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In eastern Ukraine, pro-Moscow separatists once marched in Kharkiv.  Now it’s against Russia.

 |  Today Headlines

In eastern Ukraine, pro-Moscow separatists once marched in Kharkiv. Now it’s against Russia.

| Business News Today | Today Headlines

RUSSIA-UKRAINE BORDER — The helicopter cut through gray skies, following the path of the barbed wire fence below. Colonel Uiry Trubachov of the Ukrainian Border Guard Service squinted at the helicopter.

“They are Russians,” he said.

Before Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, border barriers did not exist. Now they are separating Ukraine’s easternmost towns from the Russian troop buildup on the other side – and what US officials and their allies have warned could be the vanguard of a attack on Ukraine.

At Ukraine’s northeastern border crossing near Kharkiv – the second most populous city in the predominantly Russian-speaking country, with around 1.5 million people – the fences are controversial. Some who live right on the border feel the obstruction of Russian territory they used to visit often – to pick mushrooms in the nearby forest or see friends in Belgorod, a Russian town about an hour from main land crossing point.

[What you need to know about Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border]

The linguistic and identity fault lines that run through Ukraine are particularly pronounced here – a region where pro-Russian separatists once raised their flag. In many parts of Ukraine, Russia pulls with a sense of common ties and shared history. But the Ukrainians have nevertheless chosen a pro-Western path with a strong impetus for the future.

It’s also what makes Kharkiv a rich study of Ukrainian views on Russia as its president, Vladimir Putin, deepens a showdown with NATO over what Moscow perceives to be its sphere of influence that includes the Ukraine.

The Kremlin is trying to exploit the East-West pull in Ukraine with propaganda that accuses the Ukrainian government of oppressing Russian speakers. But many in Kharkiv have fiercely opposed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s comments to the Washington Post that the city could be a prime target for Russia.

“In reality, if Russia decides to step up its escalation, of course it will do so in territories where historically there are people who had family ties to Russia,” Zelensky said. “Kharkiv, which is under the control of the Ukrainian government, could be occupied.”

Kharkiv may not harbor as much resentment toward Russia as other parts of Ukraine. But pro-Russian sentiments in 2014 that threatened to turn the city into another Moscow-backed separatist territory – similar to the enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region – no longer hold major sway.

[Six ways Russia views Ukraine — and why each should worry the West]

“People here love Ukraine because Ukrainians live there,” Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said. “Yes, we speak Russian. If you ask me if the citizens of Kharkiv want Ukraine to be friends with Russia, the answer is definitely yes. But do they want war? Definitely not. Do they want us to be a piece of Russia? Of course not.”

“We will not give the city of Kharkiv to anyone,” Terekhov added. “We will be side by side to defend Kharkiv.”

As pro-Russian separatists marched through Kharkiv with Russian flags in early April 2014, Gamlet Zinkivskyi was in the front row. The balcony of his apartment at the time overlooked one of the main streets of downtown Kharkiv. He watched with dismay as protesters occupied the regional administration building and declared sovereignty of a so-called “People’s Republic of Kharkiv”.

“That’s when I started packing my bags and thinking where to go,” said Zinkivskyi, a leading artist from Kharkiv. “I knew I couldn’t stay here. If Kharkhiv becomes Russian, that’s it, I’m leaving.

Unlike separatist movements in the Donbass region – sparking an ongoing conflict that has claimed nearly 14,000 lives since 2014 – that in Kharkhiv ultimately failed. Kyiv forces maintained control of the city. Instead, it hosted dozens of refugees fleeing fighting in the new self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

[What NATO members have sent Ukraine so far]

The fate of these people — and seeing what ultimately happened to the breakaway regions — helped change attitudes in Kharkiv, Zinkivskyi said. Life in these territories is locked in a political vacuum with few employment opportunities. Many people end up moving to Moscow at the first opportunity. In the city of Donetsk, which has about 900,000 inhabitants, a nighttime curfew is in place four days a week.

“Some people believed that Donetsk would become the city of Donetsk, with skyscrapers, and New Yorkers dreamed of moving to Donbass,” Zinkivskyi said. “That didn’t happen, to put it mildly.”

“And these people understood that they didn’t want the same thing to happen in Kharkiv,” he added.

About a 30-minute drive from downtown Kharkiv is what looks like a row of storage containers. It is actually a camp for people who have fled separatist territories. Each block has small apartments – smaller than most college dorms – with shared kitchens and bathrooms.

Liudmilya Makarova has lived here with her daughter with Down syndrome and her son since 2015, about a year after fleeing the breakaway republic of Lugansk. The children sleep on the bunk beds. Makarova is on a couch that has no room to unfold into a bed. Colorful designs line the wall, giving the space a warm feel despite the cramped quarters. But it was never meant to feel like home.

“I had no idea it would go on for so long, with no end in sight,” Makarova said.

Her last memories of her home in Luhansk were hiding in the basement with her children as intense fighting broke out between rebels and government forces, including airstrikes. She was too scared to leave the space to cook for them.

“I couldn’t keep watching my children cry,” she said. “I remember it and I’m starting to shake.”

Talk of a new attack from Russia is triggering for some of the camp residents who have already fled the war once. Makarova said she stayed away from the news. One of her neighbours, Marina Kirbaba, follows her more closely.

“We’ve been through this before,” Kirbaba said. “I don’t think – well, again, who knows what Putin has in mind. I don’t know why he would attack? Why?”

What was once an empty field surrounded by thick forest is now divided by trenches that Ukraine has never had to use. The army built them, with wooden plank walls, on the eastern edge of the Kharkiv region in 2015 as the separatist conflict in the Donbass erupted, according to US and Ukrainian officials.

Right next to the trenches is an observation tower with cameras that monitors activity near this border 24 hours a day.

If the Russians choose to invade Kharkiv, that won’t stop them, said Trubachov of the Ukrainian Border Guard Service. But it could slow them down enough for Ukraine to call in reinforcements.

“The situation is stable and under control,” Trubachov said. “Directly near the line of state control, we do not observe the movement or the gathering of Russian troops – I mean, the territory that we can control by observing.”

[Four maps that explain the Ukraine-Russia conflict]

When the fence was put up seven years ago, it literally isolated a small border village of around 100 pensioners. Now a line of trenches ran behind their agricultural plots, followed by the fence. To enter or leave the village, one must pass through a border guard security checkpoint.

Ukrainians can enter Russia through the nearby land border crossing. But village residents complained that they had to walk a long time to get to the checkpoint and that the crossing process was difficult. Previously there was only a 10 minute walk behind their courtyards.

A woman started crying because she said she couldn’t go to the grave of her son, who is in Russia. He died during the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Another lamented that she could buy cheaper groceries across the border in Russia.

“We don’t feel any aggression towards Russians, we are Russians too,” said 77-year-old Mikhail Fokiev. “Plus, we have a lot of relatives there.”

But when asked what he would do if the Russian army entered this region, Fokiev replied that he would go west, further into Ukraine.

“What else is there to do?” ” He asked.

About this story

Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report. Video editing by Erin Patrick O’Connor and Jon Gerberg. Video translations by Lesia Prokopenko.

In eastern Ukraine, pro-Moscow separatists once marched in Kharkiv. Now it’s against Russia.

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