KIEV: On Kiev’s now iconic Independence Square, bare-chested Cossacks fiercely beat the war drums: Ukrainian authorities have just put the army on high alert in the face of a threat of a Russian invasion.
“They have de facto declared war on us,” former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko shouts to a crowd of thousands on the central stage nearby, not far from where dozens of anti-government protesters fell under the bullets of riot police last week in bloodshed that precipitated the fall of Russia-backed president Viktor Yanukovych.
Hundreds of kilometers away in Moscow, unhappy with the formation of a new government in the wake of Yanukovych’s ouster, the parliament has only just authorized the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine.
Among the crowds of anti-Yanukovych protesters who have occupied Independence Square for more than three months, Ukrainians look on, their faces somber but expressing little surprise.
“We were expecting this measure, given the events happening in Crimea,” one young man says.
In this southern Russian-speaking peninsula of Ukraine, mysterious masked and armed militamen have taken control of the regional parliament and airports since Thursday, supported by scores of civilians who do not hide their pro-Russia tendencies.
But in Kiev, many residents have come to the square to light candles and lay flowers on improvised shrines for those who died defending the protest movement to oust Yanukovych, whom they accused of wanting to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s fold.
And they are ready to defend themselves again.
“In Crimea, we will have to wait. But we will respond with arms to any aggression beyond Crimea, as soon as it happens,” said Lutsenko.
– ‘We are ready’ –
Crimea used to belong to the Soviet Union until it was attached to Ukraine in 1954, and it remains close to its giant neighbor Russia, which still maintains its Black Sea fleet in the peninsula’s southern port city of Sevastopol as part of an agreement between the two countries.
Many of the Russophones who live there radically oppose the brand new, pro-West authorities in Kiev.
And discord has spread further into Ukraine, to the big, traditionally pro-Russian cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv in the east.
“We have toppled one dictator, and now another (Vladimir Putin) comes along. But Ukrainians will rise up to engage in combat,” one protester says back in Kiev.
The square’s makeshift security forces — the same helmeted protesters with metal batons who defended themselves against now disbanded riot police — are not quite ready to face tanks and even the most radical elements rule out going to Crimea for the moment.
“We’re architects, philologists, computer programmers, not special forces,” says Yarema Dukh, a self-defence member who comes from the western, nationalist bastion of Lviv.
“It’s up to the army to act, but we will help it,” he promises.
But the far-right paramilitary Pravy Sektor group, whose members were on the front lines of clashes with riot police during the protest movement, have called for a “general mobilization” against the Russians.
“Putin is scared of what is happening in Ukraine, he wants to stifle our young revolution, but we are ready,” says Artem Skoropadsky, spokesman for the group.
“We have called on all our partisans: we must get guns and stand ready to confront Russian occupation forces.”