KHARKIV, Ukraine — Not far from this city in eastern Ukraine, Russian tanks are conducting border maneuvers. Yet for the pro-Moscow activists who gather around the statue of Vladimir Lenin in the city’s main square, that is still not close enough.
Such sentiments pose a serious challenge to Ukraine’s new pro-Western government. The pro-Moscow forces in the industrialized east are staging increasingly violent clashes with those loyal to the Ukrainian government — leading Russia on Friday to threaten more starkly than ever that it reserves the right to “protect” ethnic Russians.
“We are hoping that the Russians will come and protect us, just like they did in Crimea,” said Victoria, a 29-year-old ethnic Russian in this heavily Russian-speaking city, where she and other Kremlin supporters insist that they have become the victims of a harassment campaign. Like most other Russia supporters here, she declined to give her last name. She added simply, “We are under threat.”
Suggesting the volatility of the situation in Kharkiv, two people were killed and dozens injured after clashes on Friday night, according to Ukraine's Interior ministry and the Kharkiv mayor's office. Tatiana Gruzinskaya, spokeswoman for the mayor, said the incident happened after a group of Russian separatists approached the offices being used by pro-Ukrainian activists. It was not yet clear whether the fatalities were pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian, and activists on both sides were arrested, officials said.
Yet if order is being broken, those supporting Moscow appear to be active participants rather than victims. On Thursday in the city of Donetsk, a pro-Ukrainian demonstrator was killed and dozens were injured when a rally turned into a street battle with Russian sympathizers, according to Sergey Taruta, governor of the Donetsk region. He echoed officials in Kiev who say many of the instigators are not Ukrainian at all — but rather Russian agents and paid mercenaries pouring in from across the border.
Across the eastern stretch of Ukraine near where Russian troops are massing for exercises, activists supporting Moscow have also stormed regional administrative offices and taken over at least one TV station. Here in Kharkiv, a Soviet-style city adorned with the onion-style domes of the Russian Orthodox Church, pro-Moscow activists launched a bold bid this week to press for a referendum on regional autonomy.
With a population of 1.4 million, Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city, and it lies 25 miles from the Russian border. The largest of the pro-Moscow rallies have drawn about 5,000 people, with activists claiming that they are being victimized by “fascists” supporting the new Kiev government.
There indeed appear to be several dozen members of far-right nationalist groups whose stronghold is traditionally in the west now operating in Kharkov. But interviews with more than a dozen officials, activists, hospital workers and local politicians suggest little evidence of a concerted campaign of violence.
There have been symbolic acts of aggression, such as a can of red paint that was thrown at the Lenin statue, which also had stickers stuck to its base reading “Go back to Russia.” There is also an unsubstantiated account of a pro-Russian activist who was shot in the leg after a rally Saturday.
But even the activists concede that two suspicious killings last weekend were linked to the mob, not politics. Several pro-Russian activists’ injuries came in clashes with pro-Kiev activists that left both sides bloodied. When questioned, Moscow sympathizers here have offered conflicting accounts of some incidents and could provide little evidence for others.
And in a city where the mayor has allegedly kept a band of thugs on the off-the-books payrolls, at least some of the aggression between rival groups appears more linked to local politics than international intrigue. Some of the violence appears to be unfolding as semi-criminal elements — including pro-Ukrainian soccer hooligans known as “Ultras” and members of pro-Russian no-rules fight clubs — square off on eastern streets.
Police officials here privately say their claims of persecution are grossly exaggerated.
“No, they are not facing a threat,” said a Kharkiv police official who asked not to be named because of the volatility of the situation.
Those loyal to the new government in Kiev, meanwhile, say they suffered brutal attacks by Moscow loyalists March 1, when roughly 2,000 pro-Russian activists stormed Kharkiv’s regional administration building and raised the Russian flag. Citing Russian license plates seen on buses near rallies, pro-Kiev activists also claim that many of those who have taken to the streets in favor of Moscow are being shuttled in from across the nearby border.
“Older people here are more pro-Russian, but Kharkiv is still a Ukrainian city, and most people here want it that way,” said Olha Boudar-Rizmichenko, a 50-year-old museum curator who said she was beaten by pro-Russian protesters when they forced their way into the administration building. Her right eye and lower jowls are still purple with bruising.
“If the Russians came here,” she said, “they would not be welcome.”
Out east, where citizens are so tied to Russia that pop stars from Moscow perform at high school graduations, Ukrainians are deeply divided.
Kharkiv lives and dies off Russian cash, and distrust of the new pro-European stance in Kiev is running strong among many in the Russian-speaking population. Kharkiv today appears to be a nest of paranoia, rumors and power struggles, suggesting a rough road ahead as Kiev seeks to secure the trust of a nation.
Yet even here, there are some signs of things going in Kiev’s favor — perhaps none more telling than the new wind blowing from the Kharkiv mayor’s office.
Seen as part strongman, part politician, Mayor Hennadiy Kernes was so close to Ukraine’s pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych that the ousted leader reportedly stopped here en route to Russia after fleeing Kiev last month. The mayor himself was hauled in for questioning in Kiev on Thursday and later placed under house arrest over allegations of maintaining a staff of paid thugs, carrying out state-sponsored torture and embezzling public funds.
Yet in an interview Wednesday in his palatial office, whose waiting room is outfitted with a live macaw and a stuffed African lion, Kernes appeared to be trying to appease the new powers that be. He refused to be drawn into a discussion about his relationship with Yanukovych, whom he dismissed as political “history.”
Both Yanukovych and the Kremlin have denounced Ukraine’s new interim government as being filled with anti-Semites and neo-Nazis — and, in fact, far-right nationalists do hold several key posts. Yet, even though he dismissed the charges against him as an act of political revenge, Kernes described the new government as being “legally appointed.”
He said he was opposed to autonomy but conceded that people in his city are of “different opinions” on what should happen here next. He denied that ethnic Russians faced any threat and insisted that this was, and would remain, Ukrainian land.
“The people who support the idea of Kharkiv autonomy are basing this on emotion,” he said. “But Kharkiv is part of Ukraine. It always was. It always will be.”
But at a rally Thursday of about 5,000 supporters of the mayor, political leaders in favor of a referendum took the stage. Several of them denounced the new government in Kiev for passing a law lessening the status of the Russian language in Ukraine, a political blunder that has since been acknowledged by rescinding the measure. But many here talk as if it is still on the books, or set to be reinstated.
The speakers also railed against a deal pending with the International Monetary Fund that would probably mean painful cuts in subsidies providing cheap energy to millions of Ukrainians. They attacked a new trade deal with the European Union that is likely to result in new barriers to the Russian market — a highly unpopular trade-off among many in Kharkiv, where factories turn out components and chemicals exported to and finished in Russia.
In addition, fresh measures by the new national government — including a decision to begin blocking Russian television — appear to be stoking paranoia here.
“I know what I’ve heard — that Kiev is run by extremist nationalists who do not like Russia,” said Alexander Serdiuk, a 21-year-old law student with a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother. “They are trying to tell us the people of Crimea are being occupied. But my brother lives there, and I know this referendum is what the people there want.”
The pro-Russian activists insist they have been the targets of a campaign by far-right Ukrainian nationalists, and the Russian government has been saying much the same. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that Moscow remains deeply concerned about a lack of law and order in eastern Ukraine.
But the activists’ stories have been difficult to prove.
One activist said he saw a suspected nationalist pull up in a beige car, get out and fire a gun above the heads of protesters at a rally last Saturday. But another activist said that the gun was fake and that the suspected nationalist had fired blanks. And Artem, a 35-year-old who called himself the pro-Russia group’s “security chief,” said that local police seized the gun before it could be fired.
Artem, who declined to give his last name, also claimed that he had been fired at last week while crossing a darkened street, adding that he was alone when it happened.
Across this city, however, more locals appear to share the mind of 71-year-old Pavel Shemet, a retiree who was mingling among the old Soviet tanks at the military museum and who grew up in the post-World War II era.
“We are connected to Russia, and always will be,” he said. “But this is Ukraine; it is our country. That cannot change.”