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The Kiev government issued an ultimatum to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's east today: Come to the negotiation table within 48 hours or face force. In response, protesters built up their barricades and stocked up on gasoline bombs at a government building they occupy in the east Ukrainian city of Luhansk, Reuters reports.
Neither Ukraine's shaky interim administration nor the spontaneous, still-evolving separatist movement may have the strength to fully press their respective demands. But with Ukraine’s territorial integrity hanging in the balance, Kiev's ultimatum and Russia’s ominous presence on the border appeared to nudge the two sides closer to clashing.
Pro-Russian protests flared up on Sunday in east Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv, when crowds took over government buildings, demanding a Crimea-style referendum on joining Russia in their regions. In Kharkiv, they were ousted by police on Tuesday. But in both Donetsk (the stronghold of the former President Victor Yanukovych) and Luhansk, demonstrators remain holed up behind Maidan-style barricades, armed with sticks, stun grenades, and weapons from the government arms cache.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told reporters in Kiev today that "a resolution to this crisis will be found within the next 48 hours," according to Reuters. He also warned that the government stands ready to launch an “anti-terrorist” operation if no progress is made: "For those who want dialogue, we propose talks and a political solution. For the minority who want conflict they will get a forceful answer from the Ukrainian authorities."
But the newly installed interim government faces a host of challenges that could stymie action: looming default, the loss of Crimea, Russia’s intensifying energy pressure, forthcoming elections, and uncertainty about what help, if any, to expect from its Western supporters if Russian forces move into Ukrainian territory.
Adding another degree of uncertainty to the turmoil is the fact that the demonstrators appear to lack a unified agenda – apart from fervent opposition to the new government – or a coordinated strategy of achieving it. In Donetsk, a leading member of the pro-Yanukovych Party of Regions said that shortcoming will make any attempts at negotiation exceedingly difficult, the Washington Post reports:
An obstacle to a definitive resolution to the crisis, he said, is that there is no single point of view. People on the square in front of the administrative building want everything from Russian annexation to independence to decentralization of the Ukrainian system. Nothing, he suggested, can make everyone happy.
But media reports from the ground suggest that one demand – seceding from Kiev – is a rallying call for those ready to resist the government’s ultimatum, according to Reuters:
"Those who left were not ready to stay and fight," said the spokesman, who gave his name as Vasily and said his "soldiers" would fight on until a referendum on independence from Kiev was held.
"We of course must ask Russia to let us join it," he said, adding that he hoped for assistance from President Vladimir Putin.
A BBC report on Russian troops building up on the border yesterday detailed Russia's vast capabilities to respond to this call for action, should it decide to do so. But the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that any accusations of its potential involvement in the Ukrainian crisis are unfounded. “The US and Ukraine have no reason to worry,” the statement said. “Russia has said several times that it is not conducting any unusual or unplanned military activity on its territory near the Ukrainian border…. The attempts to accuse Russia of building up armed forces are groundless.”
New details will emerge after Mr. Putin's meeting with senior government officials to discuss Ukraine, scheduled for this afternoon in Moscow.
[Editor's note: The original version misstated Putin's agenda for today.]