The White House warned Russia Monday against trying to claim more territory in Ukraine “overtly or covertly” and suggested that pro-Russian demonstrators who seized government buildings in three Ukrainian cities over the weekend were paid by Moscow.
“There is strong evidence suggesting some of these demonstrators were paid and were not local residents,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in response to the latest unrest in Ukraine. “We’re concerned about several escalatory moves in Ukraine over the weekend, and we see those as a result of increased Russian pressure on Ukraine.”
In the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, pro-Russian separatists seized government buildings, declared the creation of the Donetsk People’s Republic and called for a referendum on May 11 seeking to join Russia, similar to moves that led to Russia’s takeover of the Crimea region from Ukraine last month. The demonstrators also requested Russia send in military peacekeepers.
The referendum would come two weeks ahead of planned elections in Ukraine.
Since Russia annexed the Crimea, President Obama and European allies have imposed economic sanctions against top Russian leaders. The U.S. has warned that broader sanctions would be forthcoming if Russia persisted in its aggression.
In Moscow Monday, Mr. Putin said his government is on the alert against outside agitators who seek to incite ethnic strife.
“We must make a clear distinction between civilized opposition to the authorities, and serving foreign interests to the detriment of our own country,” Mr. Putin said at a meeting of Russia’s Federal Security Service.
“We will not accept a situation such as happened in Ukraine, when in many cases it was through non-governmental organizations that the nationalist and neo-Nazi groups and militants, who became the shock troops in the anti-constitutional coup d’etat, received funding from abroad,” he said.
“We can divine from the strong evidence that some demonstrators were paid and that they were not local residents,” Mr. Carney said. “And I think that at least suggests that outside forces, not local forces, were participating in on the effort to create these provocations.