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Alexander Ermochenko / AP

Countdown to 48-hour deadline in Donetsk

Separatists occupying government building in east Ukraine given ultimatum to leave but they dig in

DONETSK, Ukraine — Ukraine’s top police official gave a 48-hour deadline to separatists who have occupied the regional government building in Donetsk Wednesday, as activists in the eastern city continued to dig in and expand their makeshift defenses and arsenals.

Donetsk’s regional governor, meanwhile, sounded a more conciliatory note after meeting for talks with leaders of the separatists for more than two hours.

As crowds of at least 1,000 massed throughout the day outside the administration building in the center of the city, the comments by acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov appeared to deepen the resolve of the scores of masked, camouflaged men roaming the building and its exterior — many wearing orange construction helmets, carrying makeshift clubs and hospital surgical masks.

Speaking at a government meeting in Kyiv, Avakov said “antiterrorist operations" were underway in Donetsk and two other regions that have seen pro-Russian activists seize government buildings. He didn’t specify exactly what measures were being taken.

“I think resolution of the crisis will happen in the next 48 hours,” he said.

“For those who want dialogue, we propose talks and a political solution. For the minority who want conflict, they will get a forceful answer from the Ukrainian authorities.

“I want to repeat that there are two options: political settlement through negotiations or the use of force,” Avakov said. “We are ready for both options.” 

Inside the building

In Donetsk, the government building was a swirl of activity as scores of people came and went all day, threading their way through elaborate, labyrinthine barricades that have grown substantially since the building was seized on Sunday. Men continued to reinforce the barricades outside the ransacked building, using car bumpers, bags of cement, tires and concertina wire. Paper signs taped to tires read in Russian and English, “We’re not separatists—we’re for peace and Slavic friendship” and “Russia is our friend. USA go home!”

Inside the ravaged building, where floors are littered with broken glass, trash, old clothing and construction debris, people appeared to be trying to impose some order on the chaos. Signs taped to the walls along the main staircase read “gas needed,” “oil needed,” “mattresses and bedding needed,” along with one that read “lost passport—man’s.” Other signs indicated room numbers where senior leaders could be found.

Still, electricity remained on through most of the building, with running water in bathrooms. Crowbars and rebar were stacked haphazardly around the balcony overlooking the main entrance, along with gas masks and fire extinguishers. One man yelled at visitors to put out their cigarettes, as two other men crouched over old beer bottles, filling them with flammable liquid to make Molotov cocktails.

In the 11th floor conference room, where a self-declared “governing council” convened periodically for discussions and planning, Denis Bushilin, who has emerged publicly as a leader for the group, said the council had asked for the Black Sea region of Crimea — newly annexed by Russia and unrecognized by the international community — to recognize the “Donetsk People’s Republic.”

Asked about Avakov’s ultimatum, Bushilin said: “Yes, of course we’re afraid, but we’re not giving in. We’re here until the end, until we win.” 

Russia's ‘younger brother’

Earlier, Sergei Taruta, the recently appointed head of the Donetsk regional government, met with representatives of the separatist council at a hotel across town. Speaking to reporters afterward, he said the talks were constructive, and that he opposed any “forceful measures” to be taken against the separatists. He also downplayed any speculation that the separatists were being backed and guided by Moscow, saying they had legitimate complaints about the economic situation in the region, and fears about nationalist policies that would limit the use of the Russian language.

“I don’t see any unresolvable problems here,” he said.

Donbass, Donetsk, Putin, Ukraine, Russia
Masked pro-Russian activists guard barricades in front of the regional administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Wednesday.
Efrem Lukatsky / AP

As evening fell, the crowd in the plaza outside the government building had swelled in numbers, though it was unclear how many were die-hard supporters of the effort to split Donetsk off from the rest of Ukraine and how many were just curious bystanders. Blue floodlights mounted on the roof of the building painted the crowd in a nightclub-like hue, as audio speakers broadcast Russian newscasts but not the Soviet-era patriotic songs heard on previous nights.  

It remained uncertain how deep support for the separatist activists runs in Donetsk and the entire region. A small majority of the population in eastern Ukraine is ethnic Russian; loyalties to Russia run stronger and distrust of the central government in Kyiv runs deeper. Many in regions like Donetsk, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and elsewhere have watched the “EuroMaidan” protests in Kyiv with fear, fueled by perceptions that protesters are extreme nationalists aiming to discriminate — or worse — against ethnic Russians.

However, until this weekend, eastern Ukraine had seen little in the way of outward conflict or attempts at a violent coup or uprising; there have been no paramilitary groups or unidentified soldiers patrolling the streets, as there were in Crimea almost immediately after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February.

Dmitry, a 23-year-old student about to graduate from the Donetsk National Technical University, said he and his girlfriend, Tatyana, had come to the rally in support of the idea for “federalization” and greater autonomy for regional governments like Donetsk’s. The two studied mining technologies and administration; coal mining is a major industry in the larger region, historically known as the Donbas. Both said they didn’t see the need for independence, but asserted that the protests in Kyiv that ultimately deposed Yanukovych were patently illegal, led by neo-Nazis and funded by the U.S. government.

“How could they overthrow [Yanukovych]? He was a legitimately elected president. It was a wholly illegal move, a fascist putsch,” said Tatyana, who, like Dmitry, asked not to use her last name, fearing reprisals by pro-Ukrainian activists.

“We’ve always had good ties to Russia. Russia has always helped us,” Dmitry said. “We’re like their younger brothers.”

In its negotiations with the United States and the European Union, Moscow has pushed strongly for greater federalization in Ukraine, which would dilute the power of the central government in Kyiv and allow Moscow to potentially influence regional leaders to its advantage.

“Russia is doing everything it can to make sure [Ukraine] is splintered, not a unified, single bloc,” said Vadim Karasaev, an analyst with the Institute for Global Strategies in Kyiv.

Moscow’s  goal, Karasaev said, is to try and create a sort of satellite region, like the Warsaw Bloc during the Cold War, to protect its own borders.

“Russia doesn’t need the Donbas,” he said. “Russia needs a federalized system that it can manipulate, with its own policies.”

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