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Pro-Russian Separatists Ready for a Showdown

Armed pro-Russian men guard barricades in front of city hall in Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, April 21, 2014.
Pro-Russian militants and separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine say they are determined to defy the government in Kyiv and maintain their occupation of government buildings in 10 cities across the region.

The statement was brief from the deputy mission chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is trying to implement last week’s Geneva accord aimed at resolving the Ukraine crisis.

Mark Etherington told journalists he had met with one of the key separatist leaders in the town of Slovyansk, the self-declared mayor Vyacheslav Ponomaryov.

“We have just concluded a two-hour meeting with Mr. Ponomaryov, who we
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, speaks during his press conference in city hall, Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, April 21, 2014.
Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed mayor of Slovyansk, speaks during his press conference in city hall, Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, April 21, 2014.
understand is one of the leaders of the armed groups in this town," he said. "We discussed whether he and the groups he leads would comply with the provisions of the Geneva statement.”

The British diplomat also asked about eight detainees being held by the separatists, including a pro-Ukrainian woman activist, the alleged maltreatment in the past few days of the Roma minority in the area and Sunday’s shooting incident. Separatists say six died in a shoot-out with people they say were Ukrainian ultranationalists. Authorities say three were killed in the incident, and that they are investigating it.

“I am afraid I won’t take any questions now,” Etherington added.

And with that the diplomat was gone. Journalists were not told whether any progress had been made to persuade pro-Russian militants to leave the government buildings they are occupying and disarm, in accordance with the Geneva agreement reached last week by Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union.

But doubts were quickly dispelled when Ponomaryov, a former soldier in the Soviet army who has surrounded himself with heavily armed, masked gunmen, made clear retreat is far from his mind.

During a menacing news conference, in which he and his aides warned journalists that they are being monitored carefully, Ponomaryov said that until what he calls the Kyiv junta pulls back all Ukrainian security forces from the region, he and his men will continue to occupy government buildings in Slovyansk.

Like other separatist leaders in the mostly Russian-speaking east of Ukraine, he is adamant that Moscow is not supporting or encouraging the pro-Russian militancy. But he says that in the wake of Sunday’s attack on a checkpoint manned by separatists, he has appealed to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for protection and weapons.

The Geneva deal provides amnesty for separatist protesters who leave government buildings they have occupied, except for those found guilty of capital crimes. All illegal groups are required to disarm as well. In return, Kyiv promises to transfer more power to regional authorities.

Ukraine’s leaders accuse Russia of instigating the pro-Russian unrest and of infiltrating intelligence operatives into the country to coach separatists. They also allege that Moscow funds the protests. Moscow denies the charges.

So does another separatist leader in the biggest city in the region, Donetsk, 106 kilometers from Slovyansk. Vladimir Makovich, the speaker of the presidium of the self-styled Donetsk Republic.

Makovich says he and his men will only hand back the imposing 11-floor regional government building when the government in Kyiv resigns. He says he expects government forces to attack anytime and he is ready for the showdown.

And it looks like it, with the building being turned into more of a fortress each day.