Ukraine fears more bloodshed before eastern rebels’ independence referendum

Attack attributed to Right Sector nationalists was carried out by Russian agents, says Kiev

Pro-Russian gunmen control a road after a night fight at the checkpoint near Slovyansk on Sunday. Photograph: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Pro-Russian gunmen control a road after a night fight at the checkpoint near Slovyansk on Sunday. Photograph: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Tue, Apr 22, 2014, 01:00

The man in the black mask tapped the pistol strapped to his chest and the rifle cradled in his arms.

“I have one magazine for the Makarov and two for the Kalashnikov. It’s a joke,” he said. “If we had enough weapons and ammunition, every checkpoint around here would be armed. And things like this wouldn’t happen.”

He was standing on a quiet country lane outside the village of Bylbasovka, close to two charred and bullet-riddled cars.

Russia and Ukraine’s anti-government rebels claim they were part of a convoy of four cars that drove up to this checkpoint in the early hours of Easter Sunday, as part of an operation by the Right Sector ultranationalist group that left three locals dead.

Details of the attack are obscure but, whatever happened, three men were killed. And no one in this area, around the rebel-held town of Slovyansk, cares how a business card carrying the name of Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh was found at the scene and survived the blaze that destroyed the cars.

Russian media were first on the scene and displayed the card, carrying Mr Yarosh’s supposed phone number and email address, and other items supposedly left behind by the killers: a Right Sector medallion, a bundle of $100 bills and a second World War-era German machine gun.

It was apparently a perfect haul for anyone seeking to depict Ukraine as a country bedevilled by violent fascists, who are funded by Washington and inspired by 1940s nationalists who sometimes sided with the Nazis against the Soviets in western Ukraine. This is the line that Russia and its allies in Ukraine have been pushing for months.

Kiev described the checkpoint killings as a crude Russian “false flag” operation, intended to discredit Ukraine’s new pro-EU government and Right Sector, and to fuel fear in eastern regions and give Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin a reason to invade.

Within hours, Slovyansk’s rebel leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov appealed to Moscow to deploy “peacekeepers” to defend people from “fascists”. He has reason to be hopeful: Putin occupied Crimea on much the same pretext, and then annexed it.

At the checkpoint where men had seen their comrades killed, in the village of Bylbasovka where families were mourning, and in surrounding areas where hopes of an Easter truce had been shattered, rising fear and anger left no appetite for analysis.

The killings, on a holy day, confirmed their worst fears about Kiev’s new leaders and revolutionary groups like Right Sector that are hostile to Russian interference in Ukraine – but not, the group insists, to Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

“We need more weapons now. Where is the world? Doesn’t it see what’s happening?” said the man in the mask.

“In Kiev, when protesters were killed they were called heroes. And you call us separatists and terrorists. Are we worth nothing?” he asked.

Militants occupying official buildings in Slovyansk and several other eastern towns and cities plan to hold an independence referendum by May 11th. Kiev calls the unrest and planned vote a Russian plot to stop Ukraine tilting westwards.

While some people sympathise with the rebels, however, no great crowds have come out to support them — or to back the government. Deeply cynical after years of corrupt and incompetent local and national rule, Ukraine’s east suffers from a crippling political apathy, even with gunmen on the streets.

Kiev officials say only more bloodshed could give the rebel independence bid real traction, and they fear Russian “provocations” and fallout from a military “anti-terrorist” operation against militants. These are dangerous days for a nervous nation.