Over the weekend, pro-Russian protesters stormed government buildings in the Eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Lugansk. Their vigilantism brought Russia and Ukraine perilously close to a shooting war.
Efforts at storming the building in Lugansk involved “pelting the building with eggs, stones, a smoke grenade and finally a firebomb,” reports USA Today. In Donetsk, protesters hoisted the Russian flag from the building’s roof. They demanded the release of police who stand accused of killing protesters against the previous, Moscow-friendly Ukrainian government.
Unlike in the Crimean occupation, Ukraine’s current government is taking the threat of Russia-driven secession very seriously. On Sunday, police were ordered not to turn the protesters into martyrs. Today, the government called an emergency cabinet meeting and sent in the cavalry to restore order.
“The Russians are trying to destabilize the situation in the country. [Vladimir] Putin and [former Ukrainian President Victor] Yanukovich have ordered and paid for another round of separatist disturbances in the East of the country, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kharkov,” wrote Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on Facebook.
In the emergency cabinet meeting Monday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk went further. He alleged Russia plans for its troops “to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow.”
It is telling that most news accounts didn’t bother to get a denial from Moscow. When the Russians occupied Crimea before the secession referendum, the bulk of Russian soldiers patrolled with unmarked uniforms as a fig leaf to international law. This downgraded Russia’s credibility with the international press.
In Crimea, Russian President Putin insisted that any of the troops surrounding Ukrainian government buildings and military installations were not his troops but local militia or “self-defense forces.” Few people believed him then, so many reporters didn’t bother with a quote this time.
Ukraine’s eastern cities have witnesses sporadic pro-Russia protests over the past few weeks, but this level of organization and coordination seems too much for a coincidence. Russia reportedly has tens of thousands of troops amassed near multiple Ukrainian borders, which in the normal order of things is considered an act of war.
That there is nothing normal about the current order of things may be Moscow’s point. Russia maintains Ukraine cannot stand on its own as a country. It should join a larger “federation” with Russia rather than yoke itself to the European Union — the very point of protest that brought down the previous government.
Sunday’s stormings came one week after top U.S. and Russian diplomats held talks in Paris to try to smooth things over. The Russians and Americans talked past one another.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said before the summit that his nation had “absolutely no intention of — or interest in — crossing Ukraine’s borders,” yet that seems disingenuous because his country has yet to pull its troops back from those borders.
Until it does so, a peaceful and permanent resolution to the Crimean crisis is a pretty remote possibility.