Will Kiev or the Kremlin win East Ukraine?
Moscow insists it has no designs on the region, but few believe the claim. Violent clashes between pro-and anti-Russian groups are rife and could quickly escalate
Rallying cries: pro-Russian protesters on the main square of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Sergey Kozlov/EPA
Anyone who thinks Ukraine’s revolution is over, or that it has been won by the western-backed politicians now running Kiev, should spend some time in Kharkiv.
Ukraine’s second city is a nervous, uncertain place. Its 1.4 million people are going about their daily business, but, as the country is swept from one crisis to another, they seem to be braced for the next blow, whether from Russia, which is only 40km away, or from within their own ranks.
The Kiev government has only a tenuous hold here. Its supporters have been driven from the streets by pro-Russian protesters, and an ally of the old regime is still mayor of the city, despite being under house arrest.
The huge protests in Kiev, the bloody end of Viktor Yanukovich’s presidency, and Moscow’s annexation of Crimea have applied such pressure to eastern Ukraine that its society is fracturing. Some here now consider Russia a deadly danger, others see it as their saviour, and the West is alert to any military moves that could dramatically escalate its conflict with the Kremlin. And there are growing calls in southern and eastern regions for a referendum on greater autonomy from Kiev.
One night this week a young woman, perhaps one of Kharkiv’s 150,000 students, took a microphone and talked about the need for real democracy, greater transparency and a proper fight against corruption in Ukraine.
With great conviction she delivered a speech that would have won loud cheers from the crowds that for months packed Kiev’s Independence Square, or “Maidan”, which gave its name to the protest movement.
In Kharkiv, however, she spoke to perhaps 40 people, as rain drummed down and rush-hour traffic rumbled past their meeting place, a statue of Ukraine’s greatest poet, Taras Shevchenko. A few policemen stood around, hands in pockets, looking bored. It seemed tonight would be quiet. But it’s not always like that these days in Kharkiv.
Exchanges of gunfire
Last Friday two pro-Russian protesters were shot dead and other people injured in exchanges of gunfire at a Ukrainian cultural centre in the city, in clashes that Russian media said were provoked by members of Right Sector, nationalist revolutionaries who were prominent on Maidan.
Two days later a mob broke into the building, threw Ukrainian books into the street and set them on fire, as about 2,000 people gathered on Kharkiv’s vast main square. Beneath a towering statue of Vladimir Lenin they carried banners and placards hailing Russia and denouncing the West, including one that read: “Our homeland is the USSR.”
Later, groups of young men jostled with police outside the local government building, and the crowd unfurled an enormous Russian flag and chanted support for Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin leader, before delivering a letter to the Russian consulate asking him to intervene in eastern Ukraine.
The protest leaders did not make a serious attempt to storm the governor’s headquarters, and local officials said the whole event appeared to be a well choreographed show for the Russian television cameras. That evening the footage featured heavily in reports that suggested huge numbers of eastern Ukrainians wanted Putin to save them from bloody chaos.
Local administrations have been at the centre of the struggle for this region, and Ukrainian and Russian flags have regularly swapped places on their roofs as different groups have seized control.
On March 1st, as Moscow’s troops fanned out across Crimea, pro-Russian demonstrators seized Kharkiv’s government building and beat up Maidan supporters inside, injuring about 100.
Among them was Serhiy Zhadan, one of Ukraine’s best-known contemporary writers, whom police led away in an armlock with blood streaming from his head.
“They told me to get down on my knees,” he wrote of his attackers. “I told them to f**k off.”
Warnings of similar violence last weekend prompted pro-Maidan activists to cancel their planned rally to mark the 200th anniversary of the poet Shevchenko’s birth, leaving some of them angry at the inability or unwillingness of Kharkiv’s politicians and police to protect a peaceful march.
“Why can’t Ukrainians go out in their own city and rally for united Ukraine and for peace? It is nonsense,” says a local Maidan organiser, Volodymyr Chistilin. Like the government and officials it has appointed in Kharkiv, Chistilin says the pro-Russian protests in his city and other parts of eastern and southern Ukraine are being led by people sent over the border by Moscow.
Vehicles are now being checked thoroughly at the frontier, and officials say scores of Russian men have been caught carrying flags, camouflage fatigues and weapons.
Intense Russian propaganda is also fuelling fears in eastern Ukraine that the new Kiev government is hostile not only to Moscow’s interference but also to tens of millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
Soon after Yanukovich fled, parliament passed a bill to deprive Russian of the same status as Ukrainian in areas where it is widely spoken.
The interim president quashed the move, but the damage was done. Russian television gave the issue great play, and it is now not uncommon to find ethnic Russians who fear it may soon become illegal to speak their language in public.
A deputy from the nationalist Svoboda party’s recent assault on a television executive for broadcasting a speech by Putin also played into the hands of Russian media, which for months has insisted that Russian-hating “fascists” are behind Ukraine’s revolution.
Such claims find fertile soil here, where there is great pride in the Soviet Union’s achievements and its defeat of Nazi Germany, and prise open the deep cracks that divide Ukraine.
Many eastern Ukrainians share Russia’s language, culture, religion and view of history, and feel alienated by a revolution driven by Kiev and western Ukraine, which ousted a leader from the east and wants to turn the country away from Moscow and towards the EU.
Eastern cities such as Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk – which Yanukovich’s Regions Party used to dominate – are also Ukraine’s industrial centres, and do most of their business with Russia.
“What happens if they lose their orders? Factories close, jobs will be lost. We might not like corruption and criminality, or Russia taking Crimea, but what can we do? We can’t afford to cut ties with Russia,” says Oleh, a Kharkiv taxi driver.
The situation in Kharkiv is further complicated, Maidan activist Chistilin says, by the presence of Gennady Kernes, city mayor, wealthy businessman and political survivor with a flamboyant streak. He has a live macaw and a stuffed lion in the waiting room of his office. Kernes and his ally Mikhail Dobkin, former governor of Kharkiv, were two of the fiercest critics of Ukraine’s revolution, and they cracked down hard on local anti-Yanukovich protests while vehemently supporting the embattled president.
Yanukovich first made for Kharkiv when he left Kiev, and Dobkin and Kernes fled Ukraine shortly afterwards. Both returned, though, and were quickly put under house arrest: Dobkin faces charges of inciting separatism, and Kernes of abduction, torture and making death threats.
Kernes denies the allegations and is still serving as mayor, while apparently trying to build bridges to the new government and keeping his options open in the volatile east.
“Kernes works in his own interests,” says Chistilin. “He is against the Maidan and against Russia, which would brush him aside if it took control here. He controls everything in Kharkiv, including the police. They are loyal to him, not to the government in Kiev. Kernes built this system over several years, and it will be hard to change.”
Desperate to find levers of control in the east, Kiev has turned to wealthy local businessmen to restore order, naming “oligarchs” as governors in Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk.
In Kharkiv, Dobkin’s replacement is Ihor Baluta, a protege of new interior minister Arsen Avakov. “Baluta is a good guy, but he’s a weak governor. He doesn’t have any influence compared with Kernes,” Chistilin says.
“It’s difficult and tense now,” he adds, “but I really don’t believe Kharkiv wants to be Russian. We are very close to Russia, and people speak Russian, but after more than 20 years of independence we feel Ukrainian. We don’t need Russians to come here and cause trouble.”
Less than 50km away, Ukrainian tanks are on manoeuvres near the Russian border; beyond, Moscow’s far superior military has been playing war games for weeks.
“It’s crystal clear to us that the Russian authorities will try to move further and escalate the situation in southern and eastern Ukraine,” Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said on Thursday.
“I want to officially warn Russia: we will respond firmly, including through military means, against any attempt to seize Ukraine, to cross borders, or annexe eastern or other regions by Russian troops.”
Moscow says it has no plans to move beyond Crimea but insists on its right to defend Russian-speakers wherever they are in danger. Such declarations have put other countries with Russian minorities on alert, particularly the Baltic states, former Soviet republics that Moscow accuses of anti-Russian discrimination.
The US and EU have imposed sanctions against officials close to Putin, but their efficacy is unclear. If they cause a wider loss of faith in Russia on the financial markets, damaging share prices of major Moscow firms and increasing the cost of borrowing, they could stay the hand of Kremlin hawks.
But Russia’s rhetoric suggests otherwise. Officials have pledged to retaliate against western sanctions, with one senior Kremlin aide saying Moscow was ready to break financial ties with the West and trigger a crash in the US banking system.
The boldness of Russia’s actions, and the virulence of its media’s anti-western propaganda, suggest Moscow may believe we have reached a point that Putin has long predicted: when the US dominance of finance, diplomacy and security is confronted, challenged and smashed.
Having sought in recent years to co-operate with Russia over Iran, Syria and North Korea, some US politicians say it is time to scrap the idea that Moscow and Washington can be strategic partners.
But Europe is not willing or able to distance itself from Russia. The EU imports about 30 per cent of its oil and gas from Russia and has other deep trade ties with Moscow, and several European cities are loath to lose the custom of wealthy Russian property buyers and banking customers.
Announcing the latest US sanctions on Thursday, President Barack Obama said that “the world is watching with grave concern, as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine” .
While Ukrainians living near the border seem calm, as if unable to believe that war could ever break out with their close neighbours, Kharkiv, like Donetsk and Luhansk, is braced for another potentially turbulent weekend.
“People in Kharkiv might not be enthusiastically pro-Maidan or anti-Maidan, but I believe they want peace and for Ukraine not to be divided,” says Chistilin, ahead of what he hopes will be a big march for peace on Sunday. “We want to show that many of us feel this way and that we cannot be scared into staying at home in our own city. But there could be provocations. It’s tense.”
Rally for peace
Vasily Khoma, Kharkiv’s deputy governor, wishes people would stay off the streets. “Everyone should just stop. Enough of these street protests. People are tired of them,” he says. “The most important thing is that a rally for peace doesn’t turn into war.”
Recovering from his beating at the hands of what he said were provocateurs from Russia and their local allies, the writer Zhadan appealed to supporters of Ukraine’s revolution not to give in to despair or hatred of their opponents. “We don’t have another Kharkiv; we all have to live here. Keep your heads cool and your hearts warm,” he wrote.
“We have a tough battle ahead. But if we gave up today, we would be betraying ourselves. Let’s stick together to the end.”