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

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs