DONETSK, Ukraine — Protesters who seek to join Russia seized state buildings Sunday in three cities in eastern Ukraine, triggering accusations from the pro-European government in Kiev that Russian President Vladimir Putin was orchestrating “separatist disorder.”
The demonstrators stormed regional government buildings in the industrial hub of Donetsk and security service offices in nearby Luhansk, waving Russian flags and demanding a Crimea-style referendum on joining Russia. Protesters also seized the regional administration building in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, the Interfax news agency reported. All three cities lie close to the border with Russia.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov vowed to restore order in eastern Ukraine without using violence, and he accused ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, whose political base was in Donetsk, of conspiring with Putin to fuel tensions.
“Putin and Yanukovich ordered and paid for the latest wave of separatist disorder in the east of the country,” Avakov said in a statement on his Facebook page. “The people who have gathered are not many but they are very aggressive.”
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov called an emergency meeting of security chiefs in Kiev, the parliamentary news service said.
About 1,500 protesters in Donetsk broke into the regional administration building that houses the offices of Serhiy Taruta, a steel baron recently appointed by the interim government in Kiev as a regional governor.
Talking to the crowd over a loudspeaker, protest leaders said they wanted regional lawmakers to convene an emergency meeting to discuss a vote on joining Russia like the one that led to the annexation of Crimea. “Deputies of the regional council should convene before midnight and take the decision to carry out a referendum,” said a protest leader who did not identify himself.
In Luhansk, protesters made similar demands. “We don’t want to join the E.U., we don’t want to join NATO. We want our children to live in peace,” an unnamed woman told Ukraine’s Channel Five in Luhansk.
Eastern Ukraine, where Russian is the dominant language. has seen a sharp rise in tensions since Yanukovych’s ouster in February and the advent of an interim government in Kiev that backs closer ties with the European Union.
Russia has branded the new government illegitimate and has annexed the Crimea region, which had been part of Ukraine, citing threats to the peninsula’s Russian-speaking majority. The move sparked the most significant rift between Moscow and the West since the end of the Cold War.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the military chief of NATO, warned last week that Russian forces could invade eastern Ukraine within 12 hours of being given the order.
Czech President Milos Zeman said Sunday that the West should take strong action, possibly sending NATO forces to Ukraine, if Russia tries to annex the eastern part of the country.
“The moment Russia decides to widen its territorial expansion to the eastern part of Ukraine, that is where the fun ends,” Zeman said in a broadcast on Czech public radio.