In Crimea, Russia used its military and local Russian-speaking Ukrainians to seize government buildings and demand autonomy, followed by a return to Russia. In the past 24 hours, Russia has apparently employed the same strategy in eastern Ukraine. Large crowds seized government buildings in Donetsk, with similar rallies taking place in Lugansk and Kharkiv, and demands for a referendum on sovereignty immediately followed:

Activists chanting “Russia!” broke through police lines Sunday and stormed several government buildings in eastern Ukrainian regions seeking independence from Kiev following last month’s fall of a Kremlin regime.

Clashes in Donetsk and similar rallies in the heavily Russified cities such of Lugansk and Kharkiv provided another reminder to the untested pro-Western leaders in Kiev of the monumental task facing them after their February 22 overthrow of president Viktor Yanukovych. …

Several eastern regions now want to stage referendums on joining Kremlin rule when Ukraine holds snap presidential polls on May 25. Both election frontrunners want to tie the vast country’s future to Europe and break its historic dependence on Russia.

The day’s most violent protest saw nearly 100 activists move away from a crowd of 2,000 rallying on the main city square of Donetsk to storm and occupy the government seat where they raised the Russian flag.

They threw firecrackers at about 200 riot police and ripped away several of their shields before raising the Russian flag above the 11-story building.

Ukraine PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Vladimir Putin of deliberately using unrest as a provocation and an excuse for more military intervention:

Speaking at an emergency Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russia was behind seizures of several government buildings in eastern regions that have for weeks seen a spike in secessionist sentiment.

“The plan is to destabilize the situation, the plan is for foreign troops to cross the border and seize the country’s territory, which we will not allow,” he said, adding that people engaged in the unrest have distinct Russian accents.

Yatsenyuk said Russian troops remain stationed within 19 miles of the frontier.

The problem for Yatsenyuk is that he can’t afford a military confrontation, which leaves his hands tied to a large extent in the eastern provinces. First, what forces he does have need to fortify the border rather than impose order in Donetsk and Lugansk. Even more to the point, the use of the military to suppress the Russian-speaking population would give Putin exactly the pretense he wants to send his far more powerful military into eastern Ukraine to protect the oppressed Russian minority.

Yatsenyuk is between a rock and a hard place here, and he knows it. He can’t afford to provoke Putin, but he’s on the verge of a civil war if he does nothing. He has to hope that the police can put down the unrest by themselves … and that they don’t switch sides, as those in the West did against Yanukovich in the unrest that brought Yatsenyuk to power in the first place.

Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reports this morning that a council of a “recently proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic” has just asked for Russian “peacekeepers” to be deployed in Donetsk. Any guesses how long it will take for Putin to recognize this new “republic” and save them from the Ukrainians?