Ukrainian issue puts Russia and West on war footing

In confident and knowing tones, people here say they have heard that Russian spies have infiltrated the city, or that pro-Ukrainian fighters are hoarding weapons for an attack, or that thousands of Russian citizens have been bused in from across the border to foment riots.
Donetsk, a coal-mining city where blue-collar sensibilities reign and change comes slowly, is thick with talk of war.
As the interim government in Kiev that took over after President Viktor F. Yanukovych was overthrown last month has sought to consolidate its power in the country’s east, a potent information war has emerged between supporters of the new government and those who reject its authority and want a path toward Russia.
Punctuated by savage moments of violence between the two camps, the past several weeks have aroused tensions that this city, Mr. Yanukovych’s hometown, has not seen, perhaps, since the fall of the Soviet Union.
“People have started to divide themselves into ‘for’ and ‘against,’ ” said Anton Nagolyuk, a 27-year-old programmer and the son of a coal miner, who rallied in support of national unity on Thursday night. “It is very sad to lose people who you have known for more than 20 years and who you have known since the first grade. But it cannot be any other way.”
The violence, and the media campaign around it, reached new heights Thursday evening in a bloody episode at the city’s central square, where hundreds of pro-Russia activists overcame a thin police cordon and beat an outmatched group of pro-Ukraine demonstrators with rocks, metal rods and fists.
Dmitry Cherniavsky, 22, an activist for Svoboda, a far-right political organization that supports the new Kiev government, was fatally stabbed, the first death from clashes in eastern Ukraine and a watermark in the conflict’s escalation.
The two sides have disputed the cause of the violence and Mr. Cherniavsky’s death. Pro-Russia activists say they were provoked, a claim widely reported in Russian state news media.
Aleksey Goronin, 25, a pro-Russia activist who patrols the central square in a camouflage vest as part of a volunteer militia, said the killing was regrettable, but added that he had proof that the pro-Ukraine protesters were hired mercenaries. A bag had been found, he had heard, with documents showing the men had traveled to Donetsk from Kiev, and each passport had more than $300 in crisp American bills tucked inside.
“The revolution was good until it was taken over by the nationalists,” Mr. Goronin said of the protesters in Kiev. “Now I realize that I am a Russian citizen. We are two peoples and two nations.”
What could be disregarded as rumors and hearsay has taken on greater importance here because the narrative of instability and confrontation in places like Donetsk could lay the grounds for a military intervention by Russia.
“The Kiev authorities do not control the situation in the country,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday that blamed pro-Kiev demonstrators for the clashes in Donetsk.
“Russia recognizes its responsibility for the lives of its compatriots and fellow citizens in Ukraine and retains the right to take these people under its protection,” the statement read, reiterating that President Vladimir V. Putin had permission to use force to protect Russian-speaking populations throughout Ukraine.

That statement carried greater weight on Friday as Russian forces, including artillery batteries and more than 10,000 soldiers, massed in three regions along the border with Ukraine for training exercises. Speaking with reporters, Sergey A. Taruta — the new governor of the Donetsk region, appointed by Kiev — challenged the Foreign Ministry’s statement, claiming that Russians were behind the violence on Thursday. “A lot of people concentrated there were not from Ukraine,” he said, implying that they had come from Russia.
A Western official, citing secret intelligence reports, said that thousands of Russian citizens were being bused into Donetsk and other eastern Ukrainian cities under the supervision of Russian intelligence officers.
Few in Donetsk have not formed an opinion about the violence. On a recent day in the city center, most said they opposed the new leadership in Kiev.
Vika Kornikova, 32, who drank coffee at an outdoor bar, said that she had opposed the new government since the bodies of riot police officers, called the Berkut, were brought back to Donetsk from Kiev for burial.
When asked whether she would protest on the streets, she said no.
“I am scared of the square; there are victims there,” she said. “But when there is a referendum, I will vote for autonomy.”

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