DONETSK, Ukraine — Secessionist fever spread across eastern Ukraine Sunday as the Crimean peninsula overwhelmingly approved a referendum to rejoin Russia and ethnic-Russian protesters across a wide swath of the increasingly divided country demanded a similar secession vote in their own regions.
Chanting “Rossiya, Rossiya” and “Putin, Putin,” thousands of protesters took to the streets and stormed government buildings in the major frontier cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv, even as the United States condemned the Crimea vote as illegal and the threat of sanctions by the West loomed over Moscow.
The Russian government-run RIA-Novosti news agency quoted exit polls that showed 93 percent of voters had supported the referendum in Crimea, a strategic peninsula that is home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. Another state-run news agency, Interfax, said turnout had been 80 percent in Crimea, which was part of Russia until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954.
The Ukrainian government, installed last month after street protests drove out the pro-Moscow president, dismissed the Crimea vote as a “circus” held at gunpoint, in a reference to the thousands of Russian troops occupying Crimea.
Ukrainian leaders in Kiev have also accused Russia of massing troops and tanks along Ukraine’s eastern frontier, a charge Moscow has denied, saying that its troops are conducting regular exercises and that it has no intention of invading.
But in Donetsk, a city of 1 million, some of the thousands of demonstrators who rallied in the city center under white-blue-and-red Russian flags called for President Vladimir Putin to send in “peacekeeping troops” to drive out what they call radical ultranationalists who have taken over the government in Kiev.
“Fascism will not pass!,” the crowd chanted. Then, in a reference to a Ukrainian World War II Nazi collaborator revered by an ultranationalist party that has entered the new coalition government, they chanted “Putin, come here and chase away Bandera.”
In Kharkiv, close to a border where a Russian armored column was reported last week, about 2,000 people waving Russian and Soviet red-and-yellow hammer-and-sickle flags cried out similar slogans in calling for secession.
Both cities saw violent clashes last week: Two people, including a pro-Russian, were killed in Kharkiv on Friday, a day after a supporter of the Kiev government was stabbed to death in Donetsk. Pro-Russian protesters held a smaller rally in Luhansk, also a border city where Russian troops have been sighted near the frontier.
The new Ukrainian government came to power after demonstrators in Kiev — whose three-month protest demanding closer ties to the European Union ended in violence last month — chased the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, from office. Russian troops took control of Crimea shortly thereafter, as Putin denounced the events as an illegal coup by out-of-control fascists.
That sentiment was shared by the protesters in Donetsk, a major stronghold of Yanukovych’s. They held signs Sunday depicting the government as vampires and Nazis and shouted in support when speakers at a rally under a massive statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin demanded a referendum for eastern Ukraine to secede and join Russia — or, failing that, a vote that would give the region greater autonomy from Kiev.
“I was born in the Soviet Union and though it was not all good, I was proud of my country. Now I’m not proud of being in Ukraine,” said Alexander Kostyukov, 39, an unemployed machine engineer who wore a black wool cap knitted with the English words “You will be overwhelmed.” “We were never close with Ukraine, and now we are not close at all.”
Shortly after Kostyukov spoke, the crowd marched through central Donetsk and massed at the city prosecutor general’s office, guarded by police in riot gear. After a short standoff, the crowd burst through the cordon, smashed windows, and poured into the building. Protesters tore down the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag and replaced it with the Russian flag and the orange-and-black St. George’s ribbon, which Russian nationalists carry as a symbol of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.
Protesters also marched on other offices and demanded the resignation of the regional governor, Sergei Taruta, one of two billionaires appointed to lead eastern regions.
Many Ukrainians have feared that a Crimean vote backing secession could encourage pro-Russian sentiment in the east and lead this nation of 46 million to a new division. They have also worried that it may prompt Putin, who has declared the right to intervene militarily to protect the Russian-speaking population, to invade.
“The outcome will be bad or worse,” Igor Kolomoisky, Ukraine’s third-richest man with a reported fortune of $2.4 billion and the new governor of the eastern industrial city of Dnepropetrovsk, said before Sunday’s referendum. “The bad is that Russia will illegally annex Crimea, and the worse will be a new Russian aggression.”
Russian troops have been shoring up defenses on the narrow isthmus that connects Crimea to the rest of Ukraine. By late Saturday, the Russian post had been fortified with dug-in tanks, minefields, and helicopter gunship patrols. A platoon of soldiers in unmarked uniforms worshiped at a makeshift Orthodox Christian altar, and transport helicopters flew in more personnel.
Russia has already seized a gas plant just beyond the border of Crimea, prompting US Secretary of State John Kerry to raise concerns in a telephone call Sunday with his Russian counterpart, Sergei V. Lavrov. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the diplomats had agreed to continue working toward a political resolution of the Ukraine crisis “through a speedy launch of constitutional reform with the support of the international community.”
The White House rejected Sunday’s referendum and said that Russia will pay a price for its military intervention through sanctions and increased instability.