KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s leadership simmered with a mix of hopelessness and anger at losing Crimea, tempering an influx of eager young men signing up as reservists with the growing certainty that no savior would deliver them from the Russian takeover.
For Ukraine’s government in Kiev, it is a crime – one the inexperienced leaders can do little to address in the face of an overwhelmingly superior military force. But for at least one of the group of people in the new leadership, it is a reality that must be dealt with on practical terms.
“This is theft on an international scale, when under the cover of troops, one country has just come and robbed a part of an independent state,” Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.
Yatsenyuk’s government now has to contend with the immediate complications of an armed confrontation that flared up Tuesday. A Ukrainian military spokesman said a serviceman was killed and another injured when a military facility in Crimea was stormed by armed men. The official said a truck bearing a Russian flag was used in the operation.
Yatsenyuk said the storming showed the dispute “has gone from the political stage to the military through the fault of the Russians.”
But if his rhetoric was combative, there was little to back it up. That is in part down to Ukraine’s relative helplessness and its stated desire to refrain from aggression, but is also a reflection of what authorities see as Moscow’s inflated demands. Rejecting international condemnation, Russian President Vladimir Putin cast his government’s actions as the righting of historic injustices.
“They are demanding to change the constitution, to change the system, to give up Crimea. This is the language of an aggressor … this is the language of Josef Stalin,” said Oleksiy Haran, a politics professor at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. “Ukraine has done everything which it can. We resisted from violence, which again the West demanded from us. We didn’t kill any Russian soldiers.”
While not recognizing the referendum, Ukrainian authorities’ preparations for the practicalities of the situation hint at a mood of resignation.
The justice minister offered emergency accommodation in vacation centers for any Ukrainian citizens who want to leave Crimea, where the ethnic Russian population is a majority.
“My advice to compatriots who live in Crimea is not to give up your Ukrainian passports. You are citizens of Ukraine and you are in effect hostages of the occupiers,” Justice Minister Pavel Petrenko told Channel 5 television. “People should make their own decision about revoking citizenship and nobody has the right to force them.”
Ukraine’s one major lever of power – the electricity and water that comes from the mainland – is complicated by the new Kiev government’s reluctance to alienate the residents, a majority of them ethnic Russians, but with large Ukrainian and Tatar communities.
With the outcome of the Crimean predicament still nominally in the balance, the government is confronting a growing clamor in eastern Ukraine, another heavily Russian-speaking part of the country, for secession or greater federalization. The claims of the ethnic Russian population ignited soon after the parliament that took center stage after last month’s ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych provoked outrage – from the Kremlin most notably – by moving to downgrade the role of the Russian language.
That plan has since been dropped and Yatsenyuk on Tuesday insisted that Russian would retain its official status in areas where it is spoken by the majority.
“Nobody is encroaching on your right to freely use the Russian language. My wife Tereziya speaks primarily in Russian. And she, like millions of other Russian speakers, does not require protection from the Kremlin,” he said.
To deal with Moscow, Ukraine will need to restore channels of dialogue, which Russia is reluctant to do with a post-revolutionary government that it describes in the most disparaging terms.
The government announced this week that it will over the coming 45 days mobilize tens of thousands of reservists. Recruitment officers stationed along a main street in the capital, Kiev, were signing up volunteers Tuesday.
At least one of the self-defense groups that came to prominence during the protests, Spilna Sprava, has intimated that it intends to ready for a fight as a partisan force.
“In the conditions of war with Russia, the regular army has shown itself to be insufficiently effective, which is something Ukraine’s army command has admitted,” Interfax news agency cited Spilna Sprava coordinator Alexander Danilyuk as saying.
On and around the Kiev square from which the protest movement sprung up, crude barricades remain in place and within them, groups of men young and old in store-bought fatigues mill around, sharing jokes and warming themselves by barrel fires.
The plan is for people on the Maidan, as the square is known, to stay until a new and elected government is formed and to ensure that it lives up to its promises.
Vasily Volchenko, a 51-year old retired career military officer manning a stall of knick-knacks memorializing the bloody protests that culminated in Yanukovych’s overthrow, said the loss of Crimea is not going down well.
“We had hoped the government, even though it is only provisional, would react quickly, but they have done practically nothing,” he said. “If they think they can give up Crimea that easily, then they are quite mistaken. We will just self-organize, because we are not giving up our Ukraine to anybody.”