To set out from the ancient city of Odessa to travel to Donetsk in eastern Ukraine is to cross both time and space. Having attended some low-key demonstrations in Odessa, I wanted to go into Ukraine’s pro-Russia heartlands, and managed to hitch a lift to make the 500-mile journey.
The drive on potholed roads was tough but instructive. As we travelled east, Russian – or more correctly Soviet – influence seeped into the landscape. Road signs just outside Odessa championing a “united Ukraine” gave way to Stalinist statues of heroes from the Great Patriotic War. Huge, grey industrial buildings dotted a flat countryside of sunflower crops and deserted fields. In Mykolaiv, a former Soviet shipbuilding town that we passed along the way, a Soviet tank stood out on a plinth near the city centre.
As we approached Donetsk, we were flagged down by several policemen wielding machine-guns. They wanted to know why we were going to the city and, more urgently, if we were journalists. They didn’t seem particularly satisfied by our answers but our documents were in order and the bureaucratic impulse common to all officials in Ukraine took over and they waved us on our way.
Donetsk is an industrial town about 80 miles from the border with Russia. It is predominantly Russian-speaking and home to a significant pro-Russia population. Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea in late February, supportive demonstrations have erupted in cities across Ukraine, particularly near the border.
On 6 April, pro-Kremlin activists seized Donetsk’s city hall just off Lenin Square and proclaimed the creation of a “people’s republic”. They called on Putin to send a “peacekeeping contingent of the Russian army” to support them and demanded that a referendum on secession from Ukraine be held by 11 May.
“Referendum” was the cry I heard everywhere on the morning of 7 April as I stood outside the seized building with as many as a thousand pro-Russia activists. The main square was a field of Russian and Soviet flags. The hammer and sickle was ubiquitous.
Standing just in front of the newly erected barricades that surrounded the building, two pensioners held up a banner with “For ever with Russia” emblazoned across it. The sentiment was uniform and unambiguous.
The scene was calm but the mood was hostile and suspicious. Several people demanded to know where I was from and some expressed contempt for the western media. Masked men with bats and sticks patrolled the crowds, mingling with old ladies who didn’t share their reticence. Indeed, they were eager to talk of their disgust with the “criminal government in Kyiv” and to argue that the presidential election scheduled for 25 May is illegitimate.
Language is perhaps the most important issue for the people here. On 23 February, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a bill repealing the law on minority languages, which gave Russian and other tongues “regional language” status. This allowed for their use in courts, schools and other government institutions, if certain criteria were fulfilled. The new bill in effect made Ukrainian the sole state language. People in Donetsk were desperate to tell me that the government in Kyiv was trying to eradicate their language from Ukraine. The bill was vetoed by Ukraine’s president – but the people here believe the sentiment behind it lives on in Kyiv.
Kyiv has accused Moscow of encouraging demonstrations in the east and of fomenting civil unrest in order to destabilise Ukraine further. Moscow has accused the new Ukrainian government of incompetence and illegitimacy. The feeling in Kyiv and in the nationalistic heartlands of western Ukraine is that Moscow wants to take control of more parts of the country. Significant numbers of the people I spoke to were convinced that the Russians will invade in the coming weeks.
Many of the protesters in Donetsk would welcome that invasion. They believe they are under siege and are looking to Russia to save them. Fuelled by a sense of superiority made worse by a persecution complex, they are unpredictable and quick to anger, as I discovered when I was mingling with the crowds.
Thousands of pro-Russia activists also seized state buildings in Kharkiv, as well as the security service headquarters in the eastern region of Lugansk. The Ukrainian government claims that most of the activists are paid-up Moscow stooges bussed in to the cities. Both sides are in a heightened state of readiness for what they think may be coming. Neither is going to back down and it is clear that Ukraine’s problems are just beginning.