Crisis in Ukraine

While Russians Riot in Ukraine, the Kremlin Talks Diplomacy

The building occupations in Eastern Ukraine may be meant to test the resolve not only of Kiev but of the United States.

© Stringer . / Reuters

On Tuesday, the website of Ukrainskaya Pravda published a video address by the Russian-speaking activists who have occupied the state security service building in Luhansk. In the video, several militiamen armed with Kalashnikov rifles and wearing black balaclavas denied there were any Russians among them. Their commander introduced their unit as the “South-East Headquarters of Afghan Veterans and Border Control Unit.” The only demand they had was to hold a referendum, the commander said, “But if you are preparing to storm the building against us, war veterans trying to run a referendum, welcome to hell.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may think he’s already there as he tries to negotiate a way out of this crisis with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. And it appears likely that the sudden secessionist action over the weekend in eastern Ukraine, including the building occupation by the supposed Afghan vets is part of a strategy to pressure the Americans.

The Ukrainian security services claimed that the Luhansk separatists “used terrorist methods,” that they mined the building and took hostages. Their action also seemed to be coordinated. Thousands of activists in three major cities of eastern Ukraine seized governmental buildings over the weekend. Then, during special “anti-terrorist” operations on Monday night, Ukraine’s police detained about 70 protestors in Donetsk and cleared an administration building in Kharkiv. Protestors continued to rally, demanding referendums in the self-proclaimed “Republic of Luhansk,” “Republic of Donetsk” and “Republic of Kharkiv.”

Earlier this week, Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst involved in Ukrainian strategy said in an interview with The Daily Beast that “the longer Kerry disagrees with Lavrov, the more radical pro-Russian actions will become in eastern Ukraine.” What is Moscow demanding Washington to support?

Lavrov allegedly listed the Kremlin’s suggestions for solving the Ukraine crisis during a phone conversation on Monday. The Russian website said that Russia demanded Kiev authorities would fulfill the agreement opposition leaders made with president Victor Yanukovych on February 21, just before he was ousted and fled into exile. Moscow also insisted Kiev should change the existing constitution and legislation so the Russian language would become a state language. Ukrainian regions would be allowed to elect governors. Nobody could interfere in Orthodox church affairs. And once the constitution is changed, Ukraine should have elections on all levels.

“It’s not that Putin is a big fan of the U.S. style of democracy,” said Markov, “but he wants Kiev to have real transparent elections, where the pro-Russian population has equal rights, because he is sure that over 60 percent of the Ukrainian population would vote for Ukraine’s union with Russia and not with E.U.” One of the demands was also for Ukraine “to recognize the right of the people of the Crimea republic to decide their own fate.”

Meantime, Secretary of State Kerry threatened Moscow with tougher sanctions if Russia did not stop its “efforts to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives across an international boundary.” But a majority of Russians watching television reports about Russian speakers in Ukraine who are asking for independence from Kiev expect the Kremlin to stay involved in the situation. According to Tuesday morning polls by the liberal Echo of Moscow radio station, 57 percent of listeners voted online for Russia to support the self-proclaimed independent states in eastern Ukraine, and 38 percent said they did not want Russia to intervene.