Ukrainian tensions rise as key buildings still held
Acting president calls on UN to send troops to eastern cities as separatists tighten grip
Pro-Russian protesters attend a rally in front of the occupied regional administration building in Slaviansk, east Ukraine yesterday. Russia continued to deny any involvement with unrest in the region, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov saying: “We don’t interfere in Ukraine’s internal affairs.” Photograph: Roman Pilipey/EPA
Pro-Russian separatists intensified their hold on key cities in eastern Ukraine yesterday, defying a deadline imposed by the Ukrainian government to surrender, as Ukraine threatened to lapse into a fresh wave of geopolitical turmoil less than a month after the annexation of Crimea.
Armed demonstrators dressed in uniform continued to occupy seized buildings in more than six cities in the eastern part of the country as EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg agreed to expand the list of Russians targeted by specific sanctions.
In a sign of the difficulties faced by the interim Ukrainian government, acting president Oleksandr Turchynov called on the United Nations to send peacekeeping troops to the area, a day after Kiev threatened to launch an anti-terrorist offensive against the protesters.
In a phone call with UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, Mr Turchynov requested an anti-terrorist operation be conducted jointly by Ukrainian security forces and UN peacekeepers. But with any mobilisation needing the approval of the UN Security Council, where Russia holds a veto, UN intervention is deemed highly unlikely.
Earlier, Mr Turchynov sacked the head of Ukraine’s anti-terror operations, Valery Ivanov, who is responsible for the military response to the crisis. The interim president took some observers by surprise by suggesting he would be willing to consider holding a referendum in the eastern part of the country on the same day as the national elections on May 25th, one of the key requests of the separatists. But he said he was confident most people would vote to stay with Ukraine.
Yesterday, Yuri Lutsenko, Ukraine’s interior minister from 2007 to 2010, claimed some of the immense wealth allegedly accumulated by former president Viktor Yanukovich and his allies was and still is used to buy the loyalty of senior police officers across Donetsk – his homeland – and other southeastern areas.
Kiev has tried to tame troublesome regions by appointing local “oligarchs” as governors, but with limited success.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg agreed to expand the list of 33 Russian individuals who have already been subject to travel bans and asset freezes, while also opening up the possibility that business entities be hit by targeted sanctions.
But it refrained from authorising a deeper phase of so-called phase three sanctions, as ministers await a European Commission report this week that will assess the economic impact of possible reciprocal action by Russia.
US treasury secretary Jack Lew said the US was “fully prepared” to impose additional sanctions on Russia if it continues to escalate the situation.
Russia continued to deny any involvement with the unrest, with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denying there were any Russian agents within Ukraine’s borders. “We don’t interfere in Ukraine’s internal affairs,” he said.
The US and a number of EU leaders accused Russia of being behind the violence.
“It’s difficult to accept that the developments that have taken place over the weekend have happened of their own accord,” Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore said in Luxembourg. “ There appears to have been a degree of co-ordination involved. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of what happened in Crimea before the annexation.”
Mr Lavrov is due to attend a meeting on Thursday in Geneva attended by his counterparts from the US, Ukraine and the EU.