• Mural of ousted Ukraine leader Viktor Yanukovych, a former Donetsk governor (Photo: thierry ehrmann)

Donetsk seizure raises concern of Ukraine escalation

07.04.14 @ 09:29

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - A Crimea-type operation in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on Sunday (6 April) has raised concerns Russia is about to escalate the crisis.

Some 200 masked men from a group calling itself the “Rossiyskiy Sektor” used stun grenades to force their way into the local government building in the city, before erecting barricades outside and calling for a referendum on the Donetsk region’s independence.

Pro-Russian separatists the same day attacked local government buildings in Kharkiv and Luhansk.

The actions come amid Russia’s ongoing military build-up on Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders. The Russian foreign ministry on Sunday also claimed it has “sacks of letters” from Russian speakers in Ukraine asking for protection.

Meanwhile, on the economic front, Russia has threatened to cut off Ukraine’s gas on Monday unless it agrees to almost double the price and to start paying an $11 billion debt.

“[Russian leader] Putin and [Ukraine’s former leader] Yanukovych ordered and paid for the latest wave of separatist disorder in the east of the country. The people who have gathered are not many but they are very aggressive," Ukraine’s acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said.

“This seems to be a repeat of the Crimean scenario,” Oleksandr Lytvynenko, Ukraine’s deputy national security chief, noted, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea region in February.

Sunday’s developments come after EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Athens on Friday and Saturday urged Russia not to go further.

"It is really important that Russia shows that it is serious about the de-escalation by moving troops back," EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said.

She noted that “work is ongoing” on economic sanctions against Russia in the worst case scenario. But the EU ministers also held out an olive branch.

German FM Frank-Walter Steinmeier reassured Moscow the EU-Ukraine association pact is “not a pre-stage for [EU] membership talks.” He said the EU and Russia should create a “contact group” to defuse the situation.

Ashton and Greek FM Evangelos Venizelos, who hosted the event, also underlined the need to keep open “channels of communication” with Moscow.

The tone changed on Sunday, however.

Commenting on Donetsk, Swedish FM Carl Bildt corroborated Avakov and Lytvynenko’s account. “Sunday pattern that pro-Russian thugs try to stir up trouble in eastern Ukraine. Heavily supported by Kremlin propaganda machine. And more,” he said on Twitter.

The Czech President, Miloz Zeman, told Czech Radio: “The moment Russia decides to widen its territorial expansion to the eastern part of Ukraine … I would plead not only for the strictest EU sanctions, but even for military readiness of the North Atlantic Alliance, like for example Nato forces entering Ukrainian territory.”

From the other side of the Atlantic, the US’ former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, noted: “New violence in eastern Ukraine shows that Putin has no interest in a stable Ukraine. This struggle will be a long one.”

The new US ambassador to the EU, Anthony Luzzatto Gardner, said earlier on Friday: “It [Russia’s annexation of Crimea] is just the beginning of the story.”