News / Europe

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.

You May Like

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

Secret Service Chief Under Fire for White House Security Breach

Julia Pierson faces tough questions from lawmakers after recent intrusion at White House, says: 'It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly' More

Frustrated, Liberian Students Want Ebola Fight Role

Thousands have volunteered to go to counties, rural villages to talk to people in their language about deadly virus More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihadi
X
Mahi Ramakrishnan
September 30, 2014 2:16 PM
Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid