US says Russia causing 'chaos' in Ukraine to set stage for a new land grab
The United States has accused Russia of sending spies into eastern Ukraine to "create chaos" and provide a pretext for a possible Crimea-style military intervention.
In Washington's strongest comments to date, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, described a series of pro-Russian building seizures in eastern cities as an "illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilise a sovereign state", funded by the Russian special services.
"Everything that we've seen in the last 48 hours from Russian provocateurs and agents operating in eastern Ukraine tells us that they've been sent there determined to create chaos," Mr Kerry said.
"No one should be fooled – and believe me, no one is fooled by what could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea.
"It is clear that Russian special forces and agents have been the catalysts behind the chaos of the last 24 hours."
British foreign secretary William Hague agreed, saying the flare-up bore "all the hallmarks of a Russian strategy to destabilise Ukraine".
Ukrainian forces battled to regain control of key cities last night after pro-Russian separatists seized government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv on Sunday.
Activists in Donetsk and Kharkiv both declared independent "people's republics" on Monday, in moves that echoed events in Crimea in the run-up to the Russian annexation of the peninsula last month.
Ukrainian police and interior ministry special forces evicted protesters from the Kharkiv regional administration yesterday in a bloodless dawn raid, arresting 70 people.
But by nightfall, separatists still held the regional administration building in Donetsk and the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) building in Luhansk, both of which have been fortified with barricades.
The SBU claimed last night that militants in Luhansk were holding 60 people hostage in a government building that had been rigged with explosives.
Activists in Luhansk have reportedly armed themselves with Kalashnikov rifles from the SBU's armoury.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that he and Mr Kerry had agreed to four-way talks between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and EU in days.
In the meantime, Kiev is positioning for a crackdown on the pro-Russian uprisings.
In an emergency session, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill significantly increasing punishments for separatism. Fights broke out between nationalist and pro-Kremlin MPs.
Arsen Avakov, the acting interior minister who directed the operation in Kharkiv, has said he has given orders to avoid violence and to clear buildings without bloodshed. He said yesterday's raid was completed with "not one shot, stun grenade or other special equipment (being used)".
Questions have also arisen about the loyalty of police and troops, and the level of Russian penetration into the SBU in Ukraine's eastern provinces.
Mr Avakov said much police behaviour in Kharkiv during the two days he commanded operations there "resembled sabotage more than service" and warned that both commanders and rank and file officers may be fired over disloyalty.
Pro-Russian protesters outside the Kharkiv regional administration described the accusations of separatism and Russian funding as a smear.
"The government is packed with people from the West who have no understanding and no concern about our lives and economic situation, and they are dictating to us how to live" said Alexander Pisachov (50) who runs a small business. (© Daily Telegraph, London)