A deadline Kiev set for protesters in eastern Ukraine to disarm or face a “full-fledged anti-terrorist operation” passed on Monday morning with no sign that the threat was heeded or that security forces were ready to quell the protests.
Shortly after his ultimatum to the protesters ran out, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said Kiev leaders were “not against” a nation-wide referendum about Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
In a surprise turnaround from Kiev’s categorical rejection of such a referendum, Mr. Turchynov said the vote could be held simultaneously with presidential elections set for May 25.
“I am sure the vast majority of Ukrainians will vote for an indivisible, integrated, unitary country,” Mr. Turchynov said.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also raised the possibility of a referendum, saying the issue would be discussed at a planned meeting of the Foreign Ministers of Russia, the U.S., the E.U. and Ukraine in Geneva this week.
Kiev’s offer of referendum however failed to placate the protesters in eastern Ukraine, not least because Kiev continues to insist that the protests in the east are driven by Russian provocateurs.
“It's not a confrontation between Ukrainians, but covert and now no longer covert aggression by the Russian Federation against our country,” Mr. Turchynov said in televised remarks on Monday.
Even as he spoke anti-Kiev protesters seized government offices in two more cities in the east, Gorlovka and Zhdanovka. In Gorlovka, three activists were wounded during the storming of a police headquarters.
At least two people were killed and several more wounded in clashes in eastern Ukraine on Sunday.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is watching the situation in eastern Ukraine “with great concern”, his spokesman said on Monday.
“There are very many appeals coming from eastern Ukrainian regions asking Putin to intervene in one way or another,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Moscow has denied having any plans to intervene militarily in Ukraine, but Mr Putin has a mandate from the Russian Parliament to use the Russian armed forces to “protect” Russian nationals and Ukrainian Russians living in Ukraine.
Russia has warned about the danger of a civil war in Ukraine and put the onus of averting the conflict on the United States.
Addressing an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council called by Russia late on Sunday to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin urged the U.S. and other “Western sponsors” of the February coup in Ukraine to stop Kiev from using the army against its people.
“The chances of preventing a civil war in Ukraine rest with the West,” Mr. Churkin stated.
Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych warned on Sunday that Ukraine had “one foot into a civil war”.
Western nations have blamed Russia for inciting and orchestrating protests in eastern Ukraine.
“These are not protests, these are professional military operations,” U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told the U.N. Security Council meeting. The Western members of the Security Council effectively backed Kiev’s decision to use force against the protesters.
However, in a sign that the Ukrainian authorities may not have enough clout to crush the protests, Mr. Turchynov on Monday asked U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon to deploy international peacekeepers to help Kiev regain control of the rebellious regions, the Ukrainian presidential press service said.