THE BATTLE FOR EASTERN UKRAINE IS UNDERWAY

Wall Street Journal on the opinion page on March 2, 2014, reported that pro-Russian protesters are bussed-in from Russia and that Putin knows that Kiev’s hold on that region is weak. Excerpts below:

Donetsk, Ukraine

Crimea was the appetizer. The real prize for Vladimir Putin is likely to be eastern Ukraine. Without this vast region of coal mines and factories, the Kremlin strongman won’t be able to achieve his goal of either controlling, destabilizing or splitting Ukraine. Otherwise the takeover of the country’s southern peninsula hardly seems worth the trouble.

The Kremlin’s claims about the importance of ethnic Russian identity and language are just a sideshow in the struggle here. What’s going on is a pure power play. Since Mr. Putin has nuclear weapons and no apparent care for world opinion, give him an edge. But eastern Ukraine won’t be as easy to snare as Crimea, and the attempt could backfire on Mr. Putin.

The Russian president is a man in a hurry. Russia has taken advantage of the inevitable chaos and uncertainty in post-revolutionary Kiev…With each passing day, they should be getting a better grip over their state. The clock is perhaps their only true friend.

The Russian move on the east, beyond Crimea, began March 1 with protests in the industrial centers of Kharkiv, Donetsk and other cities. Television showed squares filled with thousands of Ukraine’s ethnic Russians. Fiery speeches were made, local government buildings were stormed and topped with Russian flags, and calls for Moscow’s help were issued by little-known local politicians.

These demonstrations were peculiar in places renowned for their political apathy and ethnic indifference…the east feels, paradoxically, both more Soviet and more focused on business than Kiev. Polls in the region over the years showed virtually no support to leave Ukraine and join Russia. During the weeks of unrest in Kiev, Donetsk was quiet. Then suddenly on March 1 as many as 10,000 turned out in Lenin Square, a large number by local standards.

A few things in the crowd stood out. Some of the watches that people wore were set to the time in Russia’s Rostov region just across the border. Some demonstrators spoke with the harder “g” sound common in Russia. By one count, at least eight buses with Russian license plates were seen near the site. And where did so many Russian flags appear from in Ukraine? In Kharkiv and other towns, the core of protesters for Russian intervention seemed to be Russian citizens.

Many locals turned out too, of course, from conviction or curiosity. Eastern Ukrainians speak Russian and feel culturally close to their neighbor.

The bigger problem for Kiev is the vacuum of authority in the east. Donetsk was the home base of ousted President Yanukovych and the ruling Party of Regions.

When he fled for Russia, several local governors and officials went with him. The police had no supervision. The Party of Regions, mostly a collection of corrupt interests, is reeling. Without national political leadership for the east, the local city council over the weekend called for a referendum on Donetsk’s future status, raising alarms.

The emerging Kiev strategy in the east is to line up establishment support for a single Ukraine and restore control over state institutions. This may make it harder for the Kremlin to use bussed-in demonstrators or little-known political proxies as an excuse to intervene by force. Mr. Putin could still try to make do with Russia-friendly political leaders in the Yanukovych mold.

But there’s a danger here too for Mr. Putin. Eastern Ukrainians are, as Russian nationalists point out, close—but not the same—as Russians. If Ukraine survives his assault by the Kremlin, then their path to Europe and away from Mr. Putin’s Eurasia fantasy will be clearer. And if eastern Ukrainians can live in a European democracy, then why not Russians?

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