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Ukraine: All quiet on the eastern front, for now

In Ukraine, trenches and anti-tank obstacles line border with Russia, while many locals say they are willing to fight

NOVOAZOVSK, Ukraine — The trenches appeared as abruptly as the hulking concrete anti-tank obstacles in the road.

About three weeks ago, backhoe excavators showed up and began digging tank defense into the dark soil for a few hundred meters on either side of the Novoazovsk border crossing, straddling a major highway running though the Ukrainian-Russian border. Trucks crossing the border here after trekking cargo thousands of miles across southern Ukraine and southern Russia had to begin weaving among the 12-foot high obstacles, which normally serve as artificial breakwaters for the beaches just a few miles away.

With tens of thousands of Russian troops massed along the border, pro-Russian demonstrators seizing government buildings and the Ukrainian government bolstering army units in the east, the reinforced border defenses at the Novoazovsk crossing are a sign of the times. So is the fact that they were built not with federal budget funds but by the billionaire governor of the Donetsk region, Sergei Taruta and his construction mogul brother.

For locals in Novoazovsk, the threats of war are as baffling as the increasingly tense standoff with separatists occupying the regional administration building in Donetsk, about 80 miles to the north.

“People are afraid, sure. No one really wants war,” said Kolya Bashar, an 18-year-old studying bookkeeping and computer programming at a local technical school. Neither do people really want to become part of Russia: changing passports, changing legal documents, Bashar says.

“If war happens, though, I’m ready to fight,” he said.

Border guards, customs inspectors and the storekeepers at the handful of makeshift shops and cafes serving the truckers and guards at the post say traffic  is unchanged for the most part. In addition to the new defenses, search dogs are being used more regularly, but otherwise there’s been no major interruption of commerce. The anti-tank trenches and the brightly colored concrete obstacles were installed suddenly, but no one really pays any attention to them any more, said one store keeper who gave only her first name, Sveta.

anti-tank, border, Russia, Ukraine
Some of the concrete obstacles are brightly painted.
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“You see anything going here? It’s quiet and that’s all we want,” she said. “You think I have time to worry about this? Separatists or war or whatever? I have a kid to feed at home.”

Taruta, chairman of the board of ISD Corporation, a massive Ukrainian steel enterprise, and his spokesman declined to say what it cost to build the defenses or what prompted the decision.

It remains an open question whether Moscow is planning for invasion or merely using its military forces across the border as a way to influence, and threaten, negotiations with the West over Ukraine’s fate.

Sprawled along the coast of the Sea of Azov, the Novoazovsk region is punctuated by gently undulating farm fields stretching to the horizon, with tractors plowing spring crops.

The region has suffered economically amid poor fishing catches blamed on polluted waters in the Sea of Azov as well as consolidation in the agriculture industry. Many of the fields stretching out from the road from Donetsk show signs for HarvEast, a Donetsk-headquartered holding company controlled by System Capital Management, the investment vehicle for one of Ukraine’s wealthiest men, Rinat Akhmetov.

With around 70 percent of the working-age population officially out of work, Novoazovsk’s economy has struggled for years, and many see its fate as inevitably tied to Russia’s. Aside from agriculture, tourists flocking to the beaches along the Sea of Azov also power the economy, and officials are hoping tourists will choose to vacation in the region during the hot summer months, scared away from Crimea by Russia’s recent annexation of the Black Sea peninsula as well as the weak Ukrainian currency, said Svetlana Kolnichenko, an official who works in the regional administration building, where a 20-foot-high statue of Lenin stands in the plaza outside.

“Almost all of us are of Russian descent here, brothers and sisters and grandfathers and cousins,’’ Kolnichenko said. “None of us have any sort of aggression whatsoever to anyone over there.”

Novoazovsk, border, Ukraine, Russia
At the border post of Novoazovsk, locals say that things are quiet and life is going on as it always does.
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Like many people in eastern Ukraine, which is considered the industrial heartland for the country, Kolnichenko said Novoazovsk residents resent the feeling that the region’s industry has been the main source of economic revenue for the central government, as compared the more rural western districts. Many also are skeptical of the protesters who have occupied the regional administration in Donetsk since Sunday and show now sign of compromising.

“What are people going to do? They’re going to cut us off from Russia?” she said. “Why do we need independence? We just need someone to put things in order. It’s complete anarchy now. We just a need legitimate president.”

Natilya Kostykoba, who was walking home from buying groceries with her mother and her 18-month-old son, said everyone in Novoazovsk had relatives across the border in Russia. She said she thought the events in Donetsk, as well as the events that roiled Kyiv and ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, were organized and paid for by outsiders and foreigners, though she refused to say who.

“We have no work here. We don’t need independence. We need someone who can open up businesses and bring in investment instead of divide the people,” said Kostykoba, who is on maternity leave from her job in Donetsk working for a medical equipment supply company.

At the border crossing on Thursday, a line of trucks idled on the road shoulder up on the Ukrainian side leading away from the crossing; drivers were eating meals, sleeping and killing time before heading west deeper in Ukraine. Sasha Pukhmerov, 28, said he and his father were taking break on the road home to the port of Odessa — Ukraine’s largest — after having delivered a cargo of sheep and pigs to the Caucasus country of Azerbaijan, about 1,300 miles to the east, about a two-week roundtrip journey.

He said the cross-border traffic on their journey seemed unchanged, and there was no impression of a heightened military presence anywhere. In fact, the roads of the southern Russian region of Stavropol and the turbulent North Caucasus region, home to Chechnya and Dagestan, were much more dangerous, with soldiers and officers armed with automatic weapons patrolling on what seemed to be every crossroads, he said.

“What happens to us here, in Donetsk, in Odessa; it’s not up to us. It’s up to the elites who do whatever is most beneficial for their own interested,” he said. “We don’t get any say in the matter whatsoever.”

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