Pro-Russia militia in the eastern Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk
Show of force: pro-Russia militia in the eastern Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk © Andrew Jack

In the decrepit mining village of Standartny in eastern Ukraine, Boris points towards the collapsed shell of a house next to his own and recalls the words of a visiting friend from Georgia’s bomb-scarred and disputed region of Abkhazia: “It’s war without war.”

His living standards, working as a miner in the crumbling post-Soviet landscape, have tumbled in the past decade, he says. Nearby Yenakievo is dominated by a large metallurgical factory, ailing former state-owned manufacturers and a lingering smell of sulphur. “We didn’t live well in the past, but things were stable,” he says.

“War without war” applies across much of the east. Largely Russian-speaking east Ukraine is the centre of a power struggle with the country’s big neighbour: Russia. Over the past two weeks, men – some armed and waving Russian flags – have seized local government buildings, security offices and police stations in up to a dozen eastern towns and cities. They have rejected the pro-European government that took power in Kiev after February’s ousting of President Viktor Yanukovich, and are calling for greater autonomy, or even reunification with Russia.

Developments are eerily similar to the build-up to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea last month.

With thousands of Russian troops massed just across the border, the situation could still turn into war – the first on the European continent this century. After the Kiev authorities launched a fumbling “antiterrorist” operation to retake control of cities in the east this week, Russian media declared that civil war had begun in Ukraine’s eastern regions.

In fact, the situation has resembled more a phoney or psychological war than a real one. There has been just a handful of deaths, with life continuing normally for most people. The battle has primarily been one of words, rumours and fears, with exaggerated claims from Russian and Ukrainian officials alike.

In Geneva on Thursday the US, the EU, Russia and Ukraine agreed steps aimed at reducing the tensions. But that agreement is already in danger of unravelling as separatists in the big eastern city of Donetsk refuse to evacuate their headquarters. Any violence risks creating the pretext for a Russian invasion.

With Mr Putin reminding viewers in a presidential television phone-in on Thursday that Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions did not become part of the country until the 1920s, many Ukrainians fear Moscow is looking for just such a pretext.

Ukraine map

“In a tense situation like this, all you need is a spark from either side,” says Gael Guichard-Scherbina, who heads an observers’ mission in Lugansk, a large east Ukrainian city, for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “We are here to help stop it becoming a fire.”

Moscow has denied backing the separatists in the east. But the overthrow of Mr Yanukovich’s corrupt and discredited government has brought to the surface long-term frictions between the country’s mainly Ukrainian-speaking west and Russian-speaking east, exposing rifts between generations and social classes.

While the government in Kiev and much of the west stresses its desire to integrate with Europe, the east remains firmly anchored to Russia by language, culture and history. Many companies are also oriented eastward, above all those working in its Soviet-era agricultural, metallurgy, pipe-making and defence industries – all of strategic importance to Moscow.

“The Russian market is very important, especially for the older, heritage economy,” says Gennadiy Chyzhykov, president of the Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce, who is from Donetsk, now capital of the self-styled “republic” where activists claim to lead the anti-Kiev protests. “We export mainly raw materials and semi-finished goods to Europe, but finished goods, including sweets, to Russia. They share our tastes.”

Two weeks ago small-scale demonstrations in the east that had simmered against Kiev’s fledgling government escalated. Armed men seized symbols of power in Donetsk and Lugansk.

In Donetsk protesters maintain vigils alongside piles of tyres, chairs and barbed wire. Posters denouncing Nato and the EU have appeared alongside flags: some Russian, others a modified version overprinted with “Donetsk republic”.

“People here want the same as in the Maidan: to be respected, to have power,” says Eduard Lozovsky, a Lugansk businessman, in a reference to the anti-government protests in central Kiev that ended in Mr Yanukovich fleeing to Russia in February.

Last Saturday tensions in the east rose with fresh “seizures” around Donetsk. In what appeared to be a co-ordinated operation, government offices in several towns were quickly taken over and barricades thrown up.

As in Crimea, well-armed gunmen, nicknamed “little green men” because of their camouflage uniforms without military insignia, took charge in a few cases. They established their most visible base in Slavyansk, strategically located near a railhead and aerodrome. Some of the gunmen roaming the streets described themselves as “Cossacks”, while others admitted they had travelled from Crimea.

Local people continue to shop, stroll and let their children play next to the armed militia. “Why can people in the Maidan protest and not us?” asked Alexander, a local resident. “That’s double standards. No one came to talk to us from the junta in Kiev, which insulted us with their fascist slogans. We want a referendum.”

In the towns of Kramatorsk, Yenakievo and Makeevka, the occupations of public buildings amount to little more than vigils with young local people wearing surgical masks without any visible arms. Small groups of supporters, many elderly or unemployed, stand outside, while municipal employees continue to weave around the barricades and go to work within.

Inside, women offer jars of pickled vegetables, sandwiches and tea to supporters. Many have been influenced by often exaggerated propaganda by Russian television – widely watched in the east. Russian media have portrayed the Kiev government as “fascists and neo-Nazis” because of the role some fringe far-right groups played in the anti-Yanukovich protests.

Russian and anti-Kiev media have focused on the national parliament’s move, the day after Mr Yanukovich’s ousting, to repeal a 2012 law that had given enhanced rights to Russian language speakers. The move was later cancelled – but the damage to perceptions was done. Easterners complain of threats to the Russian language, alleged destruction of monuments to Soviet-era heroes and attempts to glorify Stepan Bandera, a wartime nationalist from western Ukraine. They cite imminent threats of violence from Right Sector, a nationalist group from Kiev, though there has been no sign of such activity.

But away from the protests, the main complaints from eastern Ukrainians are the same as those in the west: economic stagnation, political over-centralisation, corruption and control of much of the country’s wealth by a few “oligarchs”.

Opinion polls suggest only a minority in the east favours the Crimean solution of uniting with Russia, but a clear majority wants greater decentralisation of power. Such sentiments have been intensified by the economic slump, with some salaries unpaid, savings frozen and the currency falling sharply.

“I’m worried about the grandmothers,” says Oleg, a driver in Donetsk. “How will they live? Prices have doubled. I’m for Russia. I don’t want the Banderovtsi,” he adds, using a term for Bandera supporters that has become a derogatory nickname for the Kiev government. “Now they are threatening a new law. I won’t be able to go to Crimea on holiday, I won’t be able to speak Russian.”

Tatiana, a supporter of a united Ukraine who runs a luxury goods shop in the city, says: “I’m considering closing my business. Many of my clients have gone away or are staying hidden at home.”

Kiev’s authority has undoubtedly been sharply undermined in the east. In recent days the Donetsk administration overturned a recent government order to stop Russian news broadcasts. This week’s “antiterrorist operation” announced by Kiev, focused mainly on Slavyansk, produced little action apart from flyovers by a military helicopter and a jet. Separatist gunmen in Kramatorsk, meanwhile, swiftly persuaded Ukrainian soldiers to hand over their armoured personnel carriers on Wednesday, to the cheers of a large crowd.

Yet support for a united Ukraine remains. Pro-unity demonstrations on Thursday attracted hundreds in Lugansk, and up to 2,000 people in Donetsk – as big as many recent separatist demonstrations. Hours earlier, in Mariupol, an industrial port city to the south, the national guard resisted an attempt by a local mob to take control of their weapons depot.

In a sign of how fraught the situation remains, however, at least one person died in that attack. It is not clear whether the person was killed by a soldier’s bullet or someone in the crowd, armed with guns and Molotov cocktails. Any repetition – along with potential misreporting by the media – could yet prove the spark for unrest, and Russian military intervention.

“Local authority has been completely destroyed,” says Ihor Todorov, a professor of international relations in Donetsk, who specialises in European affairs. “I can’t even predict what comes next. Anything is possible. It’s a tragedy. I worked all my life and invested in a small plot in Crimea which I now fear I’ll lose. I don’t rule out emigrating.”

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