On April 12, armed pro-Russian militants seized government buildings in a coordinated and professional operation conducted in six cities in eastern Ukraine. Many of the militants were outfitted in bullet-proof vests and camouflage uniforms with insignia removed and carrying Russian-origin weapons. These armed units, some wearing black and orange St. George’s ribbons associated with Russian Victory Day celebrations, have raised Russian and separatist flags over the buildings they seized, and called for referendums and union with Russia.
Even more so than the seizure of main government buildings in Ukrainian regional capitals Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv last weekend, these operations bear many similarities to those that were carried out in Crimea in late February and culminated in Russia’s illegal military intervention and purported annexation of Crimea. In the earlier Crimean case, highly organized, well-equipped, and professional forces wearing Russian military uniforms, balaclavas, and military gear without identifying insignia moved in first to take control of Crimean government and security facilities before being later replaced by regular Russian military forces.
In an indication that the April 12 operations were planned in advance, the takeovers have occurred simultaneously in multiple locations in eastern Ukraine: Donetsk, Slavyansk, Krasnyi Liman, Kramatorsk, Chervonoarmiysk, and Druzhkovka. There are reports that additional attempts to seize buildings in other eastern Ukrainian towns failed. Inconsistent with political, grassroots protests, these seizures bear the same defining features and tactics across diverse locations, including takeover of government administration buildings and security headquarters, seizure of weapons in the targeted buildings, forced removal of local officials, rapid establishment of roadblocks and barricades, attacks against communications towers, and deployment of well-organized forces. In Slavyansk, armed units have now also moved beyond the seized buildings to establish roadblocks and checkpoints in the nearby area.
The Ukrainian Government has reporting indicating that Russian intelligence officers are directly involved in orchestrating the activities of pro-Russian armed resistance groups in eastern Ukraine. In addition, the Ukrainian Government detained an individual who said that he was recruited by the Russian security services and instructed to carry out subversive operations in eastern and southern Ukraine, including seizing administrative buildings. All of this evidence undercuts the Russian Government’s claims that Ukraine is on the brink of “civil war.”
In each of these cases, independent media have been harassed and excluded from covering the seizures, while pro-Russian media were granted special access and used to broadcast the demands of these armed groups. There are also reports that the forces have taken journalists into custody, attacked at least one, and in one case fired weapons as a warning to other journalists.
The events of April 12 strongly suggest that in eastern Ukraine Russia is now using the same tactics that it used in Crimea in order to foment separatism, undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, and exercise control over its neighbor in contravention of Russia’s obligations under international law.
In the face of these provocations, the legitimate government of Ukraine in Kyiv continues to show restraint and has only used force when public safety was at risk and attempts to resolve the situation through dialogue failed. Prime Minister Yatsenyuk was in the region on Friday, April 11, to discuss the central government’s willingness to work with regions on decentralization – including such issues as local elections, local control of budgets and finances and education, and enshrining Russian as an official language – in advance of the May 25 presidential elections.