Mourning call: people gather to remember pro-Russian militants killed in Odessa, southern Ukraine, 10 May. Photo: Getty
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Ukraine: as the death toll rises, a collective psychosis is taking hold

David Patrikarakos reports from Odessa, scene of the bloodiest incident of the Russia-Ukraine conflict so far. 

On 2 May, a fire in the historic city of Odessa in southern Ukraine killed dozens of pro-Russian separatists, increasing fears of an all-out war. At dusk, as pro-Ukraine activists stormed a trade union office occupied by separatists in the city centre, the building was set alight.

It was the bloodiest incident of this conflict so far. People choked to death on smoke or died jumping from windows as they tried to escape the flames. Russian TV aired graphic footage of the fire and its aftermath – charred bodies in pools of blood, including a woman who was reportedly pregnant – relentlessly over the weekend. Many fear that this could give Vladimir Putin, who already claims that Russia might be “forced to act” to “protect” Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, the pretext he needs to begin an invasion. Others argue that he doesn’t need a pretext; if he wants to invade, he will.

The tragedy came amid mounting violence in the east as the Kyiv government launched its latest counterterrorism operation, the first that has seriously tried to clear pro-Russian separatists from their strongholds. Over the past weeks, the Ukrainian army has advanced steadily towards the occupied cities and fighting between the two sides has intensified.

In the small industrial town of Sloviansk, the centre of the east’s continuing crisis, Ukraine special forces engaged local separatists in hours of heavy gunfire on its northern outskirts on 5 May. Four Ukrainian soldiers and at least 20 separatists were killed. The defence ministry also reported that one of its helicopters had been shot down during the assault – the third to be downed by separatists in a matter of days.

The counterterrorism operation remains confused. Soldiers alternate between intense bouts of violence and long periods of inaction as the Kyiv government alternates between the need to restore order in what is still – barely – a sovereign state and the desire to avoid giving the Kremlin any excuse for further invasion. The army, underfunded and underequipped, also faces the problem of the local population, sections of which form human shields by mingling with the armed militia or gathering around occupied buildings, making it harder for the army to attack.

Back in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”), the scene of the February revolution that overthrew the then president, Viktor Yanukovych, the atmosphere has darkened. Maidan is still filled with members of the militia left over from the uprising who have refused to leave until the presidential elections on 25 May. Dressed in camouflage and carrying bats and sticks, they loaf on the streets by day and spend their nights in the tents around the square. Maidan remains cosmetically militarised – ringed by barricades of tyres and sandbags – but it has become little more than a tourist trap, selling souvenirs of the revolution to the trickle of foreigners who still visit.

Now the barricades are being reinforced and expanded. On 5 May, access into the square via a neighbouring street was controlled by a blonde militia girl of no more than 17, who manned a makeshift gate allowing vehicles access in and out. The armoured personnel carrier parked incongruously in the middle of the street – which some of the more enterprising militiamen had been charging people 50 hryvnias a turn to sit in and have their photo taken – was being cleaned and tested.

Both sides are adopting a war mentality, the most obvious – and ominous – aspect of which is the dehumanisation of the enemy. Pro-Russians describe the Odessa fire as “inhumanity . . . last seen by the Nazis in the Second World War”, while the more extreme pro-Ukrainian elements post memes that mock those who died.

A collective psychosis, born of machismo and paranoia and fuelled by rumour, is taking hold. The latest story gaining traction in the capital is that thousands of Russians – solitary males of military age – have begun to appear in Kyiv, renting rooms and just waiting. “Let them come,” says Maksym, my wiry and intense landlord. “I’ve got body armour and I’m cleaning all my guns.”

It is a phenomenon I have seen repeatedly: in Lebanon, in Congo, in Israel. Men sit in the cafés and bars of Kyiv vowing to smash “Putin”. Machine-gun-wielding sep­aratists tell me they will “cleanse” Ukraine of the “fascist junta” in Kyiv. “If the Russians come, I’ll be up there with my Kalashnikov,” an ex-soldier friend tells me, pointing to the gaudily lit roof terrace of my local sushi restaurant.

Many members of the camouflaged militia are unemployed young men from small towns, who have a new purpose and sense of belonging. It’s hard to imagine them willingly returning to their previous lives now.

Whether or not the two sides will face each other in the coming weeks remains to be seen. What is clear is that the further destabilisation of Ukraine is Moscow’s goal, at least in the short term.

Central to Russian propaganda and the arguments of the separatists is that the Kyiv government is an “unelected junta”. By democratically electing a new president, some legitimacy would be restored, which is what Putin fears. One of his spokesmen recently said that it would be “absurd” to proceed with the polls.

Even if the elections do go ahead, the winner is likely to have only a slim mandate. Pro-Russian sympathisers in the east will boycott the elections on principle and it is difficult to see the militants who control the occupied cities allowing the citizens there to vote unmolested.

The two sides are now divided by un­mitigated hate. It is difficult to envisage a future for Ukraine free from further chaos and violence.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.