DONETSK, Ukraine – Pro-Moscow activists barricaded inside government buildings in eastern Ukraine proclaimed their regions independent Monday and called for a referendum on seceding from Ukraine – an ominous echo of the events that led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The Ukrainian government accused Russia of stirring up the unrest and tried to flush the assailants from some of the seized buildings, setting off fiery clashes in one city. Russia, which has tens of thousands of troops massed along the border, sternly warned Ukraine against using force.
In Washington, the U.S. said any move by Russia into eastern Ukraine would be a very serious escalation that could bring further sanctions. White House spokesman Jay Carney said there was strong evidence that some of the pro-Russian protesters were hired and were not local residents.
At the same time, the U.S. announced that Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with top diplomats from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union in a new push to ease tensions. The meeting, the first such four-way talks since the crisis erupted, will take place in the next 10 days, the State Department said.
Pro-Russian activists who seized the provincial administrative building in the city of Donetsk over the weekend announced the formation Monday of the independent Donetsk People’s Republic.
A similar action was taken in another Russian-speaking city in the east, Kharkiv.
The activists who occupied the government headquarters building in Donetsk blocked off the entrance with 6-foot barricades of car tires lined with razor wire.
Russia annexed Crimea last month, after a referendum called just two weeks after the Black Sea peninsula had been overtaken by Russian forces.
Ukraine and the West have rejected the vote and the annexation as illegal.
The Donetsk and Kharkiv regions – and a third Russian-speaking city besieged by pro-Moscow activists over the weekend, Luhansk – have a combined population of nearly 10 million out of Ukraine’s 46 million and account for the bulk of the country’s industrial output.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Russia of fomenting the unrest to create a pretext for sending troops in and taking another piece of Ukraine.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt also said the events in eastern Ukraine were part of Moscow’s destabilization strategy.
Those who thought that it ended with Crimea were wrong, Bildt said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected the Ukrainians’ allegations but reaffirmed its long-held demand that Ukraine change its constitution to turn the country into a federation with broader powers for provinces.
If the political forces that call themselves the Ukrainian government continue to take an irresponsible attitude to the fate of the country and its people, Ukraine will inevitably face new difficulties and crises, the ministry said in a statement.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned the Ukrainian government against using force in response to the legitimate demands of people in eastern Ukraine.
Eastern Ukraine has a large population of ethnic Russians and was the base of support for ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in February.