POSTED: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 - 3:47am
UPDATED: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - 12:39pm
KIEV (CNN) — There's no reason for concern over the presence of Russian troops along Ukraine's border, Moscow insisted Wednesday.
At the same time, Ukraine's interim government said the crisis in its eastern region would be resolved within 48 hours -- either through negotiations or the use of force, Interim Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told reporters.
Pro-Russian protesters seized government buildings in the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv on Sunday. Rebels occupying Donetsk's regional government building Monday declared a "people's republic" and called for a referendum on secession from Ukraine to be held by May 11.
Western powers have blamed Russia for fomenting the separatist unrest as a pretext for military intervention.
But Russia's Foreign Ministry said that Ukraine and the United States have "no reason for concern" over the presence of Russian troops near the border.
"Russia has repeatedly stated that it does not conduct unusual or unplanned activities which are militarily significant on its territory near the border with Ukraine," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
It added that "attempts to blame Russia of building the armed forces are groundless."
On Tuesday, Moscow warned that any use of force in Ukraine's eastern region, which borders Russia, could lead to civil war and called for "the immediate cessation of any military preparations."
There were conflicting reports late Tuesday over whether demonstrators who seized control of a Security Service of Ukraine building in Luhansk took hostages.
An anti-terrorism unit outside the building claimed the pro-Russian demonstrators were holding hostages, Victoria Syumar, a security service spokeswoman, and Yarema Duh, spokesman for the National Security and Defense Council, told CNN.
Fifty-one people were released from the building early Wednesday morning, the security service said in a statement.
But pro-Russian demonstrators holed up in the building denied having taken anyone hostage, according to Reuters reports.
Ukraine's interim President Oleksandr Turchynov reiterated Tuesday that he would treat pro-Russian separatists who have seized buildings in the country's east as "terrorists" who will be prosecuted with the full force of the law.
His remarks came ahead of a vote in parliament which approved legislation outlawing groups and individuals who call for separatism. Of the 450 members of the Ukrainian parliament, 230 voted in favor of the bill.
Kerry: Contrived pretext for intervention
Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that Russian forces and special agents have been behind what he called the "chaos" in eastern Ukraine in the past 24 hours.
Kerry described the developments as "more than deeply disturbing" and said they amounted to what could be a "contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea."
Echoing that view, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told CNN's Amanpour show that Russia is financing subversion in eastern Ukraine using the pretext of ethnic tensions.
"What's happening in Ukraine is unacceptable," he said. "A more powerful nation is first taking a province away from a less powerful country, and now financing subversion using the pretext of ethnic problems, which are non-existent."
Kerry will meet Monday with his Russian, Ukrainian and European Union counterparts to discuss efforts to de-escalate the crisis, according to a statement released by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Ashton "calls against any further destabilization of Ukraine, whether from the inside or the outside," the statement said.
Kerry warned of increased sanctions targeting Russia's banking, energy, mining and arms sectors if the Russians "cross over" into eastern Ukraine. Current sanctions target individuals over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's southeastern Crimean region last month.
'Similar pattern' to revolts
U.S. officials told CNN on Tuesday that one reason the United States believes Russia may have orchestrated the pro-Russian demonstrations in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv is that the disturbances and violence had a similar pattern and similar separatist motivations even though the cities are located at significant distances from each other.
U.S. officials have long noted that these three cities are specific areas that Moscow has been trying to influence.
Although Ukrainian forces have been able to regain control for now, the U.S. assessment is that Russia may be trying to fabricate a pretext for military action using some of the 40,000 troops still massed on the border, several U.S. officials told CNN.
Even after weeks of tension and uncertainty, the United States does not know what political calculation Russian President Vladimir Putin might make in deciding whether or not to move his troops into Ukraine, officials said.
The belief is the decision will be made by Putin with little or no influence from his top military and foreign policy advisers. There is also a U.S. view that Putin may leave the troops on the border for some time to come, utilizing them as an intimidation factor against the Ukraine government, US officials said.
Russia has said it does not intend to invade eastern Ukraine, although it says it reserves the right to intervene to protect ethnic Russians.
Moscow insists that Russian troops in the border area are taking part in military exercises.
CNN's Kellie Morgan reported from Kiev and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported from London. CNN's Barbara Starr, Frederik Pleitgen and Mick Krever contributed to this report.