Ukraine crisis: Russia accused of destabilising its neighbour after three government buildings are seized across the country

William Hague and John Kerry use strongest language yet and threaten tough sanctions, while EU plans for possible energy cut-off

Britain and the United States have issued a tough ultimatum to Russia to keep its troops out of eastern Ukraine or face debilitating sanctions, unequivocally blaming Moscow for the fresh separatist unrest in three cities that has tipped Ukraine back into crisis.

The storming by pro-Russian demonstrators of state buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv late on Sunday revived fears in Kiev and western capitals that Moscow may have designs on Ukrainian territory beyond Crimea, annexed last month. That sparked international outcry, a round of mild US and European Union sanctions, and warnings of tougher measures to come if Russia further destabilised its neighbour.

In eastern Ukraine, police moved in to try to clear the hundreds of demonstrators occupying buildings in the cities, despite ominous warnings from Moscow that authorities must not use any force against ethnic Russian protesters. Ukraine’s state security service claimed separatists rigged one building with explosives and were holding 60 people hostage.

Russian government officials have denied any link to the unrest of the past few days, but the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, accused the Kremlin of “an illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilise a sovereign state”.

“It is clear that Russian special forces and agents have been the catalyst behind the chaos of the last 24 hours,” Mr Kerry told a Senate panel, adding that this “could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea”. If any such steps did take place, he added, the US and its partners were “willing to put into effect tough new sanctions on those orchestrating this action and on key sectors of the Russian economy”.

In London, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, also implied that Russia was skirting dangerously close to actions that could trigger the next round of EU sanctions. “There can be no justification for this action, which bears all the hallmarks of a Russian strategy to destabilise Ukraine,” he said.

“Russia should be clear that a deliberate and further escalation of the crisis will bring serious political and economic consequences... the UK will consider any armed Russian presence in eastern Ukraine as a further and deliberate escalation.”

EU heads of state last month tasked the bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, with putting together a package of proposed sanctions that would target key Russian economic sectors including energy, mining, arms and financial services. A Commission official said they were working as quickly as they could to get the proposals ready.

While Mr Putin has insisted he has no intention of invading eastern Ukraine, he has made clear that he would use military force if ethnic Russians living in the country came under threat.

His Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, called his Ukrainian counterpart on Monday night to warn against the use of force in eastern Ukraine “to respond to legal demands (by protesters) to protect their language, culture and socio-economic rights”.

Despite those words, Ukrainian police cleared the occupied buildings in Kharkiv after a brief overnight operation in which 70 people were arrested. Protesters remained entrenched in Donetsk and Luhansk, however, with separatists in both cities now demanding a referendum on independence. This was reminiscent of events in Crimea in February, when the ousting of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in Kiev proved the catalyst for Russia’s invasion of the Black Sea peninsula.

The situation in Luhansk, less than 20 miles from the Russian border, appeared to be deteriorating tonight with the Ukrainian security service, the SBU, claiming in a statement that “the criminals have mined the building... and are holding around 60 people, threatening them with weapons and explosives”. A representative for the protesters denied the claim.

Members of Parliament of the Svoboda party fight with Members of Parliament of the Communist party in the Ukrainian parliament on April 8, 2014, during the debates focused on a law toughening responsibility for separatism.

Russia has also hit back at critics, specifically in Nato, which has announced restrictions on Russian diplomats visiting its Brussels headquarters. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said such actions showed the alliance could not rise above “the thinking of the Cold War era”. The Kremlin has also been making tactical use of its command over Europe’s energy market, with an official from the state energy firm Gazprom noting that Ukraine had missed the deadline for paying back some of its $2.2bn (£1.31bn) debt to the company.

Nearly half of the Russian gas that ends up in Europe transits through Ukraine, and EU and Ukrainian officials met in Brussels today to fashion a plan B if Russia does decide to cut off supplies. While Gazprom officials have not said what action they will take over Ukraine’s non-payment of bills, Russia’s Deputy Energy Minister said that he forecast exports to Europe would drop this year.

Additional reporting by agencies

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