MOSCOW— Pro-Russian activists have seized state security buildings in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk and are calling for a referendum on autonomy. In response, Ukraine's parliament is demanding harsh punishment for separatists and analysts are saying the Ukraine crisis is now in a dangerous new phase.
Holed up in a regional administrative building in Donetsk, the several hundred activists calling themselves the “People’s Council” are demanding the right to separate from Ukraine and calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin for help.
Pro-Russian demonstrators also stormed government buildings in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Luhansk and Kharkiv.
Defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper said there could be a full-fledged Russian military incursion into the three eastern Ukrainian cities.
“The real factor is the battle readiness of the troops that are designated there. And battle readiness seems to be right now at its highest," he said.
However, that battle readiness can’t be sustained indefinitely, Felgenhauer said, meaning that Russia has a window of opportunity to invade eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian parliament will push through anti-separatist legislation.
“So it’s either now or never. Not maybe never, but at least the same level of battle readiness we have right now will be maybe again reached somewhere in August.”
Felgenhauer said the current window runs from now until mid-May, at which time Russian troops deployed near Ukraine should be rotated out. This also means Ukrainian authorities in Kyiv have the same small window to take measures of their own. But what can they do?
Mark Galeotti, a security expert and professor at New York University, said it is within Ukraine’s abilities to use force to remove the pro-Russia activists from the buildings they have seized.
“Kyiv needs to show that it has strength and determination. If it doesn’t, it will embolden the protesters all the more," said Galeotti.
Ukraine's former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is reportedly heading to Donetsk to help defuse the situation there. According to Galeotti, in dealing with the pro-Russian protests, the Ukrainian government must perform a difficult balancing act between being heavy handed which he says would just make things worse and looking weak. "it's a difficult balance to strike," he said.
For now, no shots have been fired. Some observers say that if Russia and Ukraine can stave off bloodshed through the May 25 presidential election, and the coming summer heat, then the impending winter will keep Russian forces on their side of the border.