Allegations of Russian role in eastern Ukraine unrest
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Several administrative buildings in eastern Ukraine remained under the control of pro-Russian protesters on Wednesday, in what US Secretary of State John Kerry described as operations by “Russian agents” ahead of international talks next week.
Ukrainian officials told FRANCE 24 that since the beginning of the week they have arrested several Russian protesters occupying public buildings in Ukrainian cities along the Russian border.
“Of course, some of the people are genuine Ukrainian demonstrators with grievances to articulate – there is a lot of evidence that others, though, have been paid and orchestrated, probably by Russia,” said FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg in Donetsk.
The regional administration building there “is still occupied by a few hundred separatist protesters demanding a referendum on the status of the region,” Cragg reported on Wednesday morning. He added that a group occupying the intelligence service’s office in Luhansk had released more than 50 hostages overnight, but remained in control of the building.
Ukrainian security forces cleared another administrative building in Kharkiv of demonstrators on Tuesday.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has accused Moscow of fomenting the troubles. “It is clear that Russian special forces and agents have been the catalyst behind the chaos of the last 24 hours,” he said in Washington on Tuesday, and this “could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea.”
Moscow has denied the accusations. Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula last month after a referendum staged when Russian troops were already in control.
FRANCE 24’s Cragg said it was striking how much protesters seemed to believe rumours circulated to discredit the Ukrainian government, including reports “that there have been regular shoot-outs on the streets of Kiev, that MPs are going into parliament in the capital under the threat of a gun, that the entire government is dominated by far-right violent extremists”.
“That’s the message articulated by the Russian media, which presents this whole situation as a fight by the eastern Ukrainians against fascism, which is taking hold in central and western Ukraine,” he added.
The Ukrainian government has vowed to regain control of occupied buildings in what it calls “anti-terrorist operations” and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on Wednesday that the situation would be resolved “within the next 48 hours”, either through talks or by force.
Yet security sweeps pose the risk of escalating violence. “If they use too much force against the demonstrators, they could alienate the local population and push eastern Ukraine into the arms of the Russians,” said FRANCE 24’s chief foreign editor Rob Parsons.
After visiting Kharkiv and Donetsk this week, Cragg observed that very few people have so far been actively involved in pro-Russian protests. Recent opinion polls suggest that around 70 percent of the population in eastern Ukraine favour maintaining the country’s unity.
Unrest erupted in eastern Ukraine earlier this week as campaigning began for the presidential polls scheduled on May 25. Parsons remarked that the election of a new Ukrainian leader would complicate Russian efforts to destabilise its neighbour.
“What Russia does not want at this time is a democratically elected president in Ukraine who clearly represents the views of the majority of the population – not the sort of fascist, anti-Semitic views that Moscow currently depicts the Kiev government as having,” he said.
The format of Ukraine’s future institutions is likely to be on the agenda of four-way talks between Ukraine, Russia, the European Union and the US next week – the first direct talks involving Kiev and Moscow since the beginning of the crisis.
“The key sticking point is going to be the constitution of Ukraine,” Parsons said. “The Russians will insist on a federation, which gives enormous powers to the East of Ukraine. For the Ukrainian government, that’s the thin end of the wedge: if they grant federal powers to eastern Ukraine, Russia forever afterwards will be able to use those powers to destabilize the government in Kiev.”
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