TIME Ukraine

Russian Separatism Gains Ground in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russia supporters gather and wave Russian flags in Lenin Square in Donetsk, March 16, 2014.
Pro-Russia supporters gather and wave Russian flags in Lenin Square in Donetsk, March 16, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

After Russia's de facto annexation of Crimea, questions loom over the status of other parts of Ukraine where many remain sympathetic to Russia

Andrey Serdiuk, a miner, had set up shop about 16 km north of Donetsk, on the highway leading to Luhansk, right next to a traffic-police station. He and about a dozen other men, some of them clad in bright safety vests, some in track suits and some in military fatigues, had come here from nearby towns, he said, to stop Ukrainian army vehicles from reaching the Russian border. “If any of them come here, we’re ready to lie on the road to stop them from passing,” says Serdiuk.

But if tanks bearing the Russian tricolor were ever to come from the opposite direction, Serdiuk made clear, he and his men would be happy to see them through.

“We don’t want to live in one country with fascists,” says Petr Bogomol, another miner, using the slur frequently aimed at the interim government in Kiev, which has been running the country since the Feb. 22 ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. “We want a union with Russia,” he says, “and we want federalization.”

“We don’t want bloodshed, but if need be we’ll do as our grandfathers did in the World War and we’ll defend our land,” Serdiuk says. “Western Ukraine has become a cancer.”

In and around Donetsk, a region where 38% of the population identifies as ethnic Russian and where only a minority considers Ukrainian their mother language, few people have any appetite whatsoever for war, but separatist sympathies are decidedly strong. In an opinion poll conducted in February, 33% of the region’s residents declared they would support joining Russia. What that number might be today — with Russian troops massing across the border, with Crimea in Russian hands and with the interim Kiev government struggling to win legitimacy in the east — is anyone’s guess.

In late February, the new authorities played right into the hands of Donetsk’s pro-Russian propagandists when parliament annulled a 2012 law allowing regions to use Russian as a second official language. The government has since tried to undo the damage, repeatedly making the point that it represents all Ukrainians. At the beginning of March, the interim President, Oleksandr Turchynov, vetoed the repeal of the old language law. On Tuesday, just as Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared to sign a treaty annexing Crimea, Ukraine’s Prime Minister pledged to give regions like Donetsk new powers to determine their own education and culture policies and to run their own police forces.

It isn’t so much the Kiev government’s new charm offensive that resonates with Donetsk’s residents, says Igor Todorov, a pro-Western professor at Donetsk National University, as it is the threat of a Russian invasion. Instead of inspiring ethnic Russians in Ukraine to turn east, he reckons, “Putin’s aggression in the Crimea is backfiring.” Core pro-Russian supporters still dream of seceding from Ukraine, he says, but many others have grown wary of Moscow.

Kirill Cherkashin, an associate professor at the same university and one of Donetsk’s leading pro-Russian voices, believes the exact opposite. After the Crimean referendum, he estimates, local support for union with Russia has swelled to around 60%. “Ukraine isn’t going to take care of us like Russia will,” he says. In terms of culture, religion and language, he says, Donetsk has more in common with Moscow than Kiev. “Russia is like our mother. Ukraine is like our mother-in-law.”

Mother, he admits, has her flaws, but those pale in comparison with the perceived horrors that await Donetsk under a pro-Western, pro-E.U. administration in Kiev. Echoing the narrative aired by Putin and the Russian state media, many here see the events that forced Yanukovych from power as a takeover by far-right, fascist elements; the nationalists in the government that replaced him, they claim, are descendants of the Nazi collaborators who ran amok in western Ukraine during the World War II. Having to choose between Kiev and Moscow, Cherkashin says, is like “having to choose between Hitler and Stalin.” He frames his choice — Stalin — as not the lesser of two evils, but rather the good over the bad.

Meanwhile, Moscow is sending mixed signals. On Friday, following clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters in Donetsk, Russia warned that it reserved the “right to take people under its protection.” What it chose to ignore is that the previous night’s violence appeared to have been instigated by a large pro-Russian group, which attacked a smaller group of rival protesters. At least one man died in the fighting.

By Tuesday, Russia had appeared to backtrack somewhat, with Putin declaring that military intervention in eastern Ukraine was not on the table. Amid reports of clashes in Crimea and of Russian provocations inside Ukraine, however, the possibility of armed confrontation remained.

On Donetsk’s main square, less than a hundred yards from the spot where a 22-year-old member of a Ukrainian nationalist party was stabbed to death in Thursday clashes, a group of several dozen men huddled near a large statue of Lenin. Some of them had been camping out in the area for weeks, they said, protecting the statue from pro-Ukrainian demonstrators who might seek to topple it. The pro-Ukrainians, having decided to stop holding rallies after Thursday’s killing, were nowhere to be seen.

Several others among the group had embraced an additional cause. They were members of the so-called People’s Militia of Donbass, a local pro-Russian group that had been picketing and storming government buildings across the city, they said, and they were collecting signatures for a referendum on Donetsk’s future.

“In seven hours we got 15,000 signatures,” one of them tells TIME, pointing to a stack of papers that a gust of cold wind had blown across the square. They were planning to present them to the regional government. In the 15 minutes I spent with the men, this reporter did not see anyone sign up.

And what if the local government refused to entertain their referendum demand? “We’d ask for Russia to help,” Yevgeniy, a port worker, replies. What kind of help? “Military intervention in Donetsk.”

Miles away — past the luxury-shop-studded streets of Donetsk, past the marble palaces of the city’s notorious billionaire oligarchs, past potholed side roads and dilapidated, gray apartment buildings and an overpass on which someone had painted the words “The USSR lives,” in large white letters — the miners at the highway checkpoint have a similar answer. They have no reason to look forward to Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election, they say, because they have no one to vote for. The new government “was a bunch of fascists.” The old one, they say, “turned out to be a bunch of traitors and thieves.” So who can they still trust? Bogomol laughs. “Putin!”

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