While authorities in Kiev continue negotiations with masked gunmen who took over a government building in Lugansk, the West warns the Kremlin to stop being "catalysts behind the chaos" in eastern Ukraine.
By Alex Statko for Southeast European Times in Kiev -- 10/04/14
Masked pro-Moscow activists guard the entrance of the regional Security Service building on Wednesday (April 9th) in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk. [AFP]
Western officials and analysts are blaming the Kremlin for a series of uprisings by masked gunmen in eastern Ukraine, including a hostage situation in the city of Lugansk.
Analysts and officials say they fear the Kremlin's interference in Ukrainian affairs and its calls for federalisation will be used as pretext for another military incursion by Moscow, similar to last month's takeover of Crimea.
The rapidly escalating situation will be a topic of conversation next week by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukraine Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia in what will be the first meeting of the four since the unrest in eastern Ukraine.
The meeting was scheduled as about 300 pro-Russian separatists continued on Wednesday to occupy a Soviet-era five-story building of the Ukrainian security service in Lugansk.
According to Ukraine's security service, separatists armed with explosives and other weapons took 60 hostages on Tuesday and recorded a video message. The video statement, made in al Qaeda-style with gunmen in the background, is calling on Ukrainian authorities to hold a referendum on federalised restructuring of Ukraine.
"We have one legitimate demand -- to hold a referendum. We all just want to be heard," said one of the masked men, who identified the occupiers as veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and warned that any attempt to storm the building will be met with armed force. "So welcome to hell, we will meet you with dignity," he said.
A video of masked gunmen demanding a referendum in Lugansk was posted on YouTube.
After overnight negotiations with the terrorists, the Ukrainian government reached an agreement that allowed 56 civilians to leave the building. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the crisis will be solved in the next 48 hours.
"There are only two ways -- peaceful and using force. We are ready for both of them," Avakov told reporters before the parliament's morning session on Wednesday. "Those who prefer negotiations, we will offer them negotiations. Those who want escalation of conflict will get a quick response."
Vitaliy Yaremchuk, a lawyer for the pro-Russian organisation Luganskaia Gvardia, whose activists seized the security service building, told SETimes that "if authorities decide to attack the building, more and more people will support protesters in the east of Ukraine."
Hundreds of pro-Russia protesters occupied government buildings in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lugansk on Sunday night (April 6th), barricading themselves inside, raising Russian flags and calling for a referendum.
On Tuesday (April 8th), Ukrainian authorities announced that the building in Kharkiv was retaken under the control of Kiev government, detaining about 70 people in a bloodless operation.
Ukraine's Security Service reported on Wednesday that they detained a Russian citizen who allegedly prepared various sabotage groups for destabilising the situation in Ukraine.
All the cities affected by the uprisings are in Ukraine's industrial heartland in the east, with a large population of ethnic Russians.
"There is no headquarters of pro-Russian organisations in Ukraine, but if you analyse all actions of separatists in different cities -- we can clearly see that they are very well co-ordinated and act simultaneously. They are being orchestrated. And I have no doubt that Russia does it," Vladimir Fesenko, head of the Penta Centre for International and Policy Studies in Kiev, told SETimes.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged Moscow to "step back," pointing to the troops Russia has massed on the Ukrainian border.
Russia's further intervention in Ukraine would be a "historic mistake" and such actions "would have grave consequences for our relationship with Russia" and "would further isolate Russia internationally," Rasmussen said at a news conference in Paris.
How successful do you think the government's negotiations can be with separatists in Lugansk? Share your thoughts in the comments section.