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Ukraine crisis: President Turchynov accuses Kremlin of creating uprising in east to justify new invasion as pro-Russian protesters declare 'People's Republic' in Donetsk

Ten of thousands of troops mass on border after protesters storm state buildings in three cities

Ukraine’s President on Monday accused Moscow of trying to tear his country apart after separatist protesters stormed buildings and declared an independent republic in an eastern city not far from the border where tens of thousands of Russian troops are massing.

Fearing the Kremlin may be attempting to create a pretext for a military incursion, President Oleksandr Turchynov announced plans to send his own reinforcements to the border. On Monday night, a White House spokesman also suggested that Moscow could be behind the latest unrest, and warned Russia against “overtly or covertly” stoking tensions in eastern Ukraine.

Russia immediately denied any links to the latest instability in its neighbour, with the foreign ministry issuing a statement saying it could not be blamed for “all the troubles of today’s Ukraine”. Pro-Russian protesters overran state buildings in three eastern Ukrainian cities at the weekend, with a faction in Donetsk on Monday declaring a “People’s Republic” and calling for a referendum on independence in the city about 50 miles from the Russian border.

Echoes of the events of late February in Crimea – when militia loyal to Moscow took over key buildings in the peninsula after protesters ousted the pro-Russian president – have caused alarm in Kiev. Within days, Russian forces were on the ground in the peninsular, and a hasty referendum saw the Black Sea region annexed by Moscow last month.


President Turchynov claimed in a televised statement on Monday that events in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv were orchestrated by Russia in an attempt to “play the Crimean scenario” and justify an invasion of Ukraine’s industrial heartland, where many ethnic Russians live. Donetsk and other eastern cities also have sizeable ethnic Ukrainian communities and support for Russia is not nearly as widespread as across Crimea. But leaders in Moscow have not ruled out military intervention if ethnic Russians are under threat, heightening suspicions in Kiev.

“Its aim is to destabilise the situation in the country, overthrow the Ukrainian authorities, sabotage the (25 May presidential) election and tear apart our country,” Mr Turchynov said. As well as beefing up border protection, he called for “ anti-terrorist measures against those who took up arms”.

While protesters in Kharkiv have been dispersed, the dozens occupying the regional parliament and state security service building in Donetsk barricaded themselves in with razor wire and tyres. Police said separatists in the security building in Luhansk had stolen weapons.

Also causing concern last night was the build-up of Russian forces close to its border with the former Soviet state. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), of which Russia is a member, held an emergency meeting in Vienna yesterday. “We have strong evidence that there are tens of thousands of forces on the border and again not in their normal peacetime positions or garrisons,” said Daniel Baer, the US ambassador to the OSCE “What the Russian Federation should be doing is taking steps to de-escalate the crisis.”

The European Union and Washington have already imposed sanctions on dozens of Russian officials in retaliation for the annexation of Crimea. US President Barack Obama and David Cameron have made clear that any further Russian military incursions into eastern Ukraine would trigger much broader economic sanctions.

The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, on Monday reiterated those threats and said there was “strong evidence” that some demonstrators in the eastern cities “were paid and were not local residents”. He did not directly accuse Russia of paying them, but  said: “If Russia moves into eastern Ukraine either overtly or covertly this would be a very serious escalation.”

An EU official said yesterday that they were still working on a package of possible sanctions if the situation were to deteriorate. It is also looking into how any sanctions might affect member states’ economies. Moscow has used Europe’s reliance on its gas as a political tool in the past. The state-owned energy firm, Gazprom, gave Ukraine a deadline of last night to pay off some of the $2.2bn (£1.3bn) it owes the company. While it did not specify the consequences of non-payment, EU nations are scrambling to come up with alternative supply routes in case Russia turns off the taps.

It was Kiev’s attempt last year to move closer to the EU and out of Russia’s shadow which sparked the greatest crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War.