Life was already hard enough for Ukrainians. But now they also have to worry about a Russian army on the march.
ODESSA, Ukraine — On the night of April 12, inhabitants of this Black Sea city discovered that they had something in common: They couldn't sleep. Facebook, the most popular form of social media in Ukraine, was swamped by an unusual late-night surge of anxious commentary: Was Russia about to invade?
Earlier in the day, pro-Russian gunmen had stepped up their efforts to assert control over key locations in the country's East. Ukrainian TV aired dramatic footage of 20 masked, uniformed militants assaulting a police station in the small town of Kramatorsk. In Donetsk and Luhansk, other heavily armed men tightened their hold on other government buildings, repeating their demands for regional independence and holding referenda on the possibility of accession to Russia.
Early Sunday morning, it emerged that at least one Ukrainian officer had been killed and five others wounded during an attempt to recapture official buildings held by the gunmen in the small town of Slovyansk. That was the first reported bloodshed in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainians held their collective breath. The challenge to the post-revolutionary administration in Kiev was clear: A failure to respond firmly to the militias would undermine the authority of the government, but confronting them with force could also cause casualties that could be used by the Kremlin as a pretext to unleash the 40,000 troops it has massed on the border.
Most of the Ukrainians who self-identify as "Russians" or "Russian-speakers" live in the country's three eastern provinces -- which is presumably why it's those areas that have been targeted by the gunmen. But there's another part of Ukraine that has also been mentioned as the target of a possible Russian intervention: Odessa.
Capturing the city would rob Ukraine of its last remaining access to the sea and also enable Russian President Vladimir Putin to establish a corridor connecting Russia with the breakaway region of Transnistria in the Republic of Moldova on Ukraine's western border. (Transnistria is populated mostly by Russians and Ukrainians who mourn the collapse of the Soviet Union and who have repeatedly declared their desire for Crimea-style union with Russia.)
There are, undoubtedly, many Odessans who might welcome rule from Moscow. One hears little Ukrainian spoken on the streets; it's estimated that about 90 percent of the 1 million people inhabitants of the city prefer to use Russian in their daily lives. Politically, though, Odessa is sharply divided between those who applaud annexation by Russia and those who remain loyal to the goals of the Euromaidan revolution that toppled the government of President Viktor Yanukovych. (The image above shows pro-Euromaidan demonstrators gathering around an Odessa monument on March 30.) The two groups have been staging competing demonstrations over the past few weeks, sometimes clashing with each other -- as they did on April 10, when members of the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector blockaded a visiting pro-Russian politician in his hotel, and were surrounded in turn by his supporters. (The confrontation was ultimately defused without bloodshed.)
Yet despite the differences in opinion, it's hard to find anyone in Odessa who welcomes the possibility that Russian forces might invade. "I'm afraid of war," says Alina Savchenko, a 25-year-old teacher, who notes that her family has members in both Russia and Ukraine. "I live here. I don't want to see any conflicts among my relatives." She can think of little positive to say about the revolutionary government in Kiev, but says that she would prefer to see Ukrainians solve their own problems "without interference from the outside, whether it be from Europe or Russia." Poll figures suggest that Savchenko speaks for the mainstream. Recent surveys in eastern Ukraine have found that even there only a tiny minority -- from 4 to 4.7 percent -- want to break away from the country.
Many Odessans seem overwhelmed by the pace and intensity of change over the past few months. Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, has lost 35 percent of its value since the start of the year, resulting in higher prices for many foodstuffs and imported goods. Gasoline and utility prices have also surged. Odessans worry that the all-important summer tourism season, the basis for many livelihoods, is already being undermined by the talk of war.
Meanwhile, the evening news bombards viewers with reporting on the frantic international diplomatic efforts to address the crisis, images of military mobilization on both sides of the border, and coverage of the political jockeying leading up to next month's scheduled presidential election. (No matter the network, the upper left hand corner of every TV screen currently bears a small Ukrainian flag and the hopeful slogan "The Country is One.") Just to add to the sense of general disorientation, Odessa has now become the homeport of the Ukrainian navy's flagship, the Hetman Sahaidachny, one of the very few vessels in the fleet that wasn't captured by the Russians when they took over Crimea.
Boris Hersonsky, an Odessan poet and political analyst, believes that Putin doesn't actually want to invade Ukraine. The costs of such a move, he says, would simply be too high -- in treasure as well as blood, given that Moscow would suddenly find itself supporting the heavily subsidized economy of Ukraine's eastern industrial region. He believes that it's in Putin's interest to keep Ukraine weak and off balance, fomenting instability that can then be exploited as the Russian leader sees fit.
Hersonsky admits, though, that the possibility of an invasion can't be ruled out altogether -- and he says that the prospect fills him with dread, even despite his strong emotional attachment to the Russian language. For all of Ukraine's problems, Hersonsky says, he wouldn't want to exchange Ukraine for Russia: "Ukraine's contradictions are still better than Russia's complete lack of contradictions." He and his friends cite a bit of black humor that extends the comparison between Putin's authoritarian Russian and the dysfunctional but relatively democratic Ukraine: "The pro-Russian forces are staging rallies in favor of a referendum so that they can join a country in which there are no referendums."
Zoya Kazanzhi, a journalist and Maidan supporter, says that the loss of Crimea prompted her and her husband to start talking about what they'd do if Putin decides to gobble up Odessa as well: "We've already discussed it," she says. "We'd leave." The idea is especially painful, since they've just witnessed the fate of a number of Ukrainian journalists who have sought refuge in Odessa after fleeing the Russians in Crimea, leaving everything behind. But Kazanzhi has already made up her mind: "We wouldn't want to live here if it becomes part of Russia."
For the moment, all Odessans can do is wait -- and go about living their lives amid a growing sense that their fate will be decided, not by them or their own government, but by one small man in an office in faraway Moscow. It seems profoundly odd that millions of Europeans should find themselves facing a situation like this in the second decade of the 21st century. Like it or not, that's where we are.
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