Rival Factions Battle for Control in Eastern Ukraine
New York Times November 23, 2017
Armed men blocked access to government buildings in Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, on Wednesday after the interior minister refused to step down. Credit Aleksey Filippov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images MOSCOW —
Dozens of armed men occupied the center of the city of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, blocking the entrances to several government buildings during a standoff between two top officials in the Russian-backed separatist enclave. Armored vehicles appeared on the streets and the city’s inhabitants were fleeing the area en masse, according to local news media reports
The menacing deadlock in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic began on Monday, after the interior minister refused to step down after being dismissed by the prime minister for what was called illegal activity.
Both breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine — Donetsk and Luhansk — have been plagued by murderous rivalries from the start of the conflict there in 2014, with factions vying for political control, financial gain and Moscow’s blessing. Further complicating matters, at an emergency meeting in Kiev called by the Ukrainian president, Petro O. Poroshenko, military officials read a report which asserted that Russian tanks had crossed into Luhansk.
In connection with the increase in Russian servicemen and the activity of mercenaries, Ukrainian armed forces are ready for any potential developments in order to ensure the safety of the civilian population,” a statement on Mr. Poroshenko’s website said.
Video released on Wednesday by the Crimea-based news agency Newsfront appeared to show the prosecutor’s office in Luhansk being raided by armed troops seemingly loyal to Igor Kornet, the deposed interior minister. More than 20 members of the prosecutor’s office have been arrested, Russia’s Novaya Gazeta reported.
Most of the armed men were in unmarked uniforms, though some displayed badges of the Berkut riot police. The troops have been occupying parts of Luhansk since Tuesday, when Mr. Kornet made public his refusal to leave his post.
The Interior Ministry in Luhansk had then issued a statement in support of its deposed boss. “We are deeply disturbed by the actions of a group of people, who have organized a persistent campaign against our leader — Minister f Internal Affairs Igor Kornet,” the statement read. “We cannot calmly and indifferently watch as the reputation of the Lugansk police is openly and without reason being trodden into the dirt.
Several hours later, Mr. Kornet denied all rumors of his dismissal in a video address. “We have the situation fully under control,” he said.
On Wednesday, the prime minister, Igor Plotnitsky, appeared on television to denounce Mr. Kornet’s insubordination, accusing him of attempting a coup and holding him responsible for a series of power outages across the republic. “If Kornet has decided to defend himself in some way, then that’s his biggest mistake,” he said. “The law will be upheld.”
On Wednesday evening, Mr. Plotnitsky called for calm and promised that the situation in Luhansk would soon return to normal. “Igor Kornet was dismissed from his post, but this little man has big ambitions. For some reason, he decided that a court ruling doesn’t apply to him,” a statement on Mr. Plotnitsky’s website said. “This is an attempt to seize power. But no one has managed that and they won’t succeed this time. We will put a stop to this situation very soon.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has said it is aware of the presence of military vehicles and armed men on Lugansk’s streets, and that it is monitoring the situation. The Kremlin has also said it is aware of the situation but has so far refrained from additional commenting.
Violence between the Russian-backed breakaway regions and the government in Kiev has prevented the implementation of a peace plan that was negotiated under the umbrella of the European Union with American backing.
A version of this article appears in print on November 23, 2017, on Page A4 of the New York Times edition with the headline: Rival Groups In Ukraine Are Battling For Control.