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With Russian Volunteers Who Crossed Into Ukraine

After pleas for help on social media to defend pro-Russians across the border, soldiers and would-be soldiers have left Russia to travel to Eastern Ukraine. On the ground in Donetsk.

Landing in Kramatorsk airport
Landing in Kramatorsk airport
Ilya Barabanov, Yanina Sokolovskaya, Sergei Stokan and Maksim Yusin

DONETSK — The declaration to Parliament left no doubt: Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchinov, declared late Tuesday that his country's military forces could claim their first success in the course of the “anti-terrorism operations,” having seized control of the airport in the eastern city of Kramatorsk.

But accounts differ regarding what exactly really happened.

Some say that Ukrainian forces stormed the airport, in a full military attack. Others say that there was no fighting. Eyewitnesses say that two Ukrainian military helicopters landed in the area that had been blocked off by “self-defense” forces, and several dozen soldiers came out of the helicopters.

A military officer who introduced himself as General Krutovim walked towards the crowd. “We are carrying out an anti-terrorism operation,” he said.

By Tuesday evening, all of the airport’s entrances were filled with the cars of citizens. They had re-hung a large sign that read “Don’t Shoot People From Kramatorsk,” and people had started joking with the Ukrainian soldiers, saying, “Bandera (a reference to Stepan Bandera, a controversial Ukrainian nationalist who fought against the Soviet Union), who do you want to shoot?” By midnight, mot cars had dispersed.

Russian presence

Donetsk also waited all day for an attack. The head of the local pro-Russian army, Pavel Paramonov, met with a correspondent from Kommersant in his second-floor office in Donetsk, where he had just arrived from the Russian city of Efremov.

“I was invited to come on the social networks, so I came and am trying to live up to the trust that was placed in me,” he said. He certainly isn’t the only Russian who wants to support the protesters in Donetsk. In the administration building where his office was located there were signs that read: “Cossacks who have just arrived from Russia should call Victor.”

It wasn’t very difficult to locate Victor. He confirmed that there were indeed Cossacks from Russia arriving, but said that it “wasn’t in massive numbers.”

“I can’t give exact numbers, that’s strategic information. Hardly all are able to cross the border. Russia is also getting in the way. Even leaders bringing Cossacks from Crimea have suffered,” he said, without specifying exactly what kind of punishment those leaders actually had been subjected to.

According to the military chief, most of the activists that have volunteered for the local army lack experience. “In addition, there is also a serious lack of equipment, uniforms and, most importantly, weapons,” he said.

Paramonov says that the local police and Ukrainian military are not eager to get involved, and he says they have even asked the volunteers to blockade their bases - so that they have an excuse as to why they haven’t acted.

“We are hoping for support from Russia, but the most important thing that people want now is to avoid a civil war and bloodshed,” he said.

During the day, some 200 to 300 people have been guarding the administrative buildings seized by the local army, and World War II-era songs are performed from the stage. In the evening, people watch as activists in uniform and masks demonstrate. Before the night was over, the Ukrainian national crests on the buildings had been taken down and set near the entrance - and then broken into pieces for souvenirs.

Maidan’s ultimatum

Until the middle of Monday, the situation in Eastern Ukraine, where protesters were defying the Ukrainian government in Kiev, had been at a stalemate. The so-called anti-terrorism actions that President Turchinov announced were limited to local skirmishes, in spite of demands from Maidan protest leaders that the government should either liberate the rebellious regions within 24 hours or resign. At the same time, those in favor of a federalist system could not spread their own protests over a larger area.

Such pressure from activists was partially what led Turchinov to announce the anti-terrorism actions, although he also called on the government’s critics to volunteer for the army instead of protesting outside the parliament.

Conflicting accounts continue to come from across Ukraine’s sessessionist regions in the East. There were reports of military movements in the Kharkovsky, Donetsky and Lugansky regions. Social media had reports of some tanks that were broken down in a field near Slavyanskii, of fighter jet over Kramatorsky, one of which appeared disabled, of attacks at barricades that led to gun shots and victims. But there was no centrally-coordinated operation.

Amidst this situation on the ground, where none of the parties involved in the conflict in the East have been able to get an edge, Yulia Tymoshenko announced the formation of "National Resistance Movement." In a video addressed to the country she blamed Moscow for the escalation of the conflict and called for a military response, urging former soldiers and special forces officers should form the basis of that new army.

Moscow meanwhile continues to react forcefully to the events in Eastern Ukraine. Konstantin Dolgov, the representative of the Interior’s Ministry department of Human Right, Democracy and the Rule of Law, accused Kiev of provoking a civil war. He said that the events were “beginning to develop according to worst-case scenarios” and that the Ukrainian leaders were “following an absolutely irresponsible course.”

Moscow had previously warned that if the government in Kiev used force against the protesters in the East, it would cancel the planned meeting this week in Geneva that is supposed to include Russia, the US, EU and Ukraine. But when Kommersant asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov if the meeting was still on, he said he was planning on flying to Geneva.

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