Kiev — When Hanna Hrabarska took to social media to voice her support for the Ukrainian revolution, “it was a huge scandal in my [extended] family, because they are pro-Putin guys,” she tells me from her office in Kiev. Hrabarska is originally from Kriviy Rih, a city in the southeastern region of Dnipropetrovsk, and politics have long been a source of tension, dividing families, neighborhoods and entire regions.
After the Orange Revolution, her uncle refused to talk to her for two years because of her political views, Hrabarska says. She adds that because her mother is pro-Ukrainian and opposes Russian annexation, “her neighbors hate her.” Today, the 27-year-old worries when her mother tries to attend pro-Ukrainian events at home. “I don’t want her to go,” she says. “She can’t run so fast, and I don’t want her to be beaten.”
In recent days, eastern Ukraine has been a violent, chaotic place. The information coming out of these regions is confused, largely because of Russian propaganda. By the Putinist account, eastern Ukrainians are rising up to secede and become a part of Russia, but according to central and western Ukrainians, Russian troops and agitators are destabilizing the region.
If recent polls are to be believed, support for Russia is lower than Putin’s press would have Europe and the United States think. One early March study by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, found that 68 percent of eastern Ukrainians and 73 percent of southern Ukrainians disapproved of Russia’s decision to send troops within their borders. Likewise, a late March poll by the Democratic Initiative of Ukraine found that 89 percent of easterners see Ukraine as their homeland.
That’s not how it looks at first glance, though, given the eye-catching, violent actions of the eastern separatists, who have seized buildings and exchanged gunfire with Ukrainian troops in recent days. These same separatists have terrorized anyone who supports Ukraine, says Inna Borzylo, a 27-year-old who was born and raised in the far-eastern Lugansk region, which borders Russia. “People who are pro-Ukraine are afraid to go to the streets,” Borzylo says. “So they sit in their homes and are pro-Ukraine. The Russian supporters are more aggressive. They have guns, and it creates the impression the whole place wants to go to Russia.”
Still, about half the population in Lugansk supports secession, Borzylo estimates. That’s partly a result of 20-year neglect by politicians in central and western Ukraine; many didn’t even bother to visit the region, she says. “In the far east,” Borzylo adds, “many people were in internal desperation,” feeling they had little say in the fate of their country or economy.
Furthermore, more eastern Ukrainians get their news from print publications and TV, which are Russian-dominated, than from the Internet. Finally, Borzylo says, the Russian media have reported that the revolution in Kiev was largely fascist, and fascism historically “was extremely painful for the east.”
As the situation in eastern Ukraine escalates, defending the nation has become complicated for the interim government, which launched a military operation in the eastern region of Donetsk today, reclaiming an airfield that had been occupied by pro-Russians. Though Ukrainians have been donating to the military through text messages in recent days in an effort to strengthen their armed forces, challenges abound.
Top officials in the military are widely rumored to be holdovers from Ukraine’s Soviet days, and others are believed to be controlled by, or at least sympathetic to, the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, many of the local police forces are rumored to have ties to the overthrown Yanukovych regime, and almost all police officers are notoriously corrupt. As one young Kiev man tells me, “they are much better at taking money from the streets and businessmen than defending the country.”
Beyond these problems, the Ukrainian military is far smaller than the Russian military, and it also lacks equipment.
And then there’s the politics. Some Ukrainians I spoke to say they believe that the interim government benefits from disruption in the east; many Ukrainians believe that even the opposition politicians are corrupt, which has weakened support for them. A military response in the east, sure to be bloody, could backfire and further erode the popularity of the opposition politicians. And if the conflict continues, the elections could be delayed, which would allow the interim government to keep its hold on power — or that’s the Ukrainian cynic’s perspective.
Those less skeptical of the interim and opposition leaders note that Ukraine’s government faces an impossible situation: A strong military response could result in significant Ukrainian casualties, but the United Nations is reluctant to mobilize peacekeeping troops before Ukraine has made an effort to defend itself.
Pessimists predict that Putin will advance until someone stops him. Optimists maintain that the farther west Russia goes, the less support and the more hatred it will face. And in Kiev, every young man I have spoken to says he is ready to fight to defend Ukrainian independence.
As the situation in eastern Ukraine worsens, Kiev remains on edge. TVs are tuned to news channels, and the first thing many Ukrainians do when they wake up is read the news. The air of uncertainty is pervasive — people have delayed planning everything from summer vacations to conferences because they don’t know whether war will break out.
But Russian aggression has probably had the most harmful effect on Ukraine’s ability to focus on building a democratic future. After the revolution begun in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, many Ukrainians felt they had a better opportunity than they’d seen in decades to establish a democratic government and rule of law. But the all-consuming threat of invasion and the possibility of war have put nation-building on hold.
Vadym Hudyma, a 27-year-old Kiev native and social-media activist, says: “The Russians are stopping us from making real changes in our country. They’re preventing us.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.