The new government in Kiev has quietly increased its military presence in eastern Ukraine amid fears that the pro-Russian separatist sentiments seen in Crimea will catch fire across the region.
The first massive concrete bulwarks appeared at the Novoazovsk border crossing on March 16, the same day that voters in the Crimea region overwhelmingly voted in favour of independence from Ukraine.
Ironically, some of the huge military blocks that now stand on this last stretch of Ukrainian territory before reaching Russia are decorated with paintings honouring Soviet WWII tank divisions.
“We are ready for any event,” Captain Igor Lisagoub, the ranking officer among the Ukrainian border guards stationed at Novoazovsk, told FRANCE 24.
However, with no heavy artillery or reinforcements in sight, it is difficult to image how Lisagoub and the soldiers at his command could defend their positions from an eventual Russian aggression.
“We have noticed no threatening military movements on the other side of the border, and the situation remains calm for the moment,” Captain Lisagoub said, almost as if trying to reassure himself.
“Nevertheless, during the past two weeks we have stepped up controls in order to prevent Russian provocateurs from participating in anti -government protests in the region,” he adds.
The first real Ukrainian military reinforcements are stationed 60 kilometres west of Novoazovsk. Near the village of Anadol, dozens of well-equipped soldiers are digging a trench around their camp.
A light tank at the entrance of the base gives the reinforcements who were deployed from Dnipropetrovsk, a large city around 400 km southeast of the capital of Kiev, a minimum of firepower.
“Residents were woken up at 4am by a convoy of soldiers who speak Ukrainian. There were twenty troop transport vehicles and some tanks,” Radion, an electrician and the president of the local hunters’ association, remembers.
Between resignation and hostility
The deployment of Ukrainian troops in this far-away region has been greeted by a mixture of resignation and hostility.
Politicians in Kiev, regardless of their political affiliation, are widely viewed as corrupt here. The electrician Radion says a spontaneous demonstration of more than one hundred people blocked a Ukrainian military convoy near the town of Mitchourino this week.
“The people here are patriotic, but we do not like this stupid political confrontation, which Kiev is 100% responsible for,” Radion, whose brother lives across the border in Russia, says.
“In fact, the only reason Kiev is worried about a Russian takeover here, is because they would no longer be able to steal from us in the same way they do in the west of the country.”
Igor, a Ukrainian soldier from Dnipropetrovsk, is still hopeful that a political solution can be found and a war with Russia prevented. Mehdi Chebil/FRANCE 24
Dozens of Ukrainian soldiers dig trenches and prepare fortifications around their military camp, located about 60km from the border with Russia. Mehdi Chebil/FRANCE 24
Vladislav (right), a lawyer from Donetsk, has come to help the Ukrainian military reinforcements by bringing food to the soldiers. Mehdi Chebil/FRANCE 24
A lightweight tank at the entrance of the Anadol military camp. Few heavy weapons are visible among the Ukrainian forces. Mehdi Chebil/FRANCE 24
Radion, a Tatar electrician, blames the new administration in Kiev, and particularly their aborted plan to abolish Russian as an official language, for the mounting tensions at the Russian-Ukrainian border. Mehdi Chebil/FRANCE 24
Security checks have been stepped up at the Novoazovsk border to prevent Russian nationalists from joining secessionist demonstrations in Donetsk. Mehdi Chebil/FRANCE 24
Igor Lisagoub, a captain in the Ukrainian border guards, says the situation in Novoazovsk is “normal”, despite the military preparations being undertaken in the region. Mehdi Chebil/FRANCE 24
A Ukrainian family crosses the border with Russia. Kiev has threatened to reestablish a mandatory visa regime between the two countries in protest at Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Mehdi Chebil/FRANCE 24
Bulwarks covered in paintings celebrating Soviet exploits during the Second World War are visible outside the Novoazovsk border checkpoint. Mehdi Chebil/FRANCE 24
Ukrainian border guards say they have had no reports of any possible hostile military movements on the Russian side. Mehdi Chebil/FRANCE 24
Date created : 2014-03-21