Harriet Salem in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, Ukraine -
On Palm Sunday on April 13, Babushka’s sheltered under umbrellas on the outskirts of Solviansk. Clutching picture frames of Christian icons, the old ladies said they were there to help defend against a threatened attack by the Ukrainian army against pro-Russian forces occupying state buildings in the eastern Ukrainian city. “We are for peace. We just want the voice of the east to be heard by this junta in Kyiv,” said 54-year-old Victoria, who described her childhood under the Soviet Union as the "best years of her life". Behind the Babushka human shield, balaclava-clad men fortified a tyre road blockade and prepared Molotov cocktails. Nearly all roads into the Sloviansk are now held by pro-Russian forces, some armed with automatic weapons.
With flags of Russia hanging alongside the insignia of the fledgling “Donbas Republic” around the city centre, hundreds took to the streets in support of the occupations. "Go home Yankees" and "Glory to Donbas" read signs hung on the barricades. Most protesters said that they were in favour of tighter ties with Russia, and although views differed on the precise nature of the desired relationship with Moscow, all demanded a local referendum be held on core issues such as federalization and joining the Russian-led Customs Union.
Ukraine’s spiralling economic woes have fuelled secessionist and pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine’s industrial heartland, where there is a perception that the east is financing the capital and west of the country. “These people on Maidan threw Motolov cocktails and attacked police for three months whilst we paid for them,” complained Dmitry, a 37-year-old factory worker and member of the local militia. “Yet they are greeted as heroes and we are called terrorists," he added, referring to interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov's comments in a televised address April 13 in which he warned of a "large-scale anti-terrorist operation" to remove the armed protestors occupying buildings.
Following the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March, Kyiv has accused Moscow of fomenting unrest in the country’s eastern regions, which have been rocked by a series of escalating pro-Russian demonstrations and occupations since the new government took power in February.
In the wake of a declaration of an independent “Donetsk People’s Republic”, on the evening of April 12 forces loyal to Moscow seized government buildings, including several police stations with large stashes of arms, in synchronised attacks in a number of cities across eastern Ukraine, including Sloviantsk, Kramatorsk, Gorlovka and Mariupol. Other strategic sites including small private aerodromes and security service buildings have also been secured by pro-Russian forces.
Video footage of the action in Kramatorsk shows around 20 gunmen in military fatigues taking the police headquarters in a seemingly professional operation. Shots were fired in the air and into the building. Once secured, civilian local self-defence appear to have been ushered inside the building, which is now barricaded and remains under their control.
Speaking to bne outside the occupied police building in Sloviansk, a member of the pro-Russian militia who identified himself only as Dimitry said that guns and ammunition stored inside the building had been distributed to protesters, but only to those with experience of handling arms. “Everyone here is local, from Sloviansk or nearby villages, there are no outside forces here,” he told bne, a claim that was echoed by the pro-Russian forces throughout the day.
The protesters were on high alert following Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov’s claim that an anti-terrorist operation was underway to remove those occupying state buildings. But if the security operation did go ahead, it appears to have been substandard and badly bungled. So far the only sign of any Ukrainian military incursions into the region is video footage of the apparent aftermath of an assault on a convoy of APCs. The exact sequence of events is unclear, but the amateur film, released on YouTube, shows Ukrainian army vehicles retreating and two men slumped on the floor. The grainy footage shows one man slumped over dead and another badly injured, both appear to have been shot.
At least two civilian vehicles at the scene were also riddled with bullets. The identity and the whereabouts of the car passengers are unclear. bne was unable to independently verify the film footage. On his Facebook page, Ukraine's interior minister said that there were, "dead and wounded on both sides". Unconfirmed reports from theground also suggest that the three police or military helicopters circling over Sloviansk throughout the day were prevented from landing by a mob of angry locals.
The botched security operation is another indication of the depth of the crisis faced by the new administration in Kyiv. The pattern of government-building seizures by pro-Russian forces, strategically clustered around the two main highways running from the west into the east of the country, suggest that Moscow might be preparing to slice off another chunk of the country - a move that would give Russia much-needed land access to its newly annexed Crimea peninsula. According to Nato, at least 40,000 Russian troops have massed on Ukraine’s eastern border for the last month.
Nato has effectively ruled out military intervention in Ukraine, which lies outside the western alliance. But a fresh round of targeted economic sanctions against Russia is expected shortly. “Any further Russian military interference, under any pretext, will only deepen Russia's international isolation,” Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in statement issued on April 13.
In response to the day’s events, Ukrainian acting President Turchinov made a renewed pledge to remove the protesters by force if they did not surrender. Turchinov said the protesters occupying state buildings had a short period of amnesty to lay down their weapons or a face a “full-scale anti-terrorist operation involving the armed forces of Ukraine”.
But as the deadline for the protestors to leave passed and few signs of such an operation in motion, it remains unclear whether Ukraine has the capacity to launch such an assault. The country’s armed forces have been starved of investment over the last decade and were unable to put up any resistance to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Now, with the bulk of Ukraine’s troops concentrated on its eastern border with Russia, Kyiv probably has insufficient resources at its disposal to defend two fronts.
Russia’s foreign ministry has called the planned military operation against pro-Russian forces a “criminal order” and warned the West that it must now act to “prevent civil war in Ukraine”. In March, Russian President Vladmir Putin obtained permission from his parliament to intervene in Ukraine if there was a threat to Ukraine’s ethnic Russians. Kyiv and its western allies claim the president is attempting to engineer a pretext for invasion.
In a further blow to the Ukrainian government there is growing evidence that the police in the eastern regions are defecting en masse. Following in the path of their Donetsk colleagues, police officers in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk have also reportedly joined the side of the protesters. “The police are with the people. They did not resist us coming here. They are our friends and they are happy we are here,” said 32-year-old balaclava clad Sasha, a member of a local militia guarding the city’s law enforcement HQ, before shaking hands with a local priest who had come to give his blessing to the occupation.
With the police forces now seemingly sided with pro-Russia militia, on April 13 Interior Minister Avakov wrote on his Facebook page that "local special force units" would be established in every region of Ukraine, starting with the eastern regions of Luhansk, Dnepropetrovsk, Nikolaev, Odessa, Kherson and Kharkov. The minister said the state would recruit 120,000 "patriots" to serve in the units who would be provided with weapons and training. The special task of the units would be to respond to the threat of "green men and gangs who threaten attack the integrity of Ukraine".
The level of local support for the occupations is hard to gauge. But Ukraine’s east is unlikely to fall to Russia as easily as its southern peninsula did. The line between eastern and central Ukraine is blurred, and large pro-unity as well as pro-Russia rallies have been held across the region in recent weeks. Clashes between the two sides in Kharkiv on April 13, which left 50 injured, including 10 hospitalised, are a worrying reminder of the real risk of civilian violence breaking out.
Speaking to bne, local businessman and owner of a defunct aerodrome Dmitriy Podushkin said that he was for pro-Ukrainian unity, but feared that clashes in the east, at least, were now becoming inevitable. “If Russia takes one piece of Ukraine, they won’t stop there, they will go all the way to Kyiv,” he warned
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