DONETSK, Ukraine — Government security forces on Sunday battled armed men who seized a police station in eastern Ukraine, the interior ministry said, and thousands gathered to hear belligerent calls to arms amid deepening fears that Russia is preparing military action in the region.
The fighting in Slovyansk, about 55 miles north of the regional center Donetsk, appeared to be the first such gunfight in this part of Ukraine since the violent “Maidan” protests that deposed President Viktor Yanukovych in February. Ukraine’s acting interior minister said at least one security officer had been killed and several wounded in the fighting.
Simmering tensions in Donetsk and other eastern population hubs erupted a week ago when pro-Russian activists seized the main Donetsk government building and declared themselves members of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” The activists have turned the building into a sprawling, makeshift military encampment, with snaking razor-wire- and tire-barricades, sand bags, scrap lumber and masked men armed mainly with clubs and truncheons patrolling the grounds. Crowds have waxed and waned outside the building all week.
On Saturday, heavily armed, well-organized men wearing masks stormed police stations and other buildings in Slovyansk and in four other smaller towns outside of Donetsk. The timing of the seizures suggested that they were part of a coordinated action. In contrast to the Donetsk building occupation, some of the armed men were carrying military-grade rifles and body armor and camouflage similar that worn by Russian special forces who helped seize the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea last month. Most of those armed wore “St. George” ribbons, which are associated with the Soviet victory during World War II.
As men helped erected barricade of tires and riot police shields outside the police station, and a Russian flag replaced a Ukrainian one, a man who gave his name only as Sergei said they had seized the building to protect them from what he said were radicals from western Ukraine and “the junta that seized power in Kiev.”
“We don’t want to be slaves to America or slaves to the West,” he told reporters inside the seized police station.
Anatoly Shtepel, 60, said Donetsk’s mainly industrial economy was closely tied to Russia’s, and he said most people are resentful of the central government in Kiev, and fearful that nationalists will discriminate against the ethnic Russian population in the east, such as by restricting the use of Russian language in schools and workplaces.
“The (Russian) flag appeared on the building not because we want to be in Russia, but because that’s the only country that help us,” he said. “The only reason we’ve survived all these years is because of Russia.”
On Sunday, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced the beginning of “counterterrorism operations” in Slovyansk. Residents and local journalists reported gun battles in the city center, and video posted online showed helicopter gunships circling overhead. Mr. Avakov later said one security officer had been killed in the fight, and at least five others wounded, though it was clear where exactly the shooting happened and when.
Life goes on
In other nearby town, Kramatorsk, video taken Saturday showed about 10 masked men carrying professional weaponry and camouflage uniforms arguing with a group of civilians, before yelling at them and firing scores of rounds into the air and entering a nearby police station.
In Donetsk, while the regional administration has been the epicenter of the movement, the rest of the city of 1 million has more or less continued its business, either indifferent or ambivalent to the building’s occupation and the occupants’ demands. Still, there are signs that the tensions are spreading. A billboard along the main boulevard that advocated for closer ties with Russia was severely damaged overnight; in another part of the city, a series of sidewalk advertisement kiosks popped up bearing the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
“I’m here, what, a few hundred yards from the barricades? Yes, you can hear the speeches and all, but it’s really had absolutely no effect on the rest of the city,” said a woman who gave her name as Sveta, working as a barista at a small coffee shop off the main boulevard.
On Sunday, as Russian Orthodox churchgoers left services at the main cathedral, carrying pussy willows to mark the Palm Sunday holiday, many said they were fearful that the impasse was spiraling toward violence.
“We’re worried of course,” said Anna Ivanova, a 58-year-old retiree, as she sold pussy willows on a sidewalk on the backside of the main cathedral. “I want to stay a part of Ukraine. I don’t want to be part of Russia, but we need to find a way to live peacefully with Russia.
“If the guys in Kiev stopped thinking only about their Mercedes and their sacks of money, and came and talked to us, and listened to us, and heard what we have to say, we wouldn’t have all these (problems),” she said.
Outside the administration building, meanwhile, the crowd swelled to a few thousands by midday, as cold drizzle fell. A group of mainly elderly woman wearing plastic ponchos bearing the name of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych huddled around a man listening to live reports from the gun battle in Slovyansk.
Standing in front of the building main entrance, now a kaleidoscope of graffiti and signs in English and Russia mainly blaming the United States and Europe for the current tensions, speakers asked for volunteers to drive to Slavyansk to help fight security forces. One man gave the crowd a short lecture on the history of the U.S. Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund, calling them part of a “pyramid scheme.”