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Originally published March 3, 2014 at 9:12 PM | Page modified March 3, 2014 at 10:59 PM

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Russia fueling pro-Moscow protests in Ukraine

The events unfolding in major Ukrainian cities in recent days appear to match a pattern played by the Kremlin in Crimea, where pro-Moscow forces paving the way for Russia to seize control were neither altogether spontaneous, nor entirely local.


The New York Times

Interactive: The crisis in Ukraine

Click to learn more about developments in Ukraine.

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DONETSK, Ukraine — Around the south and east of Ukraine, in vital cities in the country’s industrial heartland, ethnic Russians have staged demonstrations and stormed buildings demanding a wider invasion of their country by Moscow.

But some of the people here calling for Russian intervention are themselves Russian — “protest tourists” from across the border.

They have included passport-carrying Russians, like Alexey Khudyakov, a pro-Kremlin Muscovite who said he traveled here “to watch and maybe to give some advice.”

In the neighboring city of Kharkiv, another Russian national scaled a government building to dramatically plant his country’s flag — offering at least the image that Vladimir Putin’s forces were being invited in.

It is clear that in this part of Ukraine, many ethnic Russians distrust the fledgling government and some would indeed welcome Russian troops. But the events unfolding in major Ukrainian cities in recent days appear to match a pattern played by the Kremlin in Crimea, where pro-Moscow forces paving the way for Russia to seize control were neither altogether spontaneous, nor entirely local.

As a wave of pro-Russian demonstrations in 11 cities has suddenly erupted where significant populations of ethnic Russians live, the apparent organization of the demonstrators, appearances of Russian nationals, and reports of busloads of activists arriving from Russia itself suggest a high degree of coordination with Moscow.

At a minimum, Russians are instigating protests by Ukrainians sympathetic to Moscow, helping to create a pretext for a broader intervention if Putin decides to push things that far.

In Donetsk, when the crowd took control of the Parliament building Monday, the Soviet-era ballad “Russians Don’t Surrender” blasted from loudspeakers and Khudyakov huddled in conversation with the leader of Donetsk Republic, a local organization demanding greater autonomy from Kiev.

Back home, Khudyakov is better known for having founded several nationalist vigilante groups with the tacit blessing of the Russian government.

The most dramatic expressions of the new pro-Russian fervor have taken place here, the former political base of Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s deposed president, and in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second most populous city, just 20 miles from the Russian border.

When a crowd of thousands of pro-Russian demonstrators in Kharkiv stormed an administration building occupied by pro-Kiev demonstrators Saturday in a melee that left two dead and 100 hospitalized, a 25-year-old Muscovite, who was staying in a hotel just off the square, scaled the building, lowered the Ukrainian flag and hoisted the Russian banner in its place.

“I am proud that I was able to take part in defeating the fighters who came to ‘protest peacefully’ with knives in Kharkiv and raise the Russian tricolor on the building of the liberated administration,” Mikhail Chuprikov, who hotel employees confirmed checked in under a Russian passport, wrote in a blog post under a pseudonym.

The protests have served as grist for Russian state television networks, which hailed the footage of the Russian flag being raised across Ukraine as evidence of a rejection of the new government in Kiev by ethnic Russians. Russia’s permanent mission to NATO tweeted a map of Ukraine with superimposed images of Russian flags in 11 Ukrainian cities where the protests took place Saturday, including the Black Sea port of Odessa, as well as Dneprotrovsk, Kharkiv and Donetsk.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has condemned Kiev for allowing what it called armed bandits to raise havoc in the country’s east, citing the shooting of a Russian tourist, and an unconfirmed nighttime assault on a police station in Crimea, which security personnel defending the station denied happened.

Amid the rumors and rising anxiety, self-declared municipal self-defense groups have emerged, saying they are ready to fight the spread of fascism — Putin’s description of the new leadership and its supporters — from the country’s west with Russia’s help.

Monday’s seizure of the Parliament building here was led by Pavel Gubarev, the founder of the People’s Militia of Donbass, the coal-mining region where Donetsk is located. In a speech from the dais of the captured Parliament chamber, he rejected Kiev’s authority and called on Putin to bring troops to the city.

The sudden uprisings have shocked many in the region, where there was strong sentiment against the pro-West demonstrators in Kiev, but few calls to draw closer to Russia until very recently.

“I am sure that they are paid,” said Valentina Azarova, 55, a former seamstress, pointing at a dozen young men spitting sunflower-seed shells in a pro-Russian protest camp in central Kharkiv on Sunday.

“I am Russian, and I am embarrassed for my country,” she said, discussing the possibility that Russian troops could come to the city. “Russia is here just as much as Russia is in the Crimea.”

In Donetsk, the movement for greater ties with Moscow seems to have gained a foothold. The City Council on Saturday called for a referendum on greater autonomy for the region, which Kiev has called illegal.

At the Parliament building, Roman Romanov, the head of the police for the Donetsk region, told protesters that he “obeys the people” but urged restraint from them, saying the “police are here to help you.”

Gubarev, the militia leader, has demanded that he be made the head of Donetsk’s regional government. When his supporters took the Parliament building, he collected identification cards to identify members barricaded on the upper floors of the building in case they tried to leave.

Many of the Parliament members had scratched their faces off the cards with pens in an apparent attempt to avoid identification.

Pro-Russian protesters caught one man who dashed out of the building before it was seized, beat him on a busy downtown street, and covered his face with a green liquid.

In general, however, protest leaders tried to prevent outright violence.

At 4:45 p.m., protesters agreed to allow Parliament employees to leave the building. One member of Parliament who asked not to be named called the situation “a black hole.”

“This is the hand of Russia,” he said.



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