SLAVIANSK/DONETSK, Ukraine: Armed pro-Russian separatists seized more buildings in eastern Ukraine Monday, expanding their control after the government failed to follow through on a threatened military crackdown, leaving Moscow’s partisans essentially unopposed.
European foreign ministers agreed to widen sanctions against Moscow, and the White House said Washington was seeking ways to impose more “costs” on Russia, for what Kiev and its Western friends call a Russian plot to dismember Ukraine.
Rebels in the town of Slaviansk, where the authorities failed to follow through with their announced “anti-terrorist” operation, called for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s help.
Ukraine’s interim president Oleksander Turchinov vowed that the offensive against the rebels would still go ahead. But in a sign of discord behind the scenes in Kiev, he sacked the state security chief in charge of the operation.
In Donetsk, rebels holed up in the administrative headquarters of a province that is home to 10 percent of Ukraine’s population said they planned to seize control of infrastructure and the levers of state power. They have declared an independent “People’s Republic of Donetsk” and sought Putin’s protection if they are attacked.
Rebels have also seized buildings in around 10 other towns and cities across other eastern provinces, which form the heartland of Ukraine’s heavy industry.
In a bid to undercut the rebels’ demands, Turchinov held out the prospect of a countrywide referendum on the future shape of the state. Pro-Russian secessionists want separate referendums in their regions, which Kiev says is illegal.
The uprising in eastern Ukraine began eight days ago but has accelerated sharply in the past 48 hours, with separatists seizing ever more buildings, including arsenals filled with weapons. They have met very little opposition.
Kiev says the separatists are organized by Moscow, seeking to repeat the seizure of the Crimea region, which Moscow occupied and annexed last month.
Russia says the armed men are all locals acting on their own, but Western officials say the uprising is too well-coordinated to be entirely spontaneous and bears too many similarities to the Russian operation in Crimea.
“I don’t think denials of Russian involvement have a shred of credibility,” British Foreign Minister William Hague said, before a meeting with EU counterparts.
Hague later announced that the ministers had agreed to expand a list of Russians barred from traveling or doing business in the EU. Work would begin to come up with new names for the sanctions list, Hague said.
Putin told U.S. counterpart Barack Obama during a telephone conversation Monday that charges of Russia meddling in eastern Ukraine were based on “unfounded information,” the Kremlin said.
Moscow says it has the right to intervene to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine, and has portrayed the people of the east as under threat from gangs of Ukrainian-speaking “fascists.” NATO says Russia has tens of thousands of troops massed on the frontier, able to capture eastern Ukraine within days.
Turchinov had threatened to launch a military crackdown by 9 a.m. but as the deadline expired, there was no sign of any action in Slaviansk. A rebel leader, in an appeal issued through journalists, asked Putin to “help us as much as you can.”
The Kremlin said the Russian president was listening.
“Unfortunately, there’s a great many such appeals coming from the Eastern Ukrainian regions addressed directly to Putin to intervene in this or that form,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “The president is watching the developments in eastern Ukraine with great concern.”
Also in Slaviansk, about 150 km from the Russian border, a small airfield that was occupied by Ukrainian air force planes Sunday was empty Monday and pro-separatist forces said they were now in control of it.
The Ukraine crisis has led to one of the biggest confrontations between Moscow and the West since the Cold War. Washington said a Russian fighter aircraft had made 12 low altitude passes over a U.S. warship in the Black Sea over the weekend, which it called a “provocative and unprofessional Russian action.”