DONETSK, Ukraine – Pro-Russian militants, boasting that they did not take orders from diplomats in Washington or Moscow, refused to end their armed occupation of a dozen government buildings across eastern Ukraine on Friday, upending hopes for a quick end to the standoff.
The defiance came just hours after Russia, the European Union, Ukraine and the United States sought to de-escalate the conflict with an agreement signed in Geneva that urged restraint on all sides, and called on the pro-Russia activists to lay down their baseball bats and Molotov cocktails and walk away from their barricades at the city halls and police stations.
At a news conference Friday on the top floor of the regional government offices they stormed last weekend, Denis Pushilin, a leader of a group calling itself the Donetsk People’s Republic, said he and his men had no intention of abandoning their positions as long as the new government in Kiev still stood.
It is an illegal junta, said Anatoliy Onischenko, another separatist leader, of the Kiev government. They should leave their buildings first.
With young men in black balaclava masks over their faces standing behind him, Pushilin said that nobody from the pro-Russia groups in Ukraine was at the negotiating table in Geneva, and because they were not consulted, they had no obligation to do anything.
A Donetsk People’s Republic flag, sporting a Russian-style eagle, flew on top of the building.
The protesters were camped in the offices and sprawled on the floors. Water came from fire hoses; the cafeteria was brimming with donated food, and someone had set up a makeshift infirmary.
The central government appeared to take a conciliatory approach late Friday when in a joint televised address, acting President Oleksander Turchinov and Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said they would support constitutional change to decentralize power and allow for more local control, giving regional governments their pick of an official language – a central demand of Russian-speaking protesters in the east.
It is not clear exactly what the pro-Russia militants want. Some leaders said they would like to see ousted president Yanukovych, who is from the Donetsk region, returned to power; others called him a coward and a traitor.
A few men said they wanted to see oligarchs arrested, salaries raised and corruption ended.
Many of the activists wanted Ukrainian troops to leave the region. It wasn’t even certain that they wanted to become part of Russia; some said they just wanted Russia’s protection from a government in Kiev that they view with hostility and suspicion.