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Pro-Russia demonstrators who seized a building in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk have declared a new “republic” and are seeking their own Crimean-style independence vote. The declaration came soon after the interim leaders in Kiev blamed Russia for spurring unrest in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian activists have been storming government offices in a number of cities. Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said during an emergency cabinet meeting on Monday that “the [Kremlin’s] plan is to destabilize the situation, the plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow.” This morning, pro-Russia groups took control of state security buildings in Luhansk.
Stefan Wolff and Tatyana Malyarenko analyze the protests in Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk:
There is little doubt that these events are being orchestrated by Moscow to increase pressure on the interim government in Kyiv and its Western backers. With presidential elections scheduled for May 25 alongside 27 mayoral contests, the political situation is becoming ever more tense.
Anti-Russian sentiment in western and central Ukraine is likely to reach new heights; this will in turn raise the levels of unease among the more pro-Russian minded populations in eastern Ukraine. While anti-Russian protests have continued to demonstrate resistance to the Kremlin’s continued meddling, there is therefore also a genuine base of resentment into which Moscow can easily tap.
Linda Kinstler explains the significance of the protesters chanting “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia”:
Novorossiya is the name of the formerly Ottoman territory that Catherine the Great conquered in the Russo-Turkish Wars, which is now much of southern and eastern Ukraine. Led by Prince Grigory Potemkin, Russian forces colonized the land in the late 18th century and established the cities of Sevastopol, Simferopol, Tiraspol, and Odessa. …
If the Kremlin isn’t after re-establishing Novorossiya, it’s certainly looking to create something like it—and the first step in that direction is federalizing Ukraine. In an interview last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that federalization is the only “absolutely correct way” to proceed, and that it’s “what the eastern and southern regions request.” If the Kremlin has its way, Ukraine might either become a federation of regional governments, each with wide-ranging authority to act virtually autonomously, or the “independent” southern and eastern regions would become Russian oblasts.
Morrissey considers the bind the Ukraine PM is in:
The problem for Yatsenyuk is that he can’t afford a military confrontation, which leaves his hands tied to a large extent in the eastern provinces. First, what forces he does have need to fortify the border rather than impose order in Donetsk and Lugansk. Even more to the point, the use of the military to suppress the Russian-speaking population would give Putin exactly the pretense he wants to send his far more powerful military into eastern Ukraine to protect the oppressed Russian minority.
But Adam Taylor points out that Donetsk is not Crimea:
While the city does have a slim Russian majority (48.15 percent vs. 46.65 percent Ukrainians, according to the 2001 census), it’s at the center of an Oblast with a clear Ukrainian majority (56.9 percent Ukrainians to 38.2 percent Russians, according to the same census).
The different circumstances here may well prompt a different response from Kiev, who offered little more than stern words when Crimea voted for annexation by Russia (it could certainly be argued that the anger over Crimea’s referendum wasn’t so much due to Crimea joining Russia, but rather the flawed way the referendum was held). The Ukrainian government has so far refused to contemplate letting Ukraine’s fifth-largest city and a major economic hub secede.