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ON THE SCENE: In Ukraine’s East, Fears of Showdown Loom

Masked pro-Russia protesters stand guard near a barricade outside a regional government building in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, April 23, 2014.
Masked pro-Russia protesters stand guard near a barricade outside a regional government building in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, April 23, 2014.
— With the war of words intensifying in a crisis threatening to dismember Ukraine, all sides are accusing each other of failing to observe an agreement reached in Geneva last week that aimed to ease tensions in eastern Ukraine.

Locals here in Donetsk - most seem determined to try to avoid trouble and to get on with their daily lives - fear that a showdown is looming in a standoff that has not only pinned Kyiv against Moscow, its former Soviet overlord, but also re-ignited Cold War-era animosities between the U.S. and Russia.

Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov announced Tuesday a resumption of what the government calls “anti-terrorist” operations against armed pro-Russians in nearly a dozen eastern cities and towns but so far only one of them, Slovyansk, has seen significant military activity, where Ukrainian forces on Thursday reportedly killed five pro-Russian separatists.

Separatists dig in

The separatists who control government buildings in Donetsk and the nearby towns of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk are stepping up preparations to fortify their positions and are bringing in fresh supplies in expectation of prolonged sieges. In the imposing 11-floor regional government building in Donetsk, separatist leader Vladimir Makovich insists they won’t blink.

“We expect an attack any time,” he said during an interview in the regional governor’s office.

Barricades inside the building are being strengthened and there are instructions posted throughout the complex about what measures to take if there is an attempt storm the building. It is being guarded by dozens of masked armed gunmen dressed in combat fatigues as well as by young men, presumably locals, equipped with clubs.

Among the recommended counter-assault tactics: using strong lights to blind assailants and placing mannequins in windows to offer false targets for commandos.

Taking back the regional government in Donetsk is likely to be much harder and bloodier than the Thursday grab-back of the municipal building in the port city of Mariupol, a two hour’s drive south of Donetsk, where there were no casualties reported when separatists were driven out of the city hall.

Varying levels of separatism

But separatist sentiment isn’t as strong in Mariupol as it is in Donetsk and the rust belt towns of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, where self-proclaimed mayor and separatist leader Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, who served in the Soviet military, has surrounded himself with gunmen who appear much harder and more determined even than their counterparts in Donetsk. He says the gunmen are friends who served with him in the Soviet military but Kyiv officials claim they are active service Russian intelligence operatives and special forces soldiers.

“We don’t need Russian soldiers,” Ponomaryov said, who speaks in a low voice. “We have our own people.”

While the Donetsk regional government building has been trashed inside and there is more disorder, the municipal building Ponomaryov controls in Slovyansk is more organized; and unlike in Donetsk where there are several separatist leaders, the brusque and often mercurial Ponomaryov appears the undisputed boss in his fiefdom.

Ponomaryov claims he isn’t necessarily wedded to the idea of the east joining Russia. “We want to create a Donetsk Republic and the main thing is to let the people have a voice” and decide whether to join Russia. But he has appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin for protection and weapons and doesn’t disguise his disdain for Ukrainian politicians, referring to them in expletive-laden terms and threatening to shoot them on sight.

Cheap propaganda

The fast-talking Ponomaryov labels Ukraine’s interim leaders as “fascists” and “neo-Nazis” out to deprive ethnic Russians of their minority rights and intent on banning the Russian language.

Kyiv brushes off the labels as cheap propaganda tools Russia and its operatives and sympathizers use to discredit Ukraine’s new government. It has also recently made overtures to eastern regions to let local populations decide whether to elevate the Russian language to a semi-official status.

And while Kyiv does not deny that there are pro-Russian sentiments in Ukraine’s eastern regions, it sees them as grossly exaggerated by forces it claims are working only toward one goal - to destabilize and dismember Ukraine.

Numbers seem to support the claim.

With some separatists pushing for a “federalization” of Ukraine in which Russian-speakers in the east would receive greater autonomy, results of a new opinion poll, indicate that the idea actually has little support.  According to the poll, which was conducted this month in all regions of Ukraine, except Crimea, only 18.7 percent of respondents were in favor of federalization, while 70.9 percent opposed it.

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