Wall Street Journal.


Updated April 7, 2014 7:26 p.m. ET

Antigovernment protesters demanding closer ties with Moscow seized regional government headquarters in two cities in Ukraine's east in the most serious unrest there in the past month. James Marson reports.

DONETSK, Ukraine—Pro-Moscow protesters occupying government buildings in eastern Ukraine called Monday for their own referendum on independence, a flare-up that spurred a renewed diplomatic push and a fresh warning by the U.S. against any Russian escalation.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, after a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, announced he would meet together with Russian, Ukrainian and European officials within 10 days. In an apparent glimmer of progress, Mr. Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Andriy Deshchytsia, said they had spoken Monday night, in what seems to have been their first significant conversation since the crisis began over a month ago.

Senior U.S. defense officials said their fear is that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be trying to create a pretext for additional military action by covertly fueling unrest in eastern Ukraine.

The country's new government accused Moscow of instigating the protests, which began Sunday, while the White House said it had evidence that protesters had been paid—a charge Moscow didn't address.

President Barack Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, didn't elaborate on the nature of the evidence, but said: "I think that at least suggests that outside forces, not local forces, were participating on the effort to create these provocations."

The situation remained tense. Hundreds of people gathered in front of the regional government building in the industrial city of Donetsk late Monday, listening to Soviet songs such as "Victory Day" playing over loudspeakers.

Inside the building, behind barricades of barbed wire and tires, hundreds of mostly young men, many carrying clubs and wearing masks or balaclavas, sat smoking or making weapons from steel bars.

A bearded 37-year-old protester who only gave his first name, Alexei, called himself a deputy in the regional council that demonstrators had just proclaimed. He said they also have more serious weapons. "Not automatic weapons, but ones that kill," he said. "Pistols, rifles."

The flare-up affected Russian markets, with the Micex tumbling as much as 3.3% and the dollar-denominated RTS Index sliding 4.5%. The ruble ended the day down almost 1% against the dollar.

Pro-Russian activists guard a barricade set at the Ukrainian regional Security Service building in the eastern city of Donetsk. AFP/Getty Images

While the scenario appeared similar to what preceded Russia's annexation of Crimea last month, the new protests seemed to lack the broad public support seen in that breakaway region, which had been part of Russia in the not-too-distant past.

If they continue, however, they could complicate Ukraine's plans—strongly supported by the U.S. and Europe—to hold presidential elections May 25. The Kremlin has called for delaying that vote, saying that ethnic Russian regions won't have an adequate voice.

The pro-Russian protests in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk—cities where ethnic Russians make up much of the population—are the most dramatic challenges to the Kiev government's authority in weeks.

Local authorities, backed by security officials from Kiev, vowed to subdue the secessionists, but as of Monday evening they appeared to be avoiding direct confrontation.

Western officials fear that a broad crackdown could provide Moscow a pretext to use the tens of thousands of troops it has deployed just across the border. Ukraine has deployed its own forces on its side of the frontier, but they would likely be overwhelmed by the bigger and better-equipped Russian force.

"For Putin to make any more advances, he needs to make the case that he needs to protect Russians," a senior U.S. defense official said. "When you look at Chechnya and Georgia, you can develop a pattern here."

Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said he believed the protests represented "the second wave of Russia's special operation against Ukraine, aimed at destabilization, toppling the current government, thwarting elections and tearing the country apart."

"The enemies of Ukraine are trying to restage the Crimean scenario, but we will prevent it," he said, blaming the unrest on Russia's security services.

Russia's security service didn't comment on the allegations of meddling, but the Russian Foreign Ministry's reaction was muted. It accused Ukraine of trying to pass the blame for its own problems. "Enough putting the blame on Russia and accusing her of all of Ukraine's current troubles," the ministry said. "The Ukrainian people want to hear a clear answer from Kiev on all questions."

The ministry said that Mr. Lavrov had told his Ukrainian counterpart, Mr. Deshchytsia, to take rapid measures to organize a national dialogue and said Russia was ready, along with the U.S. and the European Union, to support constitutional overhauls to give the regions more power.

In his conversations with Western officials, Mr. Lavrov cited the unrest as a reason to support Russia's plan for Ukraine: a federal structure without any affiliation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Ukrainian officials see the federation plan, which has little support even in Ukraine's east, as a way for Moscow to increase its sway or even carve up Ukrainian territory.

Mr. Deshchytsia said on his Twitter TWTR -1.60% account that he'd called for de-escalation and noninterference from Russia in Ukraine's south and east. He said they'd agreed to continue a dialogue.

Ukraine's government has accused Russia and ousted President Viktor Yanukovych of funding the protests. Security services have in recent weeks announced the arrest of several Russian citizens, some of whom Kiev claims work for Russian intelligence and were helping plan or carry out separatist activities.

In Washington, the White House cautioned Moscow against any attempt to destabilize Ukraine or intervene militarily, adding that it stood ready to impose further sanctions.

"If Russia moves into eastern Ukraine, either overtly or covertly, this would be a very serious escalation," Mr. Carney said.

Mr. Kerry conveyed the U.S. concerns to Mr. Lavrov by phone, the State Department said.

Ukraine's security service late Monday retook control of their regional office in Donetsk, which protesters had seized in the early hours.

At the regional government building, a Russian flag and pro-Russian banners hung from the balcony, where men in balaclavas stood with a stock of Molotov cocktails at hand. Fire hoses were snaked throughout the building, just in case.

On the second floor, demonstrators set up a medical station and a table of food, offering meat paste on bread and tea.

The man who called himself a deputy, Alexei, wearing pointy black leather shoes and a green helmet covered in Russian-flag stickers, said protesters were arriving by bus from nearby towns.

Earlier in the day, the protesters voted to call a referendum in the next month on independence. It wasn't clear whether they had enough support to follow through, however.

They also appealed to Moscow for peacekeeping troops, a request Moscow ignored.

Ukrainian officials denounced the gathering as illegal.

Russia has warned repeatedly that it is prepared to intervene to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine's east and south from alleged threats by Ukrainian nationalists.

"If the political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian authorities continue in their irresponsible attitude toward the fate of the country and its people, then Ukraine will inevitably be faced with new challenges and crises," the Russian Foreign Ministry said Monday.

Western capitals have criticized Moscow's actions and imposed some limited sanctions, mostly against individuals, in a so-far unsuccessful bid to pressure Russia to back off.

Mr. Carney warned that the latest developments could elicit tougher sanctions against Russia's financial, banking and arms sectors. He cited an executive order Mr. Obama signed last month that established a framework for imposing sanctions against key sectors of the Russian economy.

"We continue to coordinate closely with the Europeans on potential sanctions," a senior administration official added. "Even though our lists to date may not overlap completely, they are complementary."

The pro-Russian protests that flared in Ukraine's eastern cities after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in late February had appeared to be fading. But they reignited Sunday as crowds of several hundred seized government buildings in the three cities.

Russia's state-run Rossiya-24 news network covered the scene from Donetsk live Monday, while the Russian news agency Interfax reported that Ukrainian media were kept out of the council building.

One of the protest leaders read an appeal to Mr. Putin, saying, "Without your support, without the support of Russia, it will be difficult for us to hold out against the junta on our own."

The crowd chanted, "Putin, Putin," according to the Russian broadcast. Russian officials often refer to the government in Kiev as a junta—accusing it of having taken power in a coup and refusing to recognize it.

In Kharkiv, police said the protesters left the building overnight Sunday after negotiations, but witnesses said some continued to occupy parts of the ground floor Monday and police had the building surrounded.

Pro-Russian demonstrators attacked a crowd rallying in favor of unity late Monday.

In the nearby regional capital of Luhansk, police said demonstrators who seized the local security-service building Sunday had taken a cache of weapons. A group of men, some holding automatic rifles, made a video statement apparently from the building, saying they were "the united headquarters of the southeast army" and calling on the regions to rise up.

Russia's invasion of Crimea came after a group of armed men seized the local parliament building there and appealed for Russian help. As in Crimea, a majority of people in the east are ethnic Russian, but surveys show less than half want their region to join Russia.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry also said that a Ukrainian naval officer had been fatally shot by a Russian soldier in Crimea late Sunday.

Ukraine has been moving to withdraw its troops from the region since Russia annexed it last month, days after residents voted to secede from Ukraine in a disputed referendum. Russian forces had occupied the peninsula following the collapse of Mr. Yanukovych's government.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said the sailor was shot by a member of Russia's Black Sea Fleet at a dormitory in Novofedorivka, home to a major air base, as he was preparing to leave for mainland Ukraine. In a statement, the ministry said the man was shot twice "at close range from an AK-47"—once in the chest and once in the face.

The ministry said Russian soldiers also badly beat a Ukrainian captain who was staying at the dorm and placed him under arrest.

Russia's Defense Ministry and the Black Sea Fleet couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

A spokesman for Crimea's Interior Ministry told Russian news agencies that the shooting occurred only after what he called Ukrainian hooligans threw stones at a military checkpoint, breaking windows before running into the dormitory. When a military patrol followed, the spokesman said the attackers tried to wrest their weapons away from them, leading one officer to open fire.

Ukraine has been working on moving its remaining forces in Crimea back to mainland Ukraine since Russia annexed the territory. There had been a number of tense standoffs at Ukrainian bases around the peninsula, but they had rarely resulted in violence. On March 18, a Ukrainian soldier and a member of a pro-Russian unit of local irregulars were fatally shot during a clash at a base near the regional capital of Simferopol.

—Carol E. Lee, Adam Entous and Alexander Kolyandr contributed to this article.


Write to James Marson at and Lukas I. Alpert at

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