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KIEV, Ukraine — Tensions rose in Ukraine’s eastern regions today as gunmen seized two cities’ police stations and protesters occupied a third, prompting the government in Kiev to pledge a tough response.
Protesters took over the police station in Donetsk, sparking the local police chief’s resignation. About 20 gunmen in camouflage gear took the station of nearby Slovyansk, seizing weapons and taking hostages, the Interior Ministry said on Saturday. The police station in nearby Krasny Liman was also occupied. Ukraine dispatched special-forces troops to deal with the situation, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said.
In an echo of protests in Crimea that preceded Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea Peninsula, spreading pro-Russia protests have rattled Ukraine’s industrial heartland. The government in Kiev warned that the disturbances threaten to derail four-party talks scheduled for next week. Government buildings were recently seized in the cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk, near the border across which NATO said about 40,000 Russian troops are massing in combat readiness.
“This is the most dangerous place now,” Vadym Grechanynov, President of the Atlantic Council of Ukraine, said by phone today. Russia “will try to provoke Ukraine in any possible way. I’m sure Russia won’t leave Ukraine alone.”
In Slovyansk, local social media described how camouflaged gunmen with automatic weapons, resembling those in unmarked uniforms in Crimea, have barricaded the road to prevent police buses from entering the city, according to a report Saturday by the Interfax news service.
As a scheduled protest march by Russian speakers started in Donetsk, Avakov said that demonstrators had left the Prosecutor’s Office they had been occupying in Donetsk.
“Our reaction is going to be very tough, in keeping with the distinction between demonstrators and terrorists,” Avakov, who is visiting Donetsk, wrote on his Facebook account. “For armed terrorists, there will be zero tolerance.”
Having already annexed Crimea and deployed thousands of troops along the border, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been ratcheting up pressure on Ukraine, threatening last week to halt gas shipments to the country. A stoppage may also hurt supplies to the rest of Europe, he said.
While Russia would also suffer from losing Ukraine as a gas customer, the risk of interrupting transit of Russian gas to the European Union remains high, Andrey Kobolev, Chief Executive Officer of Naftogaz Ukrainy, the state-owned gas distributor that oversees Ukraine’s pipeline system, was quoted as saying Saturday in an interview with Ukraine’s Zerkalo Nedeli magazine.
Kobolev reiterated that the country has stopped payments to Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom while price talks continue.
“Ukraine is one of Europe’s biggest gas markets and its loss would be quite painful even for Gazprom,” Kobolev said, according to Zerkalo Nedeli. “We see no reason to revise the gas price, as the Russians are proposing, to close to $500, which we consider unjustified, unacceptable and inconsistent with the market. Accordingly, we’ve suspended payments while price negotiations are under way.”
Gazprom is supplying gas to Ukraine with little chance of receiving payments for more than $2.2 billion owed for fuel, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday in Moscow, commenting on a letter from Putin to 18 European heads of state.
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“Russia cannot continue to bear such a burden all on its own,” Putin said Friday during a meeting with Security Council members outside Moscow. “Russia is being very careful in its action and is taking a very balanced and respectful line toward all of our partners. We most certainly guarantee that we will fulfill in full our obligations to our European gas customers.”
The European Union plans to help Ukraine pay its gas bill and there’s “no reason to panic” over shipments of the fuel, European Union Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said in an interview with the Austrian radio station ORF.
On Friday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk sought to ease tensions among Russian speakers in the country’s east demanding greater autonomy. The government in Kiev wants to increase the powers of regions and to resolve the crisis that’s gripping the country as soon as possible, Yatsenyuk told reporters in Donetsk Friday.
On Saturday, hundreds of protesters, some waving Russian flags, surrounded the city’s police station before seizing the building. They moved in without resistance from the unarmed officers. The local police chief resigned. Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov fired the head of the regional security service, according to Interfax.
During a march through the city earlier, people celebrated officers of the riot police unit Berkut, which fought protesters during the deadly clashes in Kiev in February that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko, addressing reporters alongside Yatsenyuk Friday, urged the holding of a referendum on decentralization alongside the presidential election scheduled for May 25.
“The liberation of southeast Ukraine has begun!” Crimea Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliev wrote on his Facebook account, which he confirmed by phone. “If Kiev continues to ignore the need of federalization in Ukraine, it might happen that a new federative formation will appear in the southeast — and will join the union state of Russia and Belarus,” he said by phone from Simferopol on Saturday.
While only 8 percent of Ukrainians nationwide want their region to secede, in Donetsk province the figure is 18 percent, according to an opinion poll by the Kiev-based Democratic Initiatives Foundation. The creation of an independent state in southern and eastern Ukraine is backed by 11 percent, according to the March 16-30 survey conducted among 2,010 respondents in 24 Ukrainian regions including Crimea and the capital, Kiev.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Deshchytsia to urge a peaceful resolution and called on the government in Kiev to respect the “legitimate claims” of people in eastern and southern Ukraine, Interfax reported.
Deshchytsia, during the phone call with Lavrov, demanded that “provocations by Russian special forces” in eastern Ukraine stop, according to a statement on the Ukrainian foreign ministry’s website. The disturbances threaten to derail talks between Russia, the U.S., Ukraine and the European Union, scheduled for next week, the ministry said.
Preparations for four-party talks on Ukraine are in progress and there is no agreement on the schedule or format of such an event, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich says in statement on the ministry’s website.
The U.S., EU, Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers plan to meet on April 17 in Geneva for talks, German government deputy spokeswoman Christiane Wirtz said at a news briefing in Berlin on Friday.