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Pro-Russian Protests Are Escalating in Eastern Ukraine, but Kiev Can't Do Anything


Ukraine has found itself in something of a catch-22 this weekend as pro-Russian protests escalated and spread throughout the eastern part of the country. Shots have been fired in several cities where separatists have taken over government security offices and blocked roads, demanding a response from Kiev. On Saturday, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that if Ukraine uses force against pro-Russian protesters, Russia will not participate in planned four-party talks on the crisis. Ukraine officially dispatched an "anti-terrorist" operation to eastern Ukraine this weekend in response to what the government called "large-scale separatist operations" on the part of "the Russian special service and saboteurs." So far one Ukrainian officer is known to have been killed. 

Meanwhile, some 40,000 Russian troops are stationed at the Ukrainian border, according to NATO satellite imagery released this week. “These forces have a destabilizing effect and present serious implications for the security and stability of the region,” said NATO Brigadier Gary Deakin. Russia appears to have positioned its military to be ready to invade at any moment. 

The Ukrainian Berkut officer was killed Sunday night after a shootout broke out in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk, in the already unstable Donetsk region. Five others were injured in the first reported gun fight in eastern Ukraine, which started after armed men seized the town’s state security office and police station, AP reports. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov also reported “an unclear number of casualties among the militia.” Read the Kyiv Post’s dispatch from the scene, where OSCE observers were reportedly mobbed

Ukrainian Interim President Oleksander Turchynov convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council following the news from Sloviansk. According to the Guardian, Ukraine advised all Sloviansk residents to stay inside, though at the city's state security office, "A group of up to a 100 civilians, many of them elderly women, stood in front of the building, chanting messages of solidarity to the protesters inside, including 'Referendum!'" In an address to Ukrainians on Sunday, Turchynov called the escalating protests a "repeat of the Crimean scenario" and said that he is willing to give Ukraine's regional governments more autonomy. 

Many have reported that the separatists are well-equipped, and some are wearing similar uniforms to those worn by Russian forces. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Sunday that "no Russian agents or troops" are in eastern Ukraine.

Buzzfeed’s Max Seddon and Mike Giglio report from the ground on how Russian “war tourists” are stirring unrest in east Ukraine. “The SBU [the Ukrainian Security Service] has arrested several Ukrainians who it says were members of Russian cells or working for Russian intelligence. One was spying on troop movements for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet; another group was caught allegedly handing stolen computer files to a Russian agent in Kharkiv." 

Ukrainian Berkut police forces in Donetsk sided with pro-Russian protesters occupying government buildings in the city. “We will not submit to Kiev, because we do not think that anyone [in the government] is legitimate,” one officer said according to RIA Novosti. Police in Lugansk also said they are no longer taking orders from the Ukrainian government, reports

In Kharkiv, pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian supporters clashed during simultaneous protests in the city center. Gunshots and grenades were heard on the scene, and at least three people were hospitalized. 

The eastern city of Zaporizhia also saw clashes on Sunday when pro-Ukrainian protesters threw eggs and milk at pro-Russian protesters in the city center. 

NATO Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove told the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. should be doing more to help Ukraine defend itself, splitting with the Obama administration’s tempered approach to the conflict. As The Daily Beast reports, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that even if Russia invades Ukraine, the U.S. would not use military force to intervene. On April 15, Breedlove will present the U.S. plan for deploying additional forces to NATO territory in Europe. 

UPDATED 4:00 PM EST: Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych made a statement from Russia today in which he accused the CIA of fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine and said the country is "already in the middle of a civil war." He was joined by Ukraine's former Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka and former Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko. 

Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Ukraine April 22 to meet with government officials, the White House reported Saturday evening. Russian media reported that CIA Director John Brennan held "secret meetings" in Kiev on Saturday, and one member of the Russian Duma said that he would "view such a visit as a challenge to Russia," The Moscow Times reports.

Eighty percent of Russians support Putin, but his skyrocketing approval rating won’t last, in part because Russia is heading for a recession.

Google Maps now depicts Crimean borders differently based on user location. If accessed within Russia, Google shows that Crimea is part of Russian territory. Outside of Russia, it shows a black dotted line across the top of the peninsula to indicate disputed borders (via Mashable).