HORLIVKA, Ukraine — Pro-
Russian gunmen extended their control over eastern Ukraine on Wednesday without encountering resistance, as the country’s acting president admitted that police and security forces were either “helpless” to prevent the unrest or were actively colluding with separatist rebels.
In an acknowledgment of his weakness, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said the Ukrainian government’s goal now was to prevent the agitation from spreading to other areas, and he called for the creation of special regional police forces so that a presidential election could take place May 25 as scheduled.
But he warned that the threat of a Russian invasion was real and said his country’s armed forces have been placed on full alert.
Turchynov spoke in the capital, Kiev, as the insurgency consolidated its control of the Donetsk region and extended its influence into the neighboring region of Luhansk. Both regions border Russia.
On Wednesday, insurgents armed with automatic weapons took control of the city council buildings in the cities of Horlivka in Donetsk and Alchevsk in Luhansk; the previous day, another mob seized control of the regional government headquarters in the city of Luhansk, smashing windows as they forced their way in.
The neighboring regions, collectively known as Donbass, are Ukraine’s industrial heartland, home to steel smelters, heavy industry and coal mines. An armed uprising by Russian-speaking separatists began there in April, and the insurgents plan to hold a referendum on secession in the area on May 11, two weeks before the national presidential election.
Many of the insurgents apparently hope to follow Crimea’s break from Ukraine in March and subsequent annexation by Russia, although popular support for such a path is thought to be considerably lower here than it was in Crimea.
In Horlivka, Anatoly Starostin, the commander of separatist forces, said they took control of a police station Tuesday evening without any problems, and he described the police there as “corrupt, weak and unprofessional.”
The separatists then took over city hall Wednesday with the agreement of the local mayor, who said he supported their cause and would remain in his post. A flag of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic flew over the building Wednesday.
“All I want is to be a citizen of Russia, and for this part of Ukraine to be part of Russia,” Starostin, 42, said in an interview in the lobby of city hall.
Starostin said he came from the city of Slovyansk, which has been under separatist control for about two weeks, with orders to take control of the city and recruit a “self-defense force” from among the people of Horlivka.
The militiamen controlling city hall wore masks and carried automatic rifles; Starostin wore a new camouflage uniform without any insignia, and no mask.
“Russian soldiers do not go to war with masks on their faces,” he said, suggesting that although he is not a Russian soldier now, he aspires to be one eventually.
Many residents of the run-down town appeared to welcome the takeover, which came as no surprise.
“We have become enemies” with the rest of Ukraine, tailor and dressmaker Pavel Kravchenko said. “Kiev and Western regions hate the Russian residents of Ukraine. They call us Moskali” — a derogatory word for Muscovites — “and, judging by how little resistance we see by authorities, they will let us go to Russia soon.”
In Kiev, Turchnyov, the acting president, told a meeting of regional governors that local security forces were unable to protect citizens.
“I will be frank: Today, security forces are unable to quickly take the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under control,” Turchynov said, according to the Interfax-Ukraine news service, calling them “helpless” and in some cases “cooperating with terrorist organizations.”
Turchynov instructed the governors to try to prevent the threat from spreading to other regions in the central and southern parts of the country.
“Our task is to stop the spread of the terrorist threat first of all in the Kharkiv and Odessa regions,” Turchynov was quoted as saying.
The mayor of Kharkiv, who had been credited with keeping Ukraine’s second-largest city calm, was shot in the back this week.
The Ukrainian government and the United States accuse Russia of fomenting the unrest.
“I think it’s very clear that what is happening would not be happening without Russian involvement,” Daniel Baer, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told reporters in Vienna. The OSCE has 120 monitors in the region.
Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine, although it says it has no plans to invade. But Ukraine’s acting president told the regional governors that those assurances could not be trusted.
“I once again return to the real danger of the Russian Federation beginning a land war against Ukraine,” Turchynov said. “Our armed forces have been put on full military readiness.”
The insurgents now control buildings in about a dozen cities in eastern Ukraine and are holding some activists and journalists hostage, including a group of observers from the OSCE.
The Donbass region was the heartland of support for Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s previous president, who was ousted in February amid street protests and fled to Russia. But support for Russian annexation of the region is far from universal, even among the Russian speakers who make up the majority of the population there.
On Wednesday, Ukraine’s richest man and the region’s most powerful oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, said in a statement that he remained committed to Donbass remaining part of Ukraine.
Akhmetov was seen as close to Yanukovych, and his companies were seen as particularly favored by the previous government.
Denyer reported from Donetsk. Alex Ryabchyn in Donetsk contributed to this report.