Masked pro-Russian activists guard barricades in front of the regional administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Wednesday.Efrem Lukatsky / AP
As evening fell, the crowd in the plaza outside the government building had swelled in numbers, though it was unclear how many were die-hard supporters of the effort to split Donetsk off from the rest of Ukraine and how many were just curious bystanders. Blue floodlights mounted on the roof of the building painted the crowd in a nightclub-like hue, as audio speakers broadcast Russian newscasts but not the Soviet-era patriotic songs heard on previous nights.
It remained uncertain how deep support for the separatist activists runs in Donetsk and the entire region. A small majority of the population in eastern Ukraine is ethnic Russian; loyalties to Russia run stronger and distrust of the central government in Kyiv runs deeper. Many in regions like Donetsk, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk and elsewhere have watched the “EuroMaidan” protests in Kyiv with fear, fueled by perceptions that protesters are extreme nationalists aiming to discriminate — or worse — against ethnic Russians.
However, until this weekend, eastern Ukraine had seen little in the way of outward conflict or attempts at a violent coup or uprising; there have been no paramilitary groups or unidentified soldiers patrolling the streets, as there were in Crimea almost immediately after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February.
Dmitry, a 23-year-old student about to graduate from the Donetsk National Technical University, said he and his girlfriend, Tatyana, had come to the rally in support of the idea for “federalization” and greater autonomy for regional governments like Donetsk’s. The two studied mining technologies and administration; coal mining is a major industry in the larger region, historically known as the Donbas. Both said they didn’t see the need for independence, but asserted that the protests in Kyiv that ultimately deposed Yanukovych were patently illegal, led by neo-Nazis and funded by the U.S. government.
“How could they overthrow [Yanukovych]? He was a legitimately elected president. It was a wholly illegal move, a fascist putsch,” said Tatyana, who, like Dmitry, asked not to use her last name, fearing reprisals by pro-Ukrainian activists.
“We’ve always had good ties to Russia. Russia has always helped us,” Dmitry said. “We’re like their younger brothers.”
In its negotiations with the United States and the European Union, Moscow has pushed strongly for greater federalization in Ukraine, which would dilute the power of the central government in Kyiv and allow Moscow to potentially influence regional leaders to its advantage.
“Russia is doing everything it can to make sure [Ukraine] is splintered, not a unified, single bloc,” said Vadim Karasaev, an analyst with the Institute for Global Strategies in Kyiv.
Moscow’s goal, Karasaev said, is to try and create a sort of satellite region, like the Warsaw Bloc during the Cold War, to protect its own borders.
“Russia doesn’t need the Donbas,” he said. “Russia needs a federalized system that it can manipulate, with its own policies.”