KIEV/WASHINGTON – The U.S. on Monday accused Russia of instigating the storming of government offices in eastern Ukraine, unrest that echoed the events preceding Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
There is evidence supporting the contention of Ukrainian officials that some of the pro-Russian separatists who seized administration buildings in the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk were paid provocateurs brought in from outside, White House press secretary Jay Carney said in Washington.
“If Russia moves into eastern Ukraine, either overtly or covertly, this would be a very serious escalation,” Carney said. There “will be costs for further transgressions” against Ukraine’s sovereignty, he added.
The Interfax news agency reported that the pro-Russia protesters demanded a referendum on seceding from Ukraine. The mayor of the eastern city of Kharkiv also confirmed reports that several dozen other demonstrators seized the regional television transmission mast and demanded that more Russian channels be broadcast, according to Interfax.
The latest demonstrations parallel the actions of pro-Russian protesters who seized Crimea’s assembly and paved the way for Russia to annex the Black Sea province last month. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s massed troops on Ukraine’s border, says he has the right to defend Russian speakers from “fascists” after Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.
U.S. and European officials are increasingly concerned that Monday’s disturbances, along with Russia’s economic and military pressure, signal the next phase of Putin’s effort to make Ukraine a loose federation allied with Russia.
U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee, said in an email that he’s “disturbed by reports of violence, separatist rhetoric, and the presence of outside provocateurs who may be seeking to provide a pretext for further Russian aggression against Ukraine.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Monday to arrange talks among officials from Ukraine, the U.S., the European Union and Russian within 10 days to head off any escalation. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said no time or agenda was set. The U.S. and Russia still differ on what role the interim Ukrainian government should play in any talks.
The U.S. and the European Union imposed sanctions against Russian officials and associates of Putin in response to the annexation of Crimea. U.S. President Barack Obama has said Washington will target sectors of Russia’s economy, including energy and finance, if Russia moves deeper into Ukraine.
Two U.S. officials who requested anonymity to discuss classified intelligence said it’s increasingly clear that Putin’s objective is a weakened Ukraine that has allegiance to Russia and no longer entertains joining the European Union, much less the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Putin’s actions, the two officials said, suggest that he’s seeking to accomplish that without an outright invasion.
Instead, he’s using instead military and economic pressure, including manipulating natural gas supplies and prices, combined with Soviet-era tactics such as placing provocateurs into Ukrainian cities to plan anti-government demonstrations, complaining of threats to ethnic Russians and enlisting Russian media in spreading propaganda, they said.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in televised remarks from Kiev on Monday that Russia was trying to split his nation and turn part into “a territory of slavery under a Russian dictatorship.”
Unlike Crimea, whose ethnic Russian population was much larger and culturally more eager to join Russia, ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine account for a smaller share of the population and, by and large, don’t want to be under Russian rule, said Nicholas Spiro, managing director of Spiro Sovereign Strategy, a London-based consultancy specializing in sovereign credit risk.
“This is why the latest developments are so worrying,” Spiro said. “The scope for widespread violence should Russia intervene or destabilize things further is considerable. Crimea is now a sideshow.”
Ethnic Ukrainians account for 56.9 percent in the Donetsk region, 70.7 percent in Kharkiv region and 58 percent in the Luhansk region, according to a 2001 census cited in the Moscow Times.
Russia also may be trying to undermine Ukraine’s planned May elections and encouraging ethnic Russians not to vote.
“If the Kremlin can achieve that, or reach an ‘understanding’ with the winner of those elections, it might be able to achieve its goals short of force,” former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst wrote in The National Interest on Monday. “Only if these steps fail, does Mr. Putin look seriously at further Russian military aggression in Ukraine.”
Russia’s weakness, Herbst wrote, is its slowing economy — one prediction now has growth this year at less than 1 percent — and resulting vulnerability to U.S. and EU economic sanctions that already have helped encourage what the Russian Ministry of Economy estimated is $70 billion of capital flight in the first quarter of this year.
“While a media-induced nationalism has boosted Mr. Putin’s popularity in the wake of his seizure of Crimea, he understands that this will not last,” Herbst writes. “If the economy faces more hits, his standing among the Russian public will drop significantly. He knows too that the Russian elite, including his closest supporters, are eager to avoid additional sanctions that might follow if the crisis continues or worsens.”
About 200 people seized the governor’s office in Donetsk, Alla Konyk, a spokeswoman for the regional prosecutor’s office, said in remarks on Channel 5.
Three hundred pro-Russian activists temporarily took over the regional government office in Kharkiv, demanding the local authorities carry out a referendum on federalization, according to the Ukrainska Pravda website. The building was later freed, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page.
Carney said there is “strong evidence” that demonstrators included paid outsiders. “That at least suggests that outside forces, not local forces, were participating in the effort to create these provocations,” he said.
Russia has as many as 40,000 soldiers stationed across the frontier, according to officials from the U.S. and NATO. Putin says the forces are conducting military exercises and will withdraw when they end.