‘We don’t accept Ukraine’s government – it’s not legitimate’
A chain of about 20 cars snaked through the rolling farmlands out of Donetsk. Spring is here, and the copses are green with buds.
We had met some of the drivers in a village. A group of young men, most in jeans, one in military fatigues, they said they wanted us as eye-witnesses. They were going to confront the Ukrainian army. So we joined their convoy.
This is, of course, Ukraine. But that doesn’t mean that the locals see Ukrainian troops as their protectors or their allies. This group lived within 30 miles of the Russian border. To them, Moscow is much closer – psychologically, if not physically – than Kiev.
We stopped briefly in the village of Kumachevo to pick up a few more cars, and drove uphill to the small encampment where some 100 or so Ukrainian soldiers had been based for the past week. There was no sign that this was a serious defensive position, meant to deter Russian tanks from rolling over the border.
Encircled with flimsy coiled wire, it consisted of a couple of armoured personnel carriers, a kitchen truck, a water bowser, and some communications equipment. We were told that there were some more ATCs, or possibly tanks, on the other side of the hill, but we could not see them.
The Ukrainian soldiers came forward to talk to the group, which now consisted of about 60 men and women. “Why are you here?” shouted one of the locals. The Ukrainian captain, careful to present a non-aggressive figure, replied: “We’re obeying orders. The government sent us.”
That made the people angry. “We don’t accept that government,” the people said. “It’s not elected, not legitimate.”
This is the cry I hear all over eastern Ukraine. The authorities in Kiev, who assumed power after former president Yanukovych fled in February, may be regarded as an acceptable interim administration by the European Union and the United States – but not around here.
On the brow of the hill we could see a few more Ukrainian soldiers silhouetted against the sky. The people started to complain, saying that they had entered the village and gone shopping carrying their weapons.
A short, plump, middle-aged woman with heavy eye makeup, who said she was a local councillor, tried her best to keep things calm. When she said that there should be compromise, a young woman with blonde hair started shouting.
I talked to a farmer with rough hands cracked with earth. “It’s not about how they behave. We just want them to go,” he said. I put it to the people that these were Ukrainian soldiers on Ukrainian land, but they would have none of it.
Further north, on the border of the regions of Donetsk and Kharkhiv, it’s reported that more Ukrainian soldiers and police are arriving to confront the pro-Russian separatists who have occupied government buildings in at least 10 towns in eastern Ukraine.
The acting Ukrainian president told the parliament in Kiev today that any action they took would be gradual and cautious. They know that if they end up in violent confrontations, that could provoke Russia into intervening – and then there really would be the civil war that the newspapers in Moscow keep predicting.
But if they allow the separatists to continue as they are doing, eastern Ukraine will just slip out of Kiev’s control and it will be almost impossible for them to get it back. And that’s exactly what the authorities in Russia, and the people I met in the village of Kumachevo, want.
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