KIEV — It is by now a well-established pattern. Armed, masked men in their 20s to 40s storm a public building of high symbolic value in a city somewhere in eastern Ukraine, evict anyone still there, seize weapons and ammunition, throw up barricades, and proclaim themselves the rulers of a “People’s Republic.” It is not clear who is in charge or how the militias are organized.
Through such tactics, a few thousand pro-Russian militants have seized buildings in about a dozen cities, effectively establishing control over much of an industrial region of about 6.5 million nestled against the Russian border.
Day by day, in the areas surrounding the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, pro-Russian forces have defied all efforts by the central government to re-establish its authority, and on Wednesday, Ukraine’s acting president conceded what had long been obvious: The government’s police and security officials had lost control.
“Inactivity, helplessness and even criminal betrayal” plague the security forces, the acting leader, Oleksandr V. Turchinov, told a meeting of regional governors in Kiev. “It is hard to accept but it’s the truth. The majority of law enforcers in the east are incapable of performing their duties.”
With Turchinov’s acknowledgment that a significant chunk of the country had slipped from the government’s grasp, the long-simmering conflict in Ukraine seemed to enter a new and more dangerous phase. Whether that amounts to the lasting dismemberment of Ukraine or hands control of the east to Russia and its president, Vladimir V. Putin, were among the many questions left unanswered after Turchinov delivered his stark assessment.
Whatever the long-term effects, the militants’ seizure of symbolic buildings in cities throughout the country’s southeast is serving what analysts in Russia and the West say is Putin’s short-term goal of so disrupting normal life there that the pro-Russian separatists’ plans for a May 11 vote on autonomy from Kiev could trump Ukraine’s plans to hold a presidential election two weeks later.
While Russia denies any role in stirring the unrest, Secretary of State John Kerry and others have flatly accused the Kremlin of sending operatives to the region to organize, equip, and direct the Ukrainians who make up the pro-Russian militias.
The presence of 40,000 Russian troops just over the border is also contributing to the instability, particularly as Russia has warned repeatedly that it will intervene in Ukraine if the safety of the ethnic Russians there was threatened, a sweeping claim that could justify an incursion at almost any time.
But so far that has not been necessary. Through stealth and misdirection, and in defiance of Western sanctions, Russia has managed to achieve its immediate goal of what Western and Ukrainian officials believe is rendering Ukraine so chaotic that it cannot guarantee order, mend its teetering economy, or elect new leaders to replace Turchinov and the acting government installed after the pro-Russian president, Victor F. Yanukovych, fled in February.
“Until May 25,” when the presidential vote is scheduled, “is unfortunately still a lot of time,” said Olga Aivazovska, a co-founder of Opora, an independent election monitoring and polling group.
Whether a vote will take place — and how valid it could be if parts of the east do not take part — “is a big puzzle,” she said.