The office of the governor of Kharkiv has the feel of a war room as this country slides toward further disintegration. A line of riot police, two deep, guard the entrance to the building. A pair of police snipers squat by a second-floor window, carefully watching a pro-Russian demonstration on the square outside.
“I’m sorry,” the governor, Ihor Baluta, says, interrupting an interview to take a call on his mobile phone, “it’s about the anti-terrorist operation.”
The people Mr. Baluta calls “terrorists” are pro-Russian fighters and activists challenging the central government’s hold on eastern Ukraine. The burly 44-year-old sees himself less as a bureaucrat than a front-line commander in a covert war for control of his home city and region.
With armed Russian-backed separatists set to stage independence referendums in the neighbouring oblasts, or provinces, of Donetsk and Lugansk on Sunday – and deadly violence now a daily occurrence – Mr. Baluta believes that Kremlin-backed agitators have set their sights on Kharkiv oblast as the next target.
“They want to destabilize the situation in our region. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin doesn’t just want Donetsk and Lugansk. Those are economically depressed regions. He needs to control other regions,” Mr. Baluta told The Globe and Mail in his office as about 2,000 pro-Russian activists briefly rallied outside under flags of the Soviet Union and a new movement called “Russian East.”
“They want to create the conditions for a referendum here, to create a Kharkiv Republic.”
The Ukrainian government loudly protested on Friday when Mr. Putin – after attending a massive military parade on Moscow’s Red Square – flew to Crimea for the first time since Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine following a controversial referendum there in March.
Mr. Putin attended Victory Day events in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol that informally doubled as a celebration of both the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany 69 years ago and Russia’s seizure of Crimea. Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, further raised hackles by attending a Victory Day parade in Trans-Dniester, a Russian-backed breakaway region in another former Soviet republic, Moldova.
“We treat with respect all countries and peoples and respect their legitimate rights and interests,” Mr. Putin told a crowd in Sevastopol. “But we ask that everyone treat our legitimate interests the same way, including the restoration of historical justice and the right to self-determination.”
Mr. Putin was apparently referring to Crimea – which Moscow has long seen as a Russian territory left outside its borders when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 – but his words could also be seen as support for the separatists in both eastern Ukraine and Trans-Dniester.
Ukraine accused Mr. Putin of “deliberately pursuing further escalation” by visiting Crimea, while the U.S. State Department called the trip “provocative and unnecessary.”
The Victory Day holiday was tumultuous across Ukraine. Heavy fighting broke out between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian gunmen in Mariupol, a strategic city port in Donetsk oblast. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said that more than 20 people – he called them “terrorists,” though at least some unarmed civilians were among the casualties – as well as one policeman were killed in the fighting. Other sources put the death toll at between three and eight.
The shooting in Mariupol began when a pro-Russian crowd tried to storm a local police station. The Ukrainian military, backed by tanks and armoured personnel carriers, then retook the police station. Having apparently secured the weapons stored inside, the troops later withdrew, chased by angry residents who later built barricades around the city.
Gunfire was also reported at Ukrainian military base on the outskirts of the city of Donetsk, after a pro-Russian crowd gathered outside the gates late Friday.
Mr. Baluta said Victory Day bloodshed was narrowy avoided in Kharkiv as well. He ordered the cancellation of the city’s annual military parade earlier in the week after police uncovered a plot to set off explosives at the event. He said his chief of police informed him on Friday that 28 “provocateurs” had been arrested in the city that morning, including five Russian citizens. Mr. Baluta said the men had stashed guns, knives and baseball bats at an apartment in an industrial district of the city.
Mr. Baluta believes he’s currently winning the battle for Kharkiv, largely because most of the population – even those distrustful of the government in Kiev and thus his own regime – has no interest in union with Russia.
“The amount of the population that wants to live in Russia is 7 per cent. And those who want more to change the administration of Ukraine, to have some kind of federalization, are 18 per cent,” the governor claimed, sitting under a giant portrait of Taras Shevchenko, a revered 19th-century Ukrainian poet.
Yuliya Bidenko, a political science lecturer at Kharkiv National University, said that pro-Russian sentiment in the city – once high – has fallen because of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for the separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk.
“I think the people of Kharkiv understand that they don’t want a situation like Crimea here. It was a bad example for us. We don’t want to have Russian passports, and no possibility of getting European visas,” she said.
Since his appointment in March, Mr. Baluta, a member of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party, has calmed the streets by bringing thousands of extra police into Kharkiv from other parts of Ukraine. They bolstered – and in some instances replaced – a force that largely stood on the sidelines as first pro-European protesters, and then pro-Russian activists, occupied the regional administration building, resulting in several violent clashes between the two sides.
The rival groups have now been dislodged from their encampments on the city’s main Freedom Square, and Mr. Baluta is back in his office, though the windows on the main floor of the building are still broken and boarded up. The corridors of the building were filled Friday with resting riot police, rather than bustling bureaucrats.
Poorly trained and commanded police have added to Ukraine’s troubles in this months-old crisis. In Donetsk and Lugansk, police have done little as separatists seized government buildings. Police huddled under riot shields, apparently without other orders, as dozens died in clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian mobs in the southern port of Odessa earlier this month.
Mr. Baluta says the 5,700 police deployed on the streets of Kharkiv – which at 1.5 million people is Ukraine’s second-largest city – are all willing to use force, if necessary, against pro-Russian protesters. Those who expressed reservations have been reassigned.
“The police will shoot first in the air. Then they’ll shoot at the ground. Then they’ll shoot straight ahead,” he said, explaining how police will deal with an attempt to storm the administration building again.
But the police aren’t the only ones in Kharkiv with guns. The city’s longtime mayor, Gennadiy Kernes, was shot in the back while jogging last month in an apparent assassination attempt. The billionaire Mr. Kernes is something of a political chameleon, having expressed sympathy for the pro-Russian protesters in the early days following the revolution in Kiev before finally siding with the new government. He is also believed to have enemies in Kharkiv’s reputedly shady business world.
Mr. Baluta said police would announce their findings in the case sometime in the next two weeks, but he already has a hunch about what the investigation will reveal.
“There are people who would want to do this [assassinate Mr. Kernes]. And there are countries that would want to do this.”