The crisis in Ukraine continues to escalate with reports of pro-Russian separatists taking a government building in the city of Luhansk and declaring independence in Donetsk. The latest event sparks fears that other Ukrainian territories might break away, much like the annexation of Crimea last month.
"A resolution to this crisis will be found within the next 48 hours," said Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov in the capital Kiev, Reuters reported.
"For those who want dialogue, we propose talks and a political solution. For the minority who want conflict they will get a forceful answer from the Ukrainian authorities."
Ukraine has warned that the protests in the eastern cities could invite a new Russian invasion, with separatists calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin for help.
"Of course we must ask Russia to take us in because I don't see an alternative," said a man identified as Vasiliy in Luhansk, where activists reinforced barricades. "Putin help us!"
Earlier this week, armed activists occupied a government building in Donetsk and declared it to be a sovereign "people's republic," The Guardian reported.
"Seeking to create a popular, legitimate, sovereign state, I proclaim the creation for the sovereign state of the People's Republic of Donetsk," a spokesperson for the activists declared before a cheering crowd.
Several hundred people reportedly remain camped outside the regional administration building in Donetsk, manning barricades of tires and barbed wire, while the anthem of the former Soviet Union play over loudspeakers.
The Russian government has warned of civil war in Ukraine if Kiev attempts to regain control of the eastern cities by force.
"We are calling for the immediate cessation of any military preparations, which could lead to civil war," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
It added that the world's largest country is doing everything that it can to promote stability in Ukraine.
"We are firmly convinced that this can be achieved through, among other steps: real constitutional reform, which would ensure the legitimate rights of all Ukrainian regions and respond to demands from its south-eastern region to make Russian the state's second official language; firm guarantees on Ukraine's non-aligned status enshrined in its laws, thus ensuring its role as a connecting link in an indivisible European security architecture; and urgent measures to halt activity by illegal armed formations of the Right Sector and other ultra-nationalist groups," the Foreign Ministry stated.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has rejected Russia's claims, however, arguing that the pro-Russian separatists are acting as "provocateurs and agents" who have been sent to eastern Ukraine "determined to create chaos."
"These efforts are as ham-handed as they are transparent, frankly. And quite simply, what we see from Russia is an illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives across an international boundary engaged in this initiative," Kerry said before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a testimony on Tuesday.
"Russia's clear and unmistakable involvement in destabilizing and engaging in separatist activities in the east of Ukraine is more than deeply disturbing. No one should be fooled, and believe me, no one is fooled by what could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea."
Russia was accused of sparking tensions by stationing close to 100,000 troops around Ukraine's borders at the end of March. It claimed the forces were simply carrying out military exercises, but U.S. President Barack Obama disputed that claim.
"There's a strong sense of Russian nationalism and a sense that somehow the West has taken advantage of Russia in the past and that he wants to, in some fashion, reverse that or make up for that," Obama said then.
Kerry warned that Russia needs to decide whether it is willing to work with the international community or risk creating additional conflicts.
"So Russia has a choice: to work with the international community to help build an independent Ukraine that could be a bridge between the East and West – not the object of a tug of war – that could meet the hopes and aspirations of all Ukrainians, or they could face greater isolation and pay the cost for their failure to see that the world is not a zero-sum game," Kerry said.