MOSCOW -- Vowing that the Russian takeover of Crimea would not be repeated elsewhere in the east of his country, Ukraine’s interim president gave separatists until Monday to lay down their arms and surrender government buildings they have seized or face a crackdown by military forces.
Those separatists who don’t fire on security forces and surrender their weapons will not be prosecuted, President Oleksandr Turchynov promised Sunday.
“The Council of National Security and Defense has decided to carry out a large-scale anti-terrorist operation with the use of armed forces of Ukraine,” Turchynov said in a televised address to the nation Sunday afternoon. “We won't allow Russia to repeat the Crimean scenario in the eastern region of Ukraine.”
Turchynov also promised concessions to eastern protesters who favor greater autonomy, saying: “We are ready to consider the issues of significantly expanding the powers of the regions and a sweeping reform of local self-management.”
Earlier Sunday, an attempt by security forces to retake government buildings in the eastern town of Slavyansk stalled after a brief shootout that left at least one officer dead and five others wounded. Separatists also suffered casualties in the exchange, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said.
Security Service and elite riot police officers had to stop the attack and regroup after discovering that “the separatists are hiding behind a live shield of peaceful residents,” Avakov told the UNIAN news agency.
The day before, gunmen in unmarked camouflage uniforms and masks seized a police station and the local administration building in Slavyansk, about 80 miles north of Donetsk in Ukraine’s coal-mining region. They reportedly handed out weapons captured inside the police station to other activists and raised a Russian flag over the buildings.
Following the line set by Secretary of State John F. Kerry the day before, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations on Sunday said the outbreak of violence in eastern Ukraine appears to have been provoked by Moscow and could lead to further U.S. sanctions against Russia.
“It has all the tell-tale signs of what we saw in Crimea,” Ambassador Samantha Power said on ABC’s “This Week,” noting that many of the assailants were well-armed and speaking Russian.
Russian officials have denied being involved and insist that they are not seeking a pretext for sending troops into eastern Ukraine, she said. “They say that is not what they want, but everything they do suggests the opposite,” Power added.
[Updated 2:17 p.m. PDT April 12: Later Sunday the Associated Press reported that the U.N. Security Council had called an emergency meeting Sunday evening at Russia's request to discuss the growing crisis in Ukraine.]
Ukrainian security and intelligence experts have identified some of the attackers as Russian military intelligence commandos who took part in seizing key government facilities in Crimea in February, said Dmitry Tymchuk, a security and defense expert. The takeover of Crimea set the stage for a disputed local referendum backing the peninsula’s annexation by Russia, which followed.
“According to very reliable information, Russian commandos infiltrated eastern Ukraine in small groups earlier in April to seize government premises and police stations and also coordinate similar activities on the part of local separatists financed and backed by Russia and some local pro-Russia oligarchs,” Tymchuk, head of the Kiev-based Center for Military and Political Research, said in a telephone interview. “Their aim is to wreak chaos and further destabilization in the southeast of the country to disrupt the presidential campaign in Ukraine and eventually cause a split-up of the country.”
The interim Ukrainian government fears that a large-scale security operation to retake government buildings might lead to a high number of casualties, Tymchuk said.
“Right now Ukraine leadership is faced with only two options, both being bad and worse: conducting a sweeping combat operation to neutralize terrorists and liberate administrative buildings at the cost of a serious number of casualties, or do nothing and see the eastern regions go adrift toward Russia,” Tymchuk said.
Elsewhere in the east on Sunday, pro-Russia demonstrators and their opponents clashed in the center of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest industrial center after Kiev, leaving at least 10 people injured, UNIAN reported.
In Yenakiyevo, armed separatists seized a police station and city council building, UNIAN reported. Yenakiyevo is the hometown of former President Viktor Yanukovich, a pro-Moscow leader whose ouster by the political opposition in February led to Russia’s takeover of Crimea.
On Sunday, Russian state television news programs reported that CIA Director John Brennan was in Kiev on Saturday, a secret visit that the reports maintained heralded the interim government’s decision to get tough with separatists.
[Updated 2:12 p.m. PDT April 12: In Washington, CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz refused to comment on Brennan’s travels but noted: “The claim that Director Brennan encouraged Ukrainian authorities to conduct tactical operations inside Ukraine is completely false. Like other senior U.S. officials, Director Brennan strongly believes that a diplomatic solution is the only way to resolve the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.”]
About 20,000 people took part in a rally in downtown Moscow on Sunday to protest the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s alleged actions elsewhere in eastern Ukraine and the prevalence of anti-Ukraine propaganda in Russian mass media.
“I remember the days of the Cold War only too well, but even in those days the propaganda on television and in our newspapers was not so outrageously lying,” said Olga Zinovieva, a 58-year-old pensioner. “I am really, really afraid the Kremlin is thus preparing the country for a real war with Ukraine.”
[For the Record, 1:55 p.m. PDT April 12: An earlier version of this post incorrectly quoted security expert Dmitry Tymchuk as saying intelligence indicated Russian commandos infiltrated eastern Ukraine in February. He actually said the reports indicated it occurred in April.]
Special correspondent Victoria Butenko in Kiev and Times staff writers David G. Savage and Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.