KIEV – Ukraine’s prime minister accused Russia on Monday of sowing unrest in his country’s eastern provinces as a pretext for dispatching troops across the border.
Saying Russian troops were within a 30 km (19 mile) zone from the Ukrainian border, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a government meeting: “An anti-Ukrainian plan is being put into operation . . . under which foreign troops will cross the border and seize the territory of the country. We will not allow this.”
Pro-Russian protesters in the east seized official buildings in three cities — Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk — on Sunday night, demanding that referendums be held on unity with Russia.
A similar move preceded a Russia-backed takeover of Crimea last month, followed by the annexation of the peninsula.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Monday the main regional administration building in Kharkiv had been cleared of “separatists.”
But police said protesters occupying the state security building in Luhansk had seized weapons and highway police had closed off roads into the city.
Mainly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine has seen a sharp rise in tension since Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s overthrow in February and the advent of an interim government in Kiev that yearns for closer ties with Europe.
Russia has branded the new leadership in Kiev illegitimate and has annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, citing threats to its Russian-speaking majority — a move that caused the biggest standoff between Moscow and the West since the end of the Cold War.
The protesters appeared to be responding in part to Yanukovych, who fled to Russia following his ouster, and who issued a public call on March 28 for each of Ukraine’s regions to hold a referendum on its status inside the country.
Separately, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said a Russian Marine had shot and killed a Ukrainian naval officer in Crimea on Sunday night.
The 33-year-old officer, who was preparing to leave Crimea, was shot twice in officers’ quarters in the locality of Novofedorovka. It was not clear why the Russian Marine had opened fire.
Yatsenyuk said that though much of the unrest had died down in eastern Ukraine in the past month there remained about 1,500 “radicals” in each region who spoke with “clear Russian accents” and whose activity was being coordinated through foreign intelligence services.
But he said Ukrainian authorities had drawn up a plan to handle the crisis.
Avakov on Sunday accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of orchestrating the “separatist disorder” and promised that disturbances would be brought under control without violence.
Russia has been pushing internationally for the “federalization” of Ukraine, proposing that regions of the country of 46 million should be given broad powers of autonomy.
Ukraine, while drawing up its own blueprint of constitutional changes for “decentralization” in which smaller municipalities would be able to develop their own areas by retaining a portion of state taxes raised, says the Russian plan is aimed at breaking up the country.
Referring to the Russian plan, Yatsenyuk said: “It is an attempt to destroy Ukrainian statehood, a script which has been written in the Russian Federation, the aim of which is to divide and destroy Ukraine and turn part of Ukraine into a slave territory under the dictatorship of Russia,” he said.