SLAVIANSK: Ukraine appealed to Russia to halt “provocative actions” in its eastern regions yesterday as pro-Russian militants seized two more government buildings and called for autonomy from Kiev.
At least 20 men armed with pistols and rifles took over the police station and a security services headquarters in Slaviansk, about 150km from the border with Russia. Officials said the men had seized hundreds of pistols from arsenals in the buildings.
The militants replaced the Ukrainian flag on one of the buildings with the red, white and blue Russian flag. On a road leading into Slaviansk, other members of the group, armed with automatic rifles, set up a roadblock and checked vehicles entering the city, witnesses said.
Ukraine’s Western-backed government warned of tough action if the militants did not lay down their weapons, but it was unclear if the local law enforcement agencies were taking orders from Kiev any more after the local police chief quit.
Kostyantyn Pozhydayev came out to speak to pro-Russian protesters at his offices in the regional capital, Donetsk, and told them he was stepping down “in accordance with your demands”. Some of his officers left the building.
The protesters occupied the ground floor of the Donetsk police headquarters and a black and orange flag adopted by pro-Russian separatists flew over the building in place of the Ukrainian flag. The occupations are a potential flashpoint because if protesters are killed or hurt by Ukrainian forces, that could prompt the Kremlin to intervene to protect the local Russian-speaking population, a repeat of the scenario in Crimea.
Russia and Ukraine have been in confrontation since protests in Kiev forced the Moscow-backed president from office, and the Kremlin sent troops into Crimea, the home of its Black Sea Fleet and a part of Russia until 1954.
Moscow denies any plan to send in forces or split Ukraine, but the Western-leaning authorities in Kiev believe Russia is trying to create a pretext to interfere again. Nato says Russian armed forces are massing on Ukraine’s eastern border, while Moscow says they are on normal manoeuvres.
Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting Ukrainian president, called an emergency meeting of the national security council to discuss the unrest in the east. Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, said he had spoken by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and demanded Moscow stop what he called “provocative actions” by its agents in eastern Ukraine.
Lavrov, in a statement issued by his ministry, said there were no Russian agents in the region and that it would be “unacceptable” if Ukrainian authorities were to order the storming of the buildings.
Ukrainian commentator Sergei Leshchenko said the burst of activity by pro-Russian groups was an attempt by the Kremlin to give it a strong negotiating position before international talks about Ukraine in Geneva next Thursday.
MOSCOW: Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front, blamed the European Union for declaring a new Cold War on Russia that would hurt all concerned, Russian media reported yesterday as she paid an official visit to Moscow.
Europe-Russia relations are at their lowest ebb in decades after President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea prompted the EU to impose sanctions on dozens of prominent Russian officials and lawmakers.
However Le Pen, along with other Eurosceptic leaders of the far left and nationalist right, believe the original fault lies with Brussels for offering closer ties with Ukraine, a move Russia opposes.
“I am surprised a Cold War on Russia has been declared in the European Union,” French National Front leader Le Pen said at a meeting with Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the Russian parliament’s lower house.
“It’s not in line with traditional, friendly relations nor with the economic interests of our country or EU countries and harms future relations,” Russian news agency Interfax quoted her as saying in its Russian-language service.
At the meeting with Le Pen, Naryshkin, who is one of the officials hit by the EU’s asset freezes and travel bans, stressed the importance of Russia’s ties with France, but said relations had been strained by “Russophobic, anti-Russia campaigns” instigated by several European countries.
Le Pen, a tough-talking former lawyer, said Ukraine’s eastern regions should be allowed to choose greater independence from Kiev. “The idea of federalism would give regions the chance of broad autonomy, to determine their destiny independently,” Interfax quoted her as saying.