Echoes of Crimea keep Ukraine’s east rumbling.
The disheveled men barricading the muddy lane leading into a military facility in this eastern Ukraine town say they are making a stand to defend the region’s Russian-speaking majority.
In the nearby city of Donetsk, gangs of pro-Russian activists and Cossacks armed with sticks and bats have been storming one local government office after another, only to leave a short while later.
It looks a lot like Crimea.
But despite feeling or speaking Russian, many in these eastern regions still adhere strongly to their Ukrainian identity, so things could play out far differently.
“Russia has been unable to achieve the rapid breakaway of eastern Ukraine and we are focused on a long-term scenario,” said Andrei Purgin, whose banned Donetsk Republic separatist group has been engaged in the seizure of public administration buildings.
Rumblings in the east began soon after last month’s ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, whose political strongholds lay mainly in the nation’s Russian-speaking Donbass industrial heartland.
The protests that brought about his downfall and paralyzed the capital, Kiev, were perceived by many here as ardent Ukrainian nationalism. In truth, the monthslong protests on Kiev’s Independence Square were focused on a desire to fight corruption and strengthen ties with Europe. But when the new parliament that took center stage after Yanukovych’s overthrow moved to drop Russian as an official language, easterners’ worst suspicions and fears seemed to have been realized. Although the new government quickly backed off that proposal, the damage had been done. Police in a dozen cities across the Donbass — including Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk — have struggled to thwart pro-Russian rabbles from seizing local government buildings in protest.
At the military facility in Artemivsk, several dozen pro-Russian activists, many of them wearing black leather jackets, intermittently formed a human cordon Thursday to stop vehicles from entering or exiting. They argue that blockading the facility would prevent the use of armed forces to quell popular discontent against the interim government.
“Power in Kiev has been seized by a junta that wants to speak to defiant people in eastern Ukraine with weapons and force. We will not allow this,” declared Sergei Varyuschenko, a 63-year-old businessman taking part in the endeavor.
Not unlike the encampment erected by protesters in Kiev’s main square, also known as the Maidan, pro-Russia activists in Artemivsk have pitched tents, installed an open-air field kitchen and burn wood in steel drums to warm themselves.
“We’ll show them Maidan. The east of Ukraine will live separately, by its own laws,” said Varyuschenko, who was spending his third day camping out. For some, like 46-year-old Donetsk miner Anton Skachko, the disillusionment with Ukraine‘s new government is about the economic consequences. “We are tired of revolutions and upheavals in Kiev. One set of thieves is replaced by another, and the economic situation just gets worse. We want stability and peace, and only Russia can give us that,” Skachko said.
Around Donetsk, a city of nearly 1 million people, pro-Russian activists have set up 10 checkpoints to inspect vehicles for suspicious content. They say they are trying to keep what they call radical nationalists from western Ukraine from bringing in weapons to make trouble.
For all this activity, allies of the Kiev government in the east are confident they can avert the kind of widespread unrest that might prompt Moscow to send in troops to restore order and protect its Russian-speaking brethren.
Metals billionaire Sergei Taruta, who was recently appointed governor of the Donetsk province, an area where he has vast business interests, is fighting hard to reassert the new Ukrainian leadership’s authority over the east.
Taruta said that despite what he called signs that the Russian government has been engaged in fomenting unrest in Donetsk, a repeat of Crimea is impossible there.
“The majority of the population in the Donbass takes the position that we are an inalienable part and the heart of Ukraine,” he told The Associated Press. Among his first actions was ordering the arrest of Pavel Gubarev, a self-proclaimed “people’s governor” of Donetsk, and replacing the heads of local branches of the Interior Ministry and security services. Police have been brought in from neighboring regions to help keep public order. In addition, Taruta financed the construction of a 120-mile-long (180-kilometer) anti-tank trench with neighboring Russia, where military forces have assembled for exercises that Ukraine sees as a thinly disguised threat.
But he said he is most worried about the activities of Russian citizens he claims are flooding across the border to sow trouble.
“There are representatives here from Russia. I do not know who is sending them. The Kremlin or other organizations, I do not know,” Taruta said. “But our law enforcement bodies understand exactly what is going on in Donetsk.”
Sporadic violent confrontations between pro-Russians activists and their opponents in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks have regularly been followed up by harshly worded statements from Russia‘s Foreign Ministry asserting they are evidence of Kiev’s inability to protect the east’s pro-Russia population from trouble-making radical nationalists.
Russia justified its intervention in Crimea by citing similar fears over nationalist threats, although there is little evidence Russians there have faced any danger.
Some pro-Russian activists are coy about their exact provenance, others less so. Alexei Khudyakov, the head of the Russia-based Shield of Moscow, a nationalist group, makes no secret of the fact that “Russian patriots” are traveling to Ukraine.
“It is becoming harder for Russian activists to come,” he said. “Ukrainian border guards have tightened up the entry regime and made it more difficult for Russian citizens to get into Ukraine.”
But while there is little love lost for the interim government in Kiev among eastern Ukrainians, many of whom would like to see closer economic ties between their country and Russia, disappointment is growing over Russia‘s annexation of Crimea.
“I am Russian, but what I see now is that the Kremlin’s actions are leading to war. Neither Russians nor Ukrainians need that,” said Viktor Gurov, a 38-year-old businessman from Donetsk.
In the long run, the sight of mobs tearing down Ukraine‘s blue-and-yellow flag and replacing it with the Russian tricolor over government buildings in the east could lead to dwindling sympathies for Moscow.
“I hoped in and believed Russia. But the flag of my country is being torn up and stamped on, and Crimea is occupied. This is like a terrible dream,” said 53-year old Donetsk resident Lyudmila Turilo.