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

Video Indiana Controversy Points to Divergent Notions of Religious Freedom

Gay-marriage opponents are looking for ways to maintain their beliefs in face of changing culture, one writer says More

UNICEF Denies North Korean Measles Outbreak

Agency dismisses Russian media report after government, WHO assurances More

Turkey Seen Taking Harder Stance Against Militant Kurds

Stance comes as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being seen as moving closer to generals More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedomi
X
Jerome Socolovsky
April 01, 2015 1:41 AM
Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Nigerians Welcome Buhari's Return to Power

Crowds of jubilant Nigerians nationwide have celebrated the return to power of former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. The retired army general won this year's presidential election with more than 2 million votes more than incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari's supporters hope he can strengthen the country's economy and security once he takes office in late May. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Gamma Ray Observatory to Open Soon in Mexico

American and Mexican scientists have completed construction of the world's largest gamma ray observatory, situated high in central Mexico’s Sierra Negra Mountain. The observatory's huge array of water-based detectors will soon start discovering secrets about black holes and supernovas. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Islamic State Prisoners Talk of Curiosity, God, Regret

Islamic State fighter, a prisoner of Kurdish YPG forces, asked his family asking for forgiveness: "I destroyed myself and I destroyed them along with me." The Syrian youth was one of two detainees who spoke to VOA’s Kurdish Service about the path they chose; their names have been changed and identifying details obscured. VOA's Zana Omer reports.
Video

Video Germanwings Findings Raise Issue of Psychological Testing for Pilots

More is being discovered about the co-pilot in the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps. Investigators say he was hiding a medical condition, raising questions about the mental qualifications of pilots. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More