From Russia, ‘Tourists’ Stir the Protests


Pavel Gubarev, center, leader of the pro-Russia People’s Militia of Donbass, spoke to supporters in the regional government building in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Monday.Credit            Uriel Sinai for The New York Times       

DONETSK, Ukraine — Around the south and east of Ukraine, in vital cities in the country’s industrial heartland, ethnic Russians have staged demonstrations and stormed buildings demanding a wider invasion of their country by Moscow.

But some of the people here calling for Russian intervention are themselves Russian — “protest tourists” from across the border.

They have included passport-carrying Russians, like Aleksey Khudyakov, a pro-Kremlin Muscovite who said he traveled here “to watch and maybe to give some advice.” In Kharkiv, another Russian scaled a government building to dramatically plant his country’s flag — offering at least the image that President Vladimir V. Putin’s forces were being invited in.

It is clear that in this part of Ukraine, many ethnic Russians distrust the fledgling government, and some would indeed welcome Russian troops. But the events unfolding in major Ukrainian cities in recent days appear to match a pattern played by the Kremlin in Crimea, where pro-Moscow forces paving the way for Russia to seize control were neither altogether spontaneous, nor entirely local.


Protesters seized the regional government building in Donetsk on Monday.Credit            Uriel Sinai for The New York Times       

As pro-Russia demonstrations in 11 cities have suddenly erupted where significant populations of ethnic Russians live, the apparent organization of the demonstrators, appearances of Russian citizens and reports of busloads of activists arriving from Russia itself suggest a high degree of coordination with Moscow. At a minimum, Russians are instigating protests by Ukrainians sympathetic to Moscow, helping to create a pretext for a broader intervention if Mr. Putin decides to push things that far.

In Donetsk, when the crowd took control of the regional government building on Monday, the Soviet-era ballad “Russians Don’t Surrender” blasted from loudspeakers and Mr. Khudyakov huddled in conversation with the leader of Donetsk Republic, a local organization demanding greater autonomy from Kiev. Back home, Mr. Khudyakov is better known for having founded several nationalist vigilante groups with the tacit blessing of the Russian government.

The most dramatic expressions of the new pro-Russia fervor have taken place here, the former political base of Viktor F. Yanukovych, the country’s deposed president, and in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second most populous city, just 20 miles from the Russian border.

When a crowd of thousands of pro-Russia demonstrators in Kharkiv stormed an administration building occupied by pro-Kiev demonstrators on Saturday in a melee that left two dead and 100 hospitalized, a 25-year-old Muscovite, who was staying in a hotel just off the square, scaled the building, lowered the Ukrainian flag and hoisted the Russian banner in its place.

“I am proud that I was able to take part in defeating the fighters who came to ‘protest peacefully’ with knives in Kharkiv and raise the Russian tricolor on the building of the liberated administration,” wrote Mikhail Chuprikov, who hotel employees confirmed checked in under a Russian passport, in a blog post under a pseudonym.

The protests have served as grist for Russian state television networks, which hailed the footage of the Russian flag being raised across Ukraine as evidence of a rejection of the new government in Kiev by ethnic Russians. Russia’s permanent mission to NATO posted on Twitter a map of Ukraine with superimposed images of Russian flags in 11 Ukrainian cities where the protests took place on Saturday, including the Black Sea port of Odessa, as well as Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv and Donetsk.


Russia’s Foreign Ministry has condemned Kiev for allowing what it called armed bandits to raise havoc in the country’s east, citing the shooting of a Russian tourist and an unconfirmed nighttime assault on a police station in Crimea, which security personnel defending the station denied happened.

Amid the rumors and rising anxiety, self-declared municipal self-defense groups have emerged, saying they are ready to fight the spread of fascism — Mr. Putin’s description of the new leadership and its supporters — from the country’s west with Russia’s help.

Monday’s seizure of the government building here was led by Pavel Gubarev, the founder of the People’s Militia of Donbass, the coal-mining region where Donetsk is. In a speech from the dais of the captured chamber, he rejected Kiev’s authority and called on Mr. Putin to bring troops to the city.

The sudden uprisings have shocked many in the region, where there was strong sentiment against the pro-West demonstrators in Kiev, but few calls to draw closer to Russia until very recently.

“I am sure that they are paid,” said Valentina Azarova, 55, a former seamstress, pointing at a dozen young men spitting sunflower seed shells in a pro-Russia protest camp in central Kharkiv on Sunday.

“I am Russian, and I am embarrassed for my country,” she said, discussing the possibility that Russian troops could come to the city. “Russia is here just as much as Russia is in the Crimea.”

Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Confrontation in Crimea

At the Belbek military installation in Crimea on Tuesday, Ukrainian soldiers refused to surrender to Russian troops and instead marched, unarmed, to confront them in the face of warning shots.

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