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Ukrainian government warns new protests in Eastern Ukraine signal Russian attempt to destabilize its neighbor

April 7, 2014 at 6:07 PM EDT
Ukraine unrest
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Ukraine is back in the spotlight again as pro-Russian activists have taken over government buildings in at least three cities in the country’s east.

The prime minister claims Moscow is behind this latest unrest.

PROTESTERS: Putin! Putin! Putin! Putin!

JUDY WOODRUFF: They chanted the Russian president’s name in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk today, where protesters proclaimed independence, and called for a referendum to join Russia.

MAN (through interpreter): We are addressing you, Vladimir Putin. Only in Russia do we see the last remaining defender of our culture of the Russian world. We are ready to fight and die for our ideals and our convictions, but without the support of Russia, we will find it difficult alone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The protesters stormed the regional government offices in Donetsk yesterday, pushing their way through a police cordon and into the building, and cutting down the Ukrainian flag.

In the hours that followed, crowds also stormed Ukrainian government buildings in the cities of Kharkiv and Luhansk. Later today, the Russian news agency Interfax reported the protesters in Kharkiv also declared an independent republic. The action took place in mainly Russian-speaking parts of Eastern Ukraine, where support for ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych had been strongest. It recalled events in Crimea, several weeks ago, when Russian-speaking men occupied military and government sites.

The region held a quick referendum and was promptly annexed by Moscow. Now there are signs that more of the country may be about to slip away. This has prompted Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to warn this new trouble is nothing less than a Russian attempt at the destruction of Ukraine.

ARSENIY YATSENYUK, Interim Prime Minister, Ukraine (through interpreter): It is absolutely clear that an anti-Ukrainian, anti-Donetsk, anti-Luhansk, anti-Kharkiv plan is being realized. That is a plan to destabilize the situation, a plan for foreign troops to cross the borders and seize the territory of the country, which we will not allow to happen. I am sure that citizens of Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kharkiv want to live in a united country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Indeed, Yatsenyuk said, as many as 10,000 Russian forces are massed just across the border, no more than 20 miles away.

In Washington, the White House said any Russian moves overtly or covertly into Eastern Ukraine would be a very serious escalation and likely trigger new sanctions. The Kremlin rejected allegations that it’s fomenting the unrest in Eastern Ukraine.

But Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a phone call.

Spokeswoman Jen Psaki:

JEN PSAKI, State Department Spokeswoman: He called on Russia to publicly disavow the activities of separatists, saboteurs and provocateurs, calling for de-escalation and dialogue, and called on all parties to refrain from agitation in Ukraine. He made clear that any further Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine will incur further costs for Russia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The department also announced Kerry plans to meet with top diplomats from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union in the next 10 days.