KIEV, Ukraine — It is by now a well-established pattern. Armed, masked men in their 20s to 40s storm a public building of high symbolic value in a city in eastern Ukraine, evict anyone still there, seize weapons and ammunition, throw up barricades and proclaim themselves the rulers of a “People’s Republic.” It is not clear who is in charge or how the militias are organized.
Through such tactics, a few thousand pro-Russia extremists have seized buildings in about a dozen cities, effectively establishing control over much of an industrial region of about 6.5 million nestled against the Russian border.
Day by day, in the areas surrounding the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, pro-Russia forces have defied all efforts by the central government to re-establish its authority, and on Wednesday, Ukraine’s acting president conceded what had long been obvious: The government’s police and security officials had lost control.
“Inactivity, helplessness and even criminal betrayal” plague the security forces, the acting leader, Oleksandr Turchinov, told a meeting of regional governors in Kiev. “It is hard to accept but it’s the truth. The majority of law enforcers in the East are incapable of performing their duties.”
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With Turchinov’s acknowledgment that a significant chunk of the country had slipped from the government’s grasp, the conflict in Ukraine seemed to enter a more dangerous phase. Whether that amounts to the lasting dismemberment of Ukraine or hands control of the East to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, were among the many questions left unanswered after Turchinov delivered his assessment.
Whatever the long-term effects, the rebels’ seizure of symbolic buildings in cities throughout the country’s Southeast is serving what analysts in Russia and the West say is Putin’s short-term goal of so disrupting normal life there that the pro-Russia separatists’ plans for a May 11 vote on autonomy from Kiev could trump Ukraine’s plans to hold a presidential election two weeks later.
While Russia denies any role in stirring the unrest, Secretary of State John Kerry and others have accused Russia of sending operatives to the region to organize, equip and direct the Ukrainians who make up the pro-Russia militias.
The presence of 40,000 Russian troops just over the border is also contributing to the instability, particularly as Russia has warned repeatedly that it will intervene in Ukraine if the safety of the ethnic Russians there was threatened, a claim that could justify an incursion at almost any time.
Russia has managed to achieve its immediate goal of what Western and Ukrainian officials believe is rendering Ukraine so chaotic that it cannot guarantee order, mend its teetering economy or elect new leaders to replace Turchinov and the acting government installed after the pro-Russia president, Victor Yanukovych, fled in February.
“Until May 25,” when the presidential vote is scheduled, “is unfortunately still a lot of time,” said Olga Aivazovska, a co-founder of Opora, an independent election-monitoring and polling group. Whether a vote will take place — and how valid it could be if parts of the east do not take part — “is a big puzzle,” she said.
Days after imposing new sanctions on Russia, President Obama said he would travel to Poland in June to reassure nervous Eastern Europeans. The Poland stop will be added to a previously scheduled trip to Normandy, France, to mark the anniversary of D-Day and to Brussels to meet with other members of the Group of 8, reconstituting it as the Group of 7 now that Russia has been suspended.
None of that is expected to deter the separatists. Since April 6, they have been smashing their way into local offices and hastily erecting barricades outside, wearing uniforms without insignia. The latest to fall was Horlivka, where Wednesday armed men appeared at the City Council building and began checking the documents of anyone entering.
In Donetsk, a tough mining city, the extremists say they will conduct a referendum May 11, and other cities under separatist control are expected to follow suit. Gunmen in Luhansk seized control of that city’s administration Tuesday and declared their intent to join in.
To date, however, there are no voting offices, nor have any ballots been distributed. They have not even decided what question they want to put before voters.
Nevertheless, the buildings now seized could serve the effort. A sample ballot reported in the Russian news media suggested voters would be asked whether they support a declaration of independence for the “People’s Republic.” There was no mention of joining Russia.
Although Russian is widely spoken in the East, which abuts Russia, credible polls suggest that at most 20 percent of citizens want to join their giant neighbor, Aivazovska, of Opora, said.
After five months of violence and revolution, Aivazovska said, nerves are jangled. “You go to bed at night not knowing whether you will wake up in a different country,” she added.
On top of nerves, Ukraine’s economy is frail. The board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) voted Wednesday to approve $17 billion in loans for Ukraine, with conditions that will undoubtedly be felt as hardships by ordinary Ukrainians. Igor Burakovsky, head of the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting, said Wednesday that Ukraine’s foreign debt amounts to $73.2 billion.
This includes several billion dollars owed for deliveries of Russian natural gas on which Ukraine depends each winter, and which passes through its territory to European clients of the Russian gas concern Gazprom.