All (Not) Quiet on Ukraine’s Eastern Front

All (Not) Quiet on Ukraine’s Eastern Front

Revolutionaries in Kiev are cheering the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, but elsewhere in the country a backlash is not so quietly brewing between the country’s pro-Western protest movement and those who would much rather see the country remain in Russia’s orbit.

Throughout the crisis in Ukraine, analysts have made much of the divide between the country’s Ukrainian-speakers in the west and its Russian-speakers in the east. That division has fueled much of the conflict that resulted in Yanukovych’s departure from office over the weekend and serves as the basis of the existential question at the root of the crisis: Will Ukraine hitch its fortunes to the West and the European Union or move deeper into the Russian orbit?

Yanukovych’s support is particularly strong in Crimea, a region where ethnic Russians constitute a majority of the population, and on Tuesday the speaker of the regional parliament issued a strident call in support of Crimean autonomy. "I share your anxiety and concern about the future of Crimea," Vladimir Konstantinov, a member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, said. "I declare that I’m not going anywhere and will be here with you. We will fight for an autonomous republic until the end."

A Russian parliamentary delegation visiting the Crimean city of Simferopol on Tuesday welcomed the potential move. "If the parliament of the Crimean autonomy or its residents express the wish to join the Russian Federation, Russia will be prepared to consider this sort of application," said Leonid Slutsky, the head of the delegation. "We will be examining the situation and doing so fast." According to Ukrainian media reports, Russian authorities in Crimea have begun issuing passports following expedited procedures.

The push for quasi-independence comes after days of protests in Crimea, where Yanukovych is widely rumored to be hiding from authorities seeking his arrest. Many there vocally oppose the revolution in Kiev and vocally favor closer ties with Russia. In Sevastopol, which hosts a large Russian naval base, some 10,000 people gathered on Sunday and called for "Mother Russia" to save them from the "fascists" in Kiev.

In this video from Sevastopol on Saturday, police can be seen cordoning off pro-Russian demonstrators and supporters of the Maidan protesters — the revolutionaries’ ubiquitous moniker, which takes after the Kiev square that serves as their headquarters — in order to prevent clashes.

Thousands of demonstrators in Sevastopol and elsewhere in the east have questioned the true motivations of the Maidan protesters, accused the Ukrainian parliament of carrying out a coup when it removed Yanukoych from power, and called for closer relations with Russia. The differences between the two halves of Ukraine can be seen as well as heard. While Kiev has been draped for the past months with the blue-and-yellow national colors of Ukraine (and, coincidentally, the European Union), demonstrators in Sevastopol hung up a Russian flag on the city council’s building.

Key leaders in eastern Ukraine have signaled a willingness to cut ties with Kiev and the West, raising the grim prospect of the country’s possible disintegration. On Saturday, members of parliament from eastern Ukraine, regional authorities, and local council members met in the eastern city of Kharkiv and voted to take control of their territories, though they denied that they wanted to secede from the rest of the country. Mikhaylo Dobkin, the regional governor, said during the meeting: "We’re not preparing to break up the country. We want to preserve it."

On Monday, Dobkin announced that he would run for president in the upcoming elections, currently scheduled for May 25. The justification for his run speaks to the deep divisions in Ukrainian society. Dobkin said that he had arrived at his decision to seek the presidency "given the fact that the rights of Russian-speaking people are suppressed."

The Russian Foreign Ministry has broadly endorsed that sentiment, issuing a series of scathing tweets on Tuesday decrying alleged Western meddling in Ukraine. 

Outspoken opposition among Russian-speakers in Ukraine’s east to the revolution in Kiev has raised fears that Russia may use the guise of protecting those nominal Russians as justification for an invasion — not unlike Moscow’s decision to deploy the Russian military into Georgia in 2008 and seize territory which it continues to hold. "He did this all before in South Ossetia and Abkhazia," warned former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, referring to the breakaway provinces of his country that Russia moved to protect during its 2008 invasion of Georgia. "He is issuing passports, he will want to stage provocations, use his fleet to block the passage connecting Crimea with the rest of Ukraine and establish a Russian corridor."  Saakashvili was in office at the time of the Russian invasion.

But Ukraine’s division between a Russian-speaking east and a pro-Europe west is not quite as clear cut as some commentators have argued. In Kharkiv, thousands of supporters of the Kiev protesters showed up on Saturday in the eastern city of Kharkiv to counter pro-Russian protests. Supporters of the Maidan movement also put in an appearance in the Crimean city of Sevastopol on Saturday. And these were not the first Maidan protests in that part of the country. Since the anti-government upheaval began in November, sympathetic demonstrations have occurred in several eastern cities.