Harriet Salem in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, Ukraine -
Amid warnings from Russia that Ukraine is "on the verge of civil war", long-awaited Ukrainian troops finally arrived April 15 in the troubled Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, where skirmishes with pro-Russian militants have already broken out.
Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned of "civil war" on April 15, the former in a call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, announced the start of an “anti-terror” operation that be will be conducted "cautiously" and "step-by-step".
"Spring is on its way," Oleksander, an Interior Ministry colonel leading the troops on the outskirts of the city of Sloviansk, cheerily remarked. But whilst the weather may have taken a turn for the better, the so-called "Russian Spring" in Ukraine’s eastern regions looks as though it will prove harder to oust than the dank fog that has loitered over the eastern Donbas region for the last week since pro-Russian supporters began occupying buildings in several cities. Most local police in the region have defected to the pro-Russian side and now wear the orange-and-black-striped St George ribbon on their uniforms – a symbol of allegiance with Russia.
The current operation by Ukrainian forces is a bid to remove the armed pro-Russian militants that are occupying state buildings in up to ten cities in eastern Ukraine. The new pro-EU administration in Kyiv has struggled to retain control over the eastern region since it took power in February after the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych fled after months of street protests. The Crimean peninsula, overwhelmingly Russian speaking, has already seceded and joined Russia.
The start of Ukraine’s military operation came 24 hours after the expiry of the government-issued deadline for the pro-Russian forces to lay down their arms. The number of Ukrainian troops and vehicles dispatched to the region remains unclear. But parked on the highway leading into the Donbas region on the morning of April 15 at least two helicopters, and 12 armoured personnel carriers adorned with Ukrainian flags, were visible. Approximately 20 parked buses indicated the presence of several hundred troops in the surrounding wooded areas.
Angry pro-Russian locals flocked to the base. When General Vasiliy Krutov, who is leading the anti-terror operation, came to speak to the gathered crowd in an attempt to quell the rising tension, he was surrounded and had his hat knocked off as he retreated back to the sanctuary of the gated airbase.
As evening fell, the mob’s anger showed no signs of abating. “[President] Turchynov is a criminal, this operation is criminal, he has ordered them to shoot peaceful people,” roared one young man through the barbed wire fence surrounding the airfield. On the approach road, local pro-Russian self-defence forces hunkered down for the night, making Molotov cocktails and constructing a road blockade.
In nearby Sloviansk, a small industrial city ringed by a two deep road blockades of pro-Russian gunmen, the atmosphere was calm but tense on April 15. The city has been under the control of separatists since the weekend, when pro-Russian militants took the city’s police and security services building along with the cache of arms stored inside. “What happened in Crimea is happening here,” jested one of the local militia manning the road blockade on the city’s north.
So far the Ukrainian forces have not advanced into the city, but throughout the day rumours circulated that tanks were about to roll in. Ukrainian Interior Ministry forces and the Ukrainian army held their position near the town of Lizum, 40 kilometres northwest of pro-Russian militants' road blockade on the outskirts of the city of Sloviansk.
As evening drew in, local people gathered on the main square in Sloviansk outside the administrative building for a public meeting. Speakers at the conference called on the city’s citizens to remain calm, and to ignore rumours circulating that nationalist Ukrainian provocateurs had infiltrated the city. “Be peaceful and please do not drink,” announced one man over a megaphone.
The level of local support for the pro-Russian movement is hard to gauge. The Donbas region, where the seizures have occurred, has a predominantly Russian-speaking population, but linguistics does not necessarily determine political allegiance. But active opposition to the occupation has been virtually non-existent. Speaking to bne, Yuriy Temiro, a local analyst, said that the Ukrainian government should provide arms to local “patriots”. “There are a few hundred people ready to become part of the Donetsk self-defence force,” he told bne.
Russian media is fighting a vicious propaganda war against the new government in Kyiv. Amongst the more outlandish claims made by Kremlin-controlled media on April 15 was that a Ukrainian government-led genocide against ethnic Russians had begun in Ukraine’s east. Despite the tensions, at the end of April 15 the number of fatalities stood at zero.
Many locals say, however, if forced to choose between Ukraine and Russia, they will turn to their eastern neighbour, which has strong cultural and economic ties to the region. “Industry and small businesses here do almost all their trade with Russia, many people have family in Russia,” says one pro-Russian protester, who said she wants to see a referendum held on the issue of federalisation. “If we break contact with Russia, all people will lose their jobs."
Not all share her views, however. Pro-unity protesters, those who want to keep Ukraine intact, have announced that they will hold a large rally in Donetsk on the evening of April 17. Sources report that the demonstration will be held under security paid for by local oligarchs as well as Shaktar Donetsk football ultras, who were active in Kyiv's revolution that ousted Yanukovych.
As the sun set on Sloviansk on April 15, two low-flying helicopters swooped in circles over a small airfield on the city’s outskirts. Below, the column of civilians en route to form a night guard to defend the airbase raised their middle fingers at the pilots. “Shoot! We’re down here,” they jeered.
But behind the bravado lurks real fear. “Of course, we are absolutely terrified,” admitted Irina, a 42-year-old building renovator from the city at the frontline of the tensions. “Civilised people should negotiate, only barbarians fight with each other, and use their fists to resolve problems. But both sides have to be ready to negotiate."
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