MOSCOW — Several hundred pro-Russian demonstrators in the city of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, declared Monday they were forming an independent republic and urged President Vladimir Putin to send troops to the region as a peacekeeping force, even though there are no obvious threats to peace in the area.
The actions in Donetsk and three other cities in eastern Ukraine, which included a demand for a referendum on seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia, seemed an effort by the activists to mimic some of the events that preceded Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But there were no immediate indications that the Kremlin was receptive to the pleas.
While widely regarded as political theater under the Kremlin’s direction, the protests could help promote what analysts say is Moscow’s primary interest of destabilizing the shaky government in Kiev and preventing it from drifting into the West’s orbit or signing any agreements with Western organizations, including NATO.
The protesters may be trying to provoke a violent response from Kiev, analysts say, hoping to provide the pretext for a Crimean-like military incursion in a country Moscow considers an integral part of historical Russia.
In recognition of the potential dangers, Secretary of State John F. Kerry told the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in a phone call Monday there would be “further costs” if Russia took additional steps to destabilize Ukraine, the State Department said.
Kerry said in the call that the United States was monitoring with growing concern the pro-Russia protests in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Mariupol, and did not believe they were a “spontaneous set of events,” said Jen Psaki, State Department spokeswoman.
“He noted in particular the recent arrests of Russian intelligence operatives working in Ukraine,” Psaki added.
The Obama administration has warned Russia it is prepared to impose more sanctions if Russia intervenes militarily or covertly to undermine the new Ukrainian government, a point Kerry repeated Monday.
“He made clear that any further Russian effort to destabilize Ukraine will incur further costs for Russia,” Psaki said, without providing details. Officials from the United States, Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union are planning to meet in the next 10 days to discuss the situation, Psaki said.
NATO’s top commander, General Philip M. Breedlove, said last week the approximately 40,000 Russian troops near the Ukrainian border are capable of intervening in eastern Ukraine on 12 hours’ notice and could accomplish their military objectives in three to five days.
In Kiev on Monday morning, the acting prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, said, “There is a script being written in the Russian Federation, for which there is only one purpose: the dismemberment and destruction of Ukraine and the transformation of Ukraine into the territory of slavery under the dictates of Russia.”
Russian officials, including Lavrov, have said that they have no intention of taking military action in eastern Ukraine, a region with a population of millions. In a statement Monday afternoon, the Russian Foreign Ministry reiterated its call for federalizing Ukraine, a move that would substantially weaken the government in Kiev.
“As the Russian side has noted repeatedly, it is difficult to count on a long-term stabilization of Ukraine without a real constitutional reform within the framework of which, through federalization, the interests of all regions would be ensured, its nonaligned status maintained, and the special role of the Russian language reinforced,” the Foreign Ministry said.
The ministry denied any role in the unrest, even though the demonstrations Sunday evening in Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk seemed coordinated and bore the hallmarks of similar protests last month that were organized with support from Moscow.
Even as the Kremlin denied any role, government-controlled television stations in Russia gave live coverage to the events in Donetsk on Monday, including the reading of a sort of declaration of independence of the “sovereign state of the Donetsk People’s Republic” by a pro-Russian demonstrator inside the regional administration building. Protesters occupied the building Sunday.
While the demonstrators in Donetsk announced that a ballot referendum on secession from Ukraine would be held no later than May 11 , there did not appear to be the same overwhelming support for such a move as there was in Crimea last month.
The regional prosecutor, Mykola Frantovkskiy, issued a statement calling the demonstrators’ actions illegal and saying that law officials had identified the criminal “separatists” and that “all necessary measures will be taken to apprehend the violators.”
The Donetsk City Council called on the protesters to end their occupation of government buildings and engage in negotiations.
The events in the east unfolded hours after a Ukrainian military officer was shot and killed in Crimea in a confrontation with Russian troops.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, Vladislav Seleznev, said the officer, Major Stanislav Karchevskiy, was killed in a military dormitory where he lived with his wife and two children, next to the Novofedorivka air base.
The death of the Ukrainian officer was a rare instance of lethal violence as Ukrainian forces continue their withdrawal from the peninsula after its annexation by Russia.
Seleznev said the soldier had been collecting his belongings in preparation to leave Crimea when an argument broke out with Russian service members, Reuters reported.