The top deputy of Ukraine's deposed president has warned that the acting government in Kiev will push the country into a civil war if it tries to exert its authority over Russian-speaking regions in the east and south of the country.
"This is a very dangerous moment," said Oleg Tsarev, who led the parliamentary faction of Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions before he and many of the party's deputies abandoned the capital last week as the pro-Western protesters took over government institutions.
Speaking to The Globe and Mail by mobile telephone from his home city of Dnepropetrovsk, in the centre-east of the country, Mr. Tsarev warned that the situation would devolve rapidly if the pro-European Union protesters tried to expand their control – particularly if they try to push into the Crimea, a region in the south of the country that is strongly pro-Russian and hosts the warships and sailors of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
"The worst-case scenario would be if the self-defence forces try and go to Crimea," he said, referring to the fighters that battled riot police in Kiev, using crude weapons. "Then a war will start. And Russia cannot do nothing."
On Monday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said the new government in Kiev had come to power via an "armed mutiny."
"Strictly speaking, there is no one to talk to there. There are big doubts about the legitimacy of a whole series of organs of power that are now functioning there," he told Russian news agencies.
Mr. Medvedev said Moscow withdrew its ambassador to Ukraine on Sunday because "it is not clear to us what is going on there, and that there is a real threat to our interests, and to our citizens' lives and health."
While Kiev and the west of Ukraine are now firmly under the control of the new government, it's less clear who rules the rest of the country. Several hundred supporters of the acting government – many carrying wooden clubs and metal shields – are currently occupying the regional administration building in the eastern city of in Kharkiv – just 40 kilometres from the Russian border – hoping to spread the pro-Western revolution to the rest of the country.
Across Kharkiv's central Freedom Square, a smaller pro-Russian group – many carrying the hammer-and-sickle flag of the Soviet Union – has built barricades around a statue of Vladimir Lenin. The two groups are separated by a thin line of city police. Similar scenes were unfolding in Dnepropetrovsk, according to Mr. Tsarev.
He said the separation of Ukraine into two or more parts was now increasingly possible. He alleged – as many Kremlin allies have done – that the protests that brought down Mr. Yanukovych were organized and funded by Western governments.
"The ambassadors of the European Union and the U.S. have done this. They've pushed out an elected government and brought in an illegal government. What's happening in Ukraine right now is not necessary. The European Union and the U.S. have done this."
Former regime insiders have accused Mr. Tsarev of being among the hawks who advised Mr. Yanukovych to crack down earlier and harder on the pro-EU protesters that have occupied the centre of Kiev since November.
He was a featured speaker on Saturday at a conference in Kharkiv that brought together pro-Russian politicians from the east and centre of the country. That meeting ended with a declaration that regional governments would ignore any laws passed by parliament in Kiev.
Mr. Tsarev said that he didn't know where Mr. Yanukovych was – and hadn't spoke to him in several days – but he said he still considered him the country's president. On Monday, the acting government issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Yanukovych, accusing him of ordering "the mass killing of civilians" after 82 people, most of them protesters, died in clashes last week that resulted in Mr. Yanukovych's ouster and flight from Kiev.
Mr. Yanukovych has not been seen since giving a television interview Saturday that his spokeswoman said was recorded in Kharkiv.
Mr. Tsarev said Mr. Yanukovych would legally remain president until he resigned, "or is killed." He said there is no constitutional method for impeaching a president, as the opposition-controlled parliament claims to have done, and said the Party of Regions hadn't yet decided whether to participate in a presidential election the acting government has set for May 25.
There have been calls in Kiev for the Party of Regions to be forcibly disbanded.
Follow me on Twitter: