DONETSK, Ukraine — When pro-Russia crowds stormed the regional government building in this eastern Ukrainian city on Sunday night — and then declared a referendum on secession in the assembly hall while asking Russia to send in “peacekeepers” — fears flared that another Crimea scenario was on the way.
First the protesters would occupy key infrastructure, then Russia would use the pretext of local support to send troops to the region — and eventually annex it.
Activists standing guard at the Donetsk building late Monday night said that’s exactly what they had in mind. “Most of us here want to rejoin Russia,” one said.
“We are fighting for our freedom,” said another man, in his early twenties, wearing a mask and carrying a metal rod, like many of his fellow activists.
None gave their full names, fearing arrest. But they buzzed with talk of revolution.
A few were even from Crimea and had arrived earlier in the day, eager to help what had happened at home play out next in Donetsk. “We think the authorities in Kiev are illegal,” said one, named Alex, pulling aside his ski mask so he could smoke. “They said the referendum wasn’t allowed in Crimea either, but we did it anyway.”
By Tuesday evening, organizers inside the occupied government building said they were pressing ahead with plans for a referendum on secession, which they had set for May 11, even as local authorities tried to mediate. Fears that Russia was attempting to play its hand in east Ukraine — either ahead of an invasion or in order to destabilize the region ahead of presidential elections set for next month — were rife. It wasn’t just Donetsk that saw government buildings occupied, but the eastern cities of Kharkiv and Luhansk as well. The Obama administration warned that the protests were far from a “spontaneous set of events,” saying it had proof that many demonstrators had been paid and suggesting that Russian intelligence had been involved.
The activists at the government building in Donetsk were offended by the charges. “Tell them we are not paid!” said one 24-year-old who gave the name Evgeny. “And they said we were Russian spies — it isn’t true. The only Russians here are the ones from the TV channels.”
As a group of young men led the way inside the building, though, it was clear they had little idea who many of their fellow protesters were. By late Monday night, there were hundreds of men and women packing the building and around a thousand outside, some wearing military fatigues and a few wearing body armor. The entrance was barricaded with barbed wire and tall stacks of tires.
Speaking earlier on Monday, Andrei Porgin, a leader of an activist organization called Donetsk Republic that has been one of the main organizers of the pro-Russia protests in the city, said he had not been aware of a plan to occupy the government building on Sunday: “The crowd just began to storm it.”
Porgin said there were “many groups” behind the pro-Russia movement in Donetsk, and he blamed the unrest on the failure of the new government in Kiev to assert its influence in eastern Ukraine — and also on the arrests of pro-Russia activists in the region.
But he admitted to some Russian influence over the referendum push, saying he had received “intellectual” support from “civil” contacts inside Russia that he had developed over more than a decade as an activist. “Intellectual help I do receive,” he said. “I speak on Skype with [Russian] political scientists and experts. I receive advice. That is all.”
The advice, he said, had included help with drafting the political statements surrounding the push for a referendum and guidelines on how to carry the process out. “We speak at the moment about international law,” he said.
There had also been assistance from Russian “civil society” groups, he said, “in terms of social networks that helped to assemble some of the young [local] activists here.”
He added: “More than this they can not do.”
Porgin denied any financial ties with anyone in Russia, which he noted would land him in jail. And he said he hadn’t been in contact with anyone in the Russian government.
When asked if he thought the Russian government might be trying to influence him or the pro-Russia movement in Donetsk through such ties, he said, “Compared to the influence that the United States is exerting in Ukraine, we can say it would be no more than 10% of that. We live in a global world and we cannot say that full independence is possible.”
It was natural, he added, to expect Russia to try and exert influence over a neighboring region — one that was, he added, on the brink of disaster. “Every state needs to react when there are such problems on its borders.”
Pro-Russia protesters have occupied the Donetsk government building before since Ukraine’s political crisis broke out, but never in such large or aggressive numbers — and the intensity of the recent demonstrations in eastern Ukraine seemed to suggest that the run-up to next month’s presidential election will be a period of intense instability. “The situation becomes hotter and hotter from day to day. The people are more angry, more fed up, more organized, and they have a better idea of what they want,” a young activist from Donetsk Republic said.
The region’s new authorities also face a difficult choice in trying to contain the unrest — cracking down on the determined might destabilize the situation further, or, as one pro-Russia organizer warned Monday night, “give Russia the excuse it wants to invade.”
Nikolai Yacubovich, an adviser to Ukraine’s national security council who has been helping to coordinate with authorities in Donetsk, said the pro-Russia movement in the city was made up of “different groups with different views, different ideas and even different sources of financial support. But they all have one aim: the destabilization of the situation in eastern Ukraine.”
“The situation is difficult and it has two sides,” he added. “From the one, we know that there is provocation from abroad, and from the other, there are a lot of people in Donetsk who live in despair, and that’s why it’s easy to provoke them in such activities.”
Another security adviser to the Donetsk government, Roman Svitan, said that while Russia was likely exerting influence on the protests, the main problem for the region’s new authorities was in dealing with the locals. “It is not Russian people here. Everyone understands that. It is our own marginal groups,” he said. “To force them out of the government building is easy. But to make it so they don’t come back anymore is the difficult part.”