DONETSK: Ukraine faced a fresh secessionist crisis on Monday as pro-Kremlin militants occupying the Donetsk government seat proclaimed independence from Kiev and vowed to hold a referendum on joining Russia.
The declaration and accompanying appeal for Russian military assistance put the culturally splintered nation of 46 million in danger of disintegration and intensified pressure on Western powers to act.
The White House responded by calling on the Kremlin to stop trying to “destabilise Ukraine” — a comment that echoed Kiev’s earlier charge of Russia seeking to “dismember” its neighbour.
But Moscow brushed off the accusations and called the latest unrest a sign of Kiev’s Western-backed leaders’ ineptitude and illegitimacy.
The Cold War-style war of words over the ex-Soviet nation’s future comes with the added urgency of the Ukrainian border being watched by Russian soldiers who had already annexed Crimea in response to last month’s ouster in Kiev of a Moscow-backed regime.
Several heavily Russified eastern regions have recently been hit by calls for referendums on joining Russia when Ukraine holds snap presidential polls on May 25. The political pressure on Kiev’s embattled leaders reached boiling point on Sunday when thousands of activists chanting “Russia!” seized administration buildings in Kharkiv and Donetsk as well as the security service headquarters in the eastern region of Lugansk.
The Donetsk activists went one step further on Monday by proclaiming the creation of a sovereign “people’s republic” in the region of about five million people. A video posted on YouTube showed one bearded Russian speaker telling the packed assembly from a podium: “Seeking to create a popular, legitimate, sovereign state, I proclaim the creation of the sovereign state of the People’s Republic of Donetsk.”
More footage aired on Ukraine’s Channel 5 television showed an unidentified speaker asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to send a “peacekeeping contingent of the Russian army” to Donetsk to help the region stand up to Kiev’s rule.
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov accused Russian “special services” of being behind the uprising and ordered extra security personnel to the restless region.
“These actions are meant to destabilise the country, overthrow the Ukrainian government, torpedo the elections and tear our country to pieces,” Turchynov said in a nationally televised address.
The Russian foreign ministry responded with a toughly worded statement telling Kiev to “stop pointing the finger at Russia, blaming it for all the problems in today’s Ukraine.”
But the White House put the onus back on Moscow by describing the latest developments “as the result of increasing Russian pressure on Ukraine.”
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