MOSCOW, Russia — Pro-Russian activists have stormed key administration buildings in several of Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern regions in an apparently coordinated action that’s renewed fears about a growing tide of separatism.
As of Monday evening, protesters reportedly controlled the state security buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk — the capitals of two heavily industrialized regions in the country’s east — as well as the regional administration building in Donetsk.
More than 100 separatists who seized that office declared a separatist “People’s Republic of Donetsk” and are demanding a Crimea-style referendum within a month on secession from Ukraine.
They also called for Moscow to deploy a “peacekeeping contingent” if the Kyiv government moves to restore order there, Reuters reported.
The news follows weeks of simmering separatist sentiments in the largely pro-Russian east, where the country’s new authorities have attempted to crack down on separatism but are still struggling to reassert their authority.
Until late Sunday, when the protesters stormed buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, another major city, the anti-Kyiv protests in eastern Ukraine — where resentment against the new pro-Western government remains strong — had largely died down.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Monday slammed the events as a Moscow-orchestrated provocation aimed at destabilizing Ukraine.
“An anti-Ukrainian plan is being put into operation… under which foreign troops will cross the border and seize the country’s territory,” he said at an emergency cabinet meeting, news agencies reported. “We will not allow this.”
Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, said on Monday that it had arrested a suspected Russian intelligence officer two days earlier who had been coordinating a separatist movement in Luhansk.
Several leading Ukrainian officials were dispatched to the country’s east in an effort to stabilize the situation.
Although the Russian authorities have denied stoking separatist sentiment in Ukraine, the government in Kyiv has consistently claimed that Russian “tourists” — bussed into eastern Ukraine to stir protests — have played a key role in supporting unrest.
A local journalist in Kharkiv reported on Sunday that separatist protesters there had initially stormed the local opera theater after mistaking it for the city hall in an apparent sign the activists were unfamiliar with the city.
Meanwhile, Russian state media — which have helped fuel discontent with the Kyiv authorities in Ukraine’s east through a heavy-handed propaganda campaign — provided extensive evening news coverage of the events in Donetsk.
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Tens of thousands of Russian troops remain massed near the Ukrainian border, feeding international fears that the Kremlin has been preparing to seize Ukraine’s eastern regions much as it did with Crimea last month.
Russian officials have sought to assuage those concerns, with a top Russian senator saying on Monday that his country would be unable to send peacekeepers into eastern Ukraine without approval from the United Nations.
“Russia has no right to do this unilaterally,” said Viktor Ozerov, head of the Federation Council’s defense and security committee, the news agency Interfax reported.
Also on Monday, a Ukrainian military officer was shot and killed in Crimea — seized by Russia in late February and annexed last month — after an alleged confrontation with his Russian counterparts.