Ukraine yesterday ejected pro-Moscow demonstrators from a regional government building and raised its flag where Russia’s had flown since the weekend, signaling an important shift of control in the Russian-speaking east.
The Donetsk administrative headquarters had been held since Monday by activists who burst in chanting “Putin come!” and demanded control over the regional police force, and the end of ties with Kiev. Police said they evacuated it peacefully after receiving reports it was booby-trapped with explosives.
Donetsk, home city of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, has seen the most persistent pro-Moscow demonstrations since protests erupted in eastern and southern cities on Saturday last week as Russian President Vladimir Putin declared his right to invade.
The main concern of Western officials meeting Russians in Brussels and Paris yesterday is Putin’s threat of a wider invasion to protect Russian-speakers across Ukraine’s industrial heartland.
The US and Britain failed in an attempt to bring Russia and Ukraine together in Paris for a meeting of a group created to assure Kiev’s security after it renounced nuclear weapons in the 1990s.
US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that “regrettably” one member, Russia, had not appeared for a meeting of the so-called Budapest agreement group, which involves Washington, London, Moscow and Kiev.
However, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said every diplomatic effort would be made to bring the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine together later in the day, after an international conference on Lebanon.
Hague urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart in Paris to kickstart negotiations aimed at peacefully resolving the crisis.
“The goal for today is to bring the Russians into a diplomatic process ... at least a start of it,” he said after talks with Kerry and acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya.
Kerry and Lavrov are scheduled to hold a bilateral meeting.
In Donetsk, Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag had replaced the Russian tricolor atop the 11-story building by midday yesterday, but another Russian flag was still flying from a flagpole in front.
A large force of police was guarding the building with helmets and shields, while about 200 pro-Moscow demonstrators were still clustered by tents in front of the building.
Their leader, local businessman Pavel Gubarev, who has declared himself “people’s governor,” called the evacuation a “provocation” and vowed to re-enter the building.
Both sides have scheduled large demonstrations for later yesterday in Donetsk and several other eastern cities.
Meanwhile, the EU has unveiled an aid package worth at least 11 billion euros (US$15 billion) to support the Ukraine. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said it was “designed to assist a committed, inclusive and reforms-oriented Ukrainian government.”
Additional reporting by AFP