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A Ukrainian commando moves on separatist barricades in Sloviansk, eastern Ukraine.
A Ukrainian commando moves on separatist barricades in Sloviansk, eastern Ukraine.
Florian Hassel

KOSTIANTYNIVKA It was still early on Monday morning in the east Ukrainian city of Kostiantynivka when the city administration and police station were visited by 20 weapons-bearing men wearing camouflage uniforms. Within a few minutes they had control of the seat of power in this city of 95,000 people, and it wasn’t long before they had erected a wall of sand bags, taken down the Ukrainian flag, and hoisted the black, blue and red flag of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.”

Those who had been leading the city up to that point were either sent home or asked to stay for “constructive talks,” as the commander of the armed men later put it. “We came to guard the building and prepare the referendum,” he told Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Modeled on the Crimean referendum, there will be a May 11 referendum in certain parts of east Ukraine to determine whether they become Russian. The interim government in Kiev calls the referendum illegal. Or as the commanding officer in Kostiantynivka put it, the government in Kiev is made up of “fascists who have burned people alive or cut their heads off.”

The commander said he came “from the region” and wanted to “defend the homeland against the fascists.” But those familiar with the “green men” who occupied Crimea will recognize the men now controlling Kostiantynivka. They are Russian special forces, who come complete with green camouflage uniforms, modern Russian sub-machine guns and bazookas on their backs.

Once they have the sand bag wall set up, trucks come carrying concrete blocks to fortify the building further.

Made to pay

On this same Monday in Kharkiv — the second-largest city in eastern Ukraine, after Donetsk — pro-Kiev Mayor Hennadiy Kernes was shot in the back by unknown perpetrators as he rode his bike.

Back in Kostiantynivka, by the entrance to the municipal building, two loud speakers are set up to play Russian military music and patriotic songs. They draw a few curious onlookers. Two tables are also installed so that men can sign up for service in “people’s front” road blocks. The separatists are setting up checkpoints on ever more eastern Ukrainian roads to prevent Kiev’s interim government from winning back the growing number of separatist-held areas in the region.

A few hundred meters from the municipal building in Kostiantynivka a particularly colorful checkpoint is being erected with six bright flags flying, including the red flag of Moscow that features Saint George the dragon slayer. Vladimir Kostiljov, a heavyset man with an imposing belly and white mustache, is signing up for service at a checkpoint. “I have to help defend the Donetsk Basin region,” the 63-year-old former locksmith says. “Until recently we had ex-President Viktor Yanukovych in power, a bandit who stole all he could and then made a run for it. Now in Kiev there are more bandits in power, only they don’t only steal. They also kill.”

Kostiljov, who receives the equivalent of 95 euros a month in pension, says he would be fine with Russian “peace troops” marching in and taking over the region. “In Crimea, Putin has already raised salaries and pensions, and I want to live better too. And to do that I’m prepared, if I have to, to go down fighting.”

Pro-Russians have no mandate

Enthusiasm is not otherwise great for the Russian special forces at the municipal building. There are only a few dozen onlookers, and by noon just 29 volunteers have signed up for “people’s front” service. Despite Russian propaganda to the contrary, there is no majority in eastern Ukraine that favors annexation to Russia. A Foundation for Democratic Initiatives poll showed that only a third of Ukrainians favor becoming part of Russia.

According to the survey, only 24% in Luhansk and Odessa supported annexation. Even in the cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk, which have more than a million inhabitants, there were at most a couple of thousand pro-Russian demonstrators in the streets, and often just as many demonstrating for a sovereign Ukraine. But majority opinion is one thing, and building up power bases is another, and not just in Kostiantynivka.

In Sloviansk, self-appointed Mayor Vjacheslav Ponomarjovand the city council officially voted Monday for the referendum. Here too there are soldiers equipped with the new “ratnik” combat uniform that so far has only been issued to members of Russian special forces. In Luhansk separatists called for a “People’s Republic of Luhansk” and let it be known that if there should be any “aggressive dealings” from Kiev they would turn to Russia and its “peace troops.”

In Kharkiv, hospitalized mayor Kernes is fighting for his life. Elected in 2010, he appeared in past weeks to be pro-Russia but increasingly had begun supporting the interim Kiev government.

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