HORLIVKA, Ukraine — When a few dozen masked men were taking over the city council building in Horlivka on Wednesday morning, Pavel Kravchenko was busy with routine work at his fashion atelier. He took measurements of two customers, fit an elegant suit on a lifelong client and discussed politics with his pretty, dark-haired wife, Yaroslava.
To the couple, the news that the masked men were seizing city after city in eastern Ukraine was nothing but joyful tidings. The husband and wife dream that the “war of freedom” will end in victory for “our guys” and make their rundown little city a part of Russia.
“We have become enemies” with the rest of Ukraine, Pavel Kravchenko said. “Kiev and western regions hate the Russian residents of Ukraine. They call us Moskali,” a derogatory term for Muscovites — “and judging by how little resistance we see by authorities, they will let us go to Russia soon.”
Not many Horlivka residents seemed surprised to see masked militiamen occupying City Hall. The pro-Russian separatist movement has been a routine part of life in eastern Ukraine for weeks, and it is not hard to find people who accept and support it. After similar operations in neighboring Donetsk, Slovyansk, Kramatorsk and Yenakiyevo, it was easy to predict that their city would be next.
Residents here wondered why Ukrainian authorities had not done much to defend government buildings. A handful of locals gathered by new and quickly growing barricades on Prospect Pobedy, trying to remember the last time they had seen a Ukrainian flag flying atop City Hall. Somebody replaced it with a flag of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” a few days before the seizure.
The occupation of the government building Wednesday, witnesses said, looked “peaceful.” Such seizures of police and administrative buildings, and pro-Russian separatists’ refusal to leave occupied sites, led to the imposition of European Union and U.S. sanctions on Monday and Tuesday.
Cafes, shops and other businesses in Horlivka went about their normal business. Masked men piled up bags filled with sand along the front wall of City Hall, while a few gunmen guarded the entrance. Inside the building, a uniformed man stood on a ladder, trying to cover the bas-relief emblem of the Ukrainian state with plastic bags.
The unit of the Donbass “self-defense” forces had arrived the night before. Its commander, Anatoly Starostin, said in an interview that it did not take much effort for the unit to seize a police station in town. “It was easy, we just came in and settled down, first at the police station, then here at the administration,” he said.
Starostin says his authority derives from being the newly appointed “Horlivka commandant” of the Donbass forces. The 42-year-old introduced himself as an ataman of a Cossack unit from Slovyansk, a city to the north that is more firmly in the hands of separatists. His job was to recruit a self-defense force in Horlivka, he said.
Meanwhile, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko urged all Ukrainians who have ever participated in military operations to defend their country. “Russia has begun an undeclared war against our country in the east,” Tymoshenko, who is running in the May 25 presidential election, said in a statement. “When enemies are attacking and the authorities are unable to stop them so far, only people can save the country.”
Some younger Ukrainians, although they feel differently than those born in the Soviet Union, are still not quite ready to go to war with Russia.
Victoria Polovyeva, 17, and Daniil Komov, 18, students at a technological college in Horlivka, said politics has become a sensitive issue for discussions at home and elsewhere. “For me, as a future restaurant chef, professional life in the E.U. could be exciting,” Komov said.
But like most Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, the students complained about their subjects being taught in Ukrainian. Having spent a few years in Russia, Polovyeva found it difficult to read and write in Ukrainian.
An outspoken middle-aged woman, Tatyana Nefedova, came to the seized administration building Wednesday to find out who was spreading terrifying rumors around kindergartens and schools in her home town about possible kidnappings of children.
“We parents demand from Russian or Ukrainian, any authorities there are, to protect us and our children in this crazy time,” Nefedova said, holding the hand of her 9-year-old son, Daniel.