Ukrainian special forces on Tuesday retook a regional government building in Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city, that had been seized by pro-Russian protesters over the weekend.
Ukrainian police forces in combat gears arrested at least 70 people occupying a regional administration building in the eastern city of Kharkiv as Kiev went on the offensive to foil what it calls a Russian-orchestrated plot to seize more territories, less than a month after the annexation of Crimea.
FRANCE 24’s correspondent in the eastern city of Donetsk, Gulliver Cragg, reported that pro-Russian protesters were still holed up in the regional administration building, where they called for a referendum on secession from Ukraine to be held by 11 May.
Negotiations were under way between Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, the country’s richest man and local potentate, Rinat Akhmetov, and the pro-Moscow separatists to avoid a police assault on the building.
"[Ukrainian authorities] agreed not to to storm the regional administration building or proceed with mass arrests but, rather, to try to find some kind of negotiated settlement," said FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg.
The makings of an improvised self-appointed government began taking shape in Donetsk as demonstrators dug in for a third day at the regional administration headquarters.
'Civil war' fears
The tense talks in Donetsk come as Moscow warned Ukrainian authorities that any use of force in the country’s east could "unleash a civil war". The pattern of events look similar to what happened last month in Crimea, where small separatist protests quickly gave way to a full-blown military occupation of the Black Sea peninsula by pro-Moscow forces.
"These demonstrations are relatively small in scale – the number of people involved is about 2,000 in each city – but they’re very virulent and they seem to have the ability to take over these important buildings and wield a huge amount of influence," added Gulliver Cragg.
He also noted that there were reports that people with Russian accents from across the border were coordinating some of the demonstrations.
"In Kharkiv, there was an amusing situation yesterday when some pro-Russian activists clearly mistook a theater in the centre of the city for the town hall and were calling for the mayor to come on out," said Gulliver Cragg.
Avoiding a replay of Crimea
Kiev’s reaction to the flare-up of separatist protests in its eastern cities suggests that the Ukrainian government has opted for a tough response to prevent a replay of the scenario that gave rise to Crimea secession.
"It makes a sharp distinction between the way the Ukrainians responded to the situation in Crimea a few weeks ago when something similar happened (…) It does appear that the Ukrainians are going to put down a mark here and say ‘No, this is where we stop, if you’re going to demonstrate in this way, if you’re going to take over administrative buildings, we will respond with the full force of the law," said FRANCE24’s chief foreign editor, Rob Parsons, who was in Crimea during the March 16 secession referendum.
By cracking down on the separatist movement in its eastern provinces, Kiev is hoping to draw a red line to defend its territorial integrity.
Although most people living in South and East Ukraine speak Russian as a first language, they are ethnically Ukrainian – as opposed to Crimea where ethnic Russians form a majority.
Another key difference is the lack of Russian boots on the ground in eastern Ukraine, whereas pro-Moscow separatists in Crimea could rely on Russian soldiers from the Sevastopol navy base right from the beginning.
Disrupting the presidential vote
Moscow’s demand that Ukraine refrain from using force against separatist movements in its eastern provinces is a way to apply psychological pressure on Kiev, according to FRANCE 24’s chief foreign editor.
"This is an attempt to inject a sense of paralysis in the Ukrainian government, much as happened in Crimea. The Ukrainian military and authorities in Crimea were fearful of taking any sort of action which they thought would give an excuse to the Russians to take military actions or tougher action. This is what the Russians are trying to do at the moment," said Rob Parsons.
Beyond potential territorial gains, Parsons believes that Moscow’s long-term objective is to disrupt the Ukrainian presidential election, scheduled for May 25.
"If these elections do go forward and if they are held peacefully and effectively, the lie will be given to the Russian argument that Kiev is dominated by facists and all the Ukrainian authorities want to do is to suppress the Russian minority in the east of Ukraine."
Date created : 2014-04-08