DONETSK, Ukraine — As the government in Kiev moved to reassert control over pro-Russian protesters across eastern Ukraine, the United States and NATO on Tuesday issued stern warnings to Moscow about further intervention in the country’s affairs, amid continuing fears of an eventual Russian incursion.
Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Kremlin of fomenting the unrest, calling the protests the work of saboteurs whose machinations were as “ham-handed as they are transparent.”
Speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he added: “No one should be fooled — and believe me, no one is fooled — by what could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea. It is clear that Russian special forces and agents have been the catalysts behind the chaos of the last 24 hours.”
The secretary-general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said Russia would be making a “historic mistake” by going into Ukraine, and he urged the Kremlin to “step back.” At a news conference in Paris, he said any such actions “would have grave consequences for our relationship with Russia and would further isolate Russia internationally.”
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In Moscow, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, denied Tuesday the accusations of Russian meddling in Ukraine. He said Russia would seek multinational talks on the Ukrainian political crisis that could involve the United States, the European Union and “all the political forces in Ukraine,” which should include representatives of the southeastern region.
European Union envoy Catherine Ashton said she will meet with U.S., Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers next week to discuss the situation — the first four-way meeting since the crisis erupted.
But none of that was soothing nerves rattled by days of protests here, orchestrated or otherwise. While Ukrainian forces were able to retake one occupied regional headquarters in the eastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s Security Service said separatists armed with explosives and other weapons were holding 60 people hostage inside the agency’s local headquarters in Luhansk.
Separatist protesters in Donetsk, the east’s biggest urban center, reinforced barricades outside the occupied regional administration building and vowed to stand firm, setting up a possibly violent showdown over control of the city.
The successful operation in Kharkiv was announced by Ukraine’s acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, who had traveled to the city to supervise the action. He wrote on Facebook that the building was retaken “without firing a shot, grenades, or other special weapons,” and that the troops were part of a broader redeployment in the region to contain unrest that Ukraine has accused Russia of orchestrating.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a stern statement in response to the use of the Interior Ministry troops, accusing the Ukrainian government of embedding nationalist extremists from the group Right Sector as well as private U.S. mercenaries from a company called Greystone in its forces in the east. The Russian statement said the U.S. contractors were being disguised as members of a Ukrainian military unit called Falcon.
Academi, a private U.S. security company affiliated with Greystone, issued a statement in mid-March saying its employees were not working in Ukraine, after similar allegations surfaced in the Russian news media. The company did not immediately respond to the Foreign Ministry’s statement Tuesday.
The ministry, which has repeatedly denounced the government in Kiev as the illegitimate product of a coup, warned against the use of military force in eastern Ukraine. “We call immediately for the halt of any military preparations, which risk the outbreak of civil war,” it said in its statement.
Pro-Russian demonstrators seized government buildings Sunday evening in several eastern cities, including Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lugansk, posing a thorny challenge for the authorities in Kiev, who wrested power from the former president, Viktor Yanukovych, using similar tactics.
Russian armed forces are deployed along the border nearby, and the Kremlin has warned that it is prepared to intervene again in Ukraine to protect the many ethnic Russians who live there, as it had in Crimea in the south.
Provoking such an attack is evidently the fervent wish of the pro-Russian activists here, who on Monday declared the formation of an independent People’s Republic of Donetsk and waved Russian flags and the black, red and blue standard of their newly declared state, which even Moscow has shown no inclination to recognize.
Between blasts of Soviet martial music dating from World War II, they pleaded with a crowd of predominantly older supporters gathered in a square below to resist any move by Ukrainian authorities to retake the building and snuff out their quirky new state.
No weapons were visible, but a security adviser to the Ukrainian government said around 30 Kalashnikov rifles and a number of grenades had been seized by protesters who briefly took control of the Donetsk headquarters of Ukraine’s state security service. Ukrainian Interior Ministry troops took back the security agency building late Monday.
“Comrades, beware of provocateurs and get ready to defend yourselves from the fascists,” a middle-aged man in an orange hard hat screamed through a bullhorn, echoing Russia’s line that Ukraine fell to neo-Nazi extremists after the flight of Yanukovych on Feb. 21.
Bands of pro-Russia youths, however, mimicked the tactics of the pro-Europe protest movement that led to Yanukovych’s departure. As rumors spread of an impending crackdown, they formed self-defense teams armed with clubs and metal rods, dug up paving stones to hurl at troops in the event of a government attack and piled rubber tires and sand bags around the entrance of the occupied multistory regional administration building.
“This is our land, Russian land,” said Oleg Shifkemenko, waving a flag emblazoned with the word, Rus, an ancient Slavic people celebrated by Russian nationalists. “Russians built the roads here, the railways, the factories. We built everything and it is ours, forever.” Despite his Ukrainian name, he described himself as a “proud Russian.”
But like many others involved in the unrest, Shifkemenko expressed uncertainty over whether the objective is to protect the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk, to merge Donetsk with Russia or to simply gain more autonomy for the region.
Ukrainian security experts said the pro-Russia camp in Donetsk was bitterly divided over its goals and scoffed at its attempt to seize power. “They have no clear idea of what they want,” said Nikolai Yakubovich, an adviser to the Interior Ministry in Kiev. “It is a nonsense, a dangerous nonsense.”
He said talks had started between Donetsk protest leaders and the authorities but had been hampered by infighting between rival pro-Russia factions over their aims.
As part of its efforts to regain control, the government in Kiev flew anti-terrorist forces to Donetsk airport Tuesday and vowed to prevent eastern Ukraine going the same way as Crimea, where pro-Russia demonstrations paved the way for a formal annexation by Moscow.
Yakubovich, the government adviser, said authorities would hold off on trying to storm the occupied administration building and focus instead on undermining the resolve of those inside by making clear that they face criminal charges carrying sentences of up to 15 years if they persist in their actions.
“We have people working to let them know that this is very serious,” he said.
Unlike the pro-Europe protest movement in Kiev’s Independence Square, the stirrings in Donetsk have, so far, attracted little support from the middle class and seem dominated by pensioners nostalgic for the Soviet Union and angry, and often drunk, young men.
“They used to sit at home and play games on the computer. But now they are here playing for real,” said a 27-year-old company manager who gave his name only as Oleg. He said he had not supported the protests in Kiev against Yanukovych but also did not support what he described as the “pointless disorder” now unfolding in Donetsk and other eastern cities.
The lack of widespread public support makes the government’s task easier, but any crackdown that results in serious bloodshed would probably widen the appeal of the protesters in a region that is almost entirely Russian-speaking and has little liking for leaders in Kiev, who mostly speak Ukrainian.
Information from The Associated Press is included.