Eastern Ukraine wary of intervention and escalation

A woman holds up a banner saying "Protect me Russia" at a protest in Kharkiv (5 March 2014) About 1,000 pro-Moscow demonstrators marched through central Kharkiv on Wednesday

Could a war between Russia and Ukraine start not in Crimea but in the east of the country? Russia's President Vladimir Putin says he will protect the Russian majority there. The BBC's Paul Wood reports from eastern Ukraine's biggest city, Kharkiv.

The mayor of Kharkiv's media advisers were debating where we should put our camera to show his good side. (The left, they said).

Then Gennady Kernes swept in, a small, dapper figure in an impeccably cut, grey suit.

He asked for a few minutes to apply make-up. This was a man careful about image.

The mayor's Twitter feed is peppered with photographs of himself posing bare-chested and muscular, Vladimir Putin-style.

Start Quote

I am a mayor of a border city but we will never yield to intimidation”

End Quote Gennady Kernes Mayor of Kharkiv

Mr Kernes is a "mini-oligarch" - if not a billionaire then certainly a successful businessman, wealthy enough to have launched a career in politics.

He was accused of starting out as an organised crime boss.

He denies that but accepts that he was once jailed for fraud. It was a minor offence, he told me, the case "partly fabricated" by his enemies.

"I pay my taxes. I don't use official cars. I give my salary to orphanages," he stressed, fixing me with a disconcerting stare.

Political survivor

Mr Kernes used to be a leading supporter of the former president Viktor Yanukovych.

In fact, Mr Yanukovych was due to speak at a rally in Kharkiv on the weekend he fled to Russia.

Gennady Kernes poses in the gym Gennady Kernes has published several photographs of himself posing Vladimir Putin-style

Mr Kernes himself disappeared to Russia for a time, but returned to Kharkiv, saying he no longer backed the ousted president.

All of that personal and political history marks Mr Kernes out as a survivor, one who might know which way the wind is blowing.

So, did this Russian-speaking mayor of Ukraine's biggest Russian-speaking city want Moscow to send troops across the border?

"Russian is my first language," he said, "but I support an undivided Ukraine. I am a mayor of a border city but we will never yield to intimidation.

"We will never make any decision that could undermine Ukrainian statehood."

Counter-protests

If an astute politician such as Mr Kernes is siding with Kiev, perhaps there is little chance of Vladimir Putin ordering his troops to roll into eastern Ukraine.

Injured pro-Kiev demonstrators in Kharkiv after clashes with pro-Russian demonstrators (1 March 2014) Scores of people were injured when pro-Russian demonstrators stormed Kharkiv's government headquarters

Yet Mr Putin said this week that he reserved the right to intervene here to protect Russian-speakers from "lawlessness".

Mr Putin delivered that carefully-calibrated statement - some would call it a threat - after the street protests that toppled President Yanukovych in Kiev arrived in eastern Ukraine.

The protesters briefly seized government buildings and attempted to demolish the town's statue of Lenin.

Pro-Moscow demonstrators staged counter-protests. When we arrived in Kharkiv a small group were still guarding the statue.

It was the biggest statue of Lenin in the world, they proudly informed us, symbol of a shared history with Russia, and of a common culture.

'Fascists'

Some wanted Mr Putin to send troops. They said the pro-Kiev demonstrators included violent militiamen bussed in from the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country.

Riot police deployed outside the regional government's headquarters in Kharkiv (5 March 2014) Large numbers of riot police were deployed on Wednesday to protect the government's headquarters

"They're fascists," one woman insisted, getting more and more angry.

"They had flags saying 'SS'. They were on drugs. And they used machine-guns here."

But even among this crowd, many refused to see the Ukrainian nationalists as a genuine danger.

"Don't exaggerate," said another woman. "There were no guns. I was there."

European future

Many at the Lenin statue were old and not well-off.

Some, quixotically, waved the red flag of the Soviet Union.

There was a far different atmosphere a few minutes' walk away at the university, where a big meeting was taking place to defend the new government in Kiev.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (centre) walks with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (left) and the commander of the Western Military District, Anatoly Sidorov, near St Petersburg, Russia (3 March 2014) Vladimir Putin has said he has no intention to "fight the Ukrainian people"

A well-known rock singer, dressed all in black, was addressing the mostly young crowd.

"You know the world has gone mad when Germany is telling Russia not to invade Ukraine," he said, to laughter and applause.

To this crowd, the country's future lay with Europe, not Russia.

Ukrainian was being spoken at the meeting here - but also Russian.

Many Russian-speakers do support Kiev.

Start Quote

If Russian forces were to set foot in eastern Ukraine, it would be, unambiguously, an invasion”

End Quote

Though Kharkiv is around 70% Russian-speaking, Mr Kernes thought only 40% would vote for a customs union with Russia, rather than the EU.

Powder keg

Events in eastern Ukraine are potentially more dangerous that what has been happening in Crimea.

There, Russian troops are present under a long-standing agreement.

But if Russian forces were to set foot in eastern Ukraine, it would be, unambiguously, an invasion.

The Ukrainian government might feel it had to respond.

Perhaps President Putin is bluffing over eastern Ukraine.

If his real aim is to annex Crimea, that might be easier to achieve as part of a compromise that avoids a war between the two states.

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