Fresh violence has erupted in eastern Ukraine as thousands of pro-Russian protesters stormed key buildings, escalating the crisis after Moscow hit back at “Iron Curtain”-style Western sanctions.
A mob spearheaded by around 30 men carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles and grenade-launchers attacked the regional police headquarters in Lugansk on Tuesday, raising the heat in the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War.
They had earlier seized the regional prosecutors’ office, tearing down the Ukrainian flag and replacing it with that of Russia, which the West blames for stoking the violence in the ex-Soviet Republic.
More than a dozen towns and cities in the east have now fallen to pro-Russian rebels, who see the Western-backed leaders in Kiev as illegitimate “fascists” and want either independence or outright accession to Russia.
“It’s good what the young people are doing. We don’t want this Nazi junta that has seized power in Kiev. We don’t recognise them. I want my children and grand-children to grow up in Russia,” one retired engineer said as he surveyed the violence in Lugansk.
As police failed to quell the violence and in some cases stood by, interim president Oleksandr Turchynov lashed out at what he called “inaction” and in some case “treachery” by law enforcement bodies on the ground.
He urged “Ukrainian patriots” in the region to sign up for police duty to counter the pro-Moscow insurgency that threatens to tear his country apart.
The latest unrest in Lugansk followed Monday’s terrifying scenes in nearby Donetsk, where pro-Russian thugs armed with baseball bats, knives and fireworks attacked a pro-Ukrainian demonstration, wounding several in what Washington’s ambassador to Ukraine called “terrorism, pure and simple”.
As the situation on the ground descended further into chaos, the war of words between Moscow and the West continued, with Russia saying the US was resorting to “Iron Curtain” policies with its new sanctions unveiled on Monday.
“Sanctions are always a boomerang which come back and painfully hit those who launch them,” said Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, according to the Interfax news agency on a visit to Crimea, which Russia annexed in March.
On a visit to Russia’s Cold War ally Cuba, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the sanctions lacked “all common sense”.
US moves to restrict high-tech exports to Russia appeared to cause particular fury, with Rogozin warning Washington was “exposing their astronauts on the ISS”.
The International Space Station is operated jointly by Russia, the US, Europe, Japan and Canada.
Astronauts and cosmonauts depend on Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry them between it and Earth, ever since NASA scrapped its space shuttles in 2011.
Moscow also lashed out at the European Union for “doing Washington’s bidding” as the bloc included General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces and the country’s deputy defence minister, on a list of 15 Russians and Ukrainians targeted by an asset freeze and travel ban.