed their way into several public buildings yesterday, and in Kharkiv they burned Ukrainian-language books.

In the cities of Luhansk and Mikolayiv, meanwhile, demonstrators held informal “referendums” on whether to leave Ukraine. Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced urgent recruitment to a planned 60,000-strong national guard, to support armed forces that are poorly equipped and trained after years of under-investment.

Some 10,000-15,000 men would be called up in the next 15 days, officials said.

Last night, interior minister Arsen Avakov said 1,500 people had joined the guard within four hours of a telephone recruitment line being opened.

Mr Yatsenyuk told the government that the guard “will have training centres, legal weapons will be distributed. You will have the opportunity to defend the country, with the forces of the national guard and the security forces.”

He said Ukraine would find all those “ringleaders of separatism and division, who are now trying to destroy Ukraine’s independence while under the protection of the Russian military”, and would “try them in Ukrainian and international courts . . . The ground will burn under their feet.”

’Touring provocateurs’
Mr Avakov said border patrols were preventing “professional touring provocateurs from a neighbouring country” entering Ukraine.

He said “hundreds” of people with “dubious intentions” were being turned back at the Russian frontier every day.

Monitors from the Vienna-based 57-state Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe should “urgently” be dispatched to eastern and southern Ukraine, Mr Yatsenyuk said, in a proposal that German chancellor Angela Merkel put to Mr Putin in a telephone call yesterday.

Dr Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said Mr Putin “viewed this initiative positively”, but there was no immediate confirmation of that from the Kremlin.