In Kiev, Armed and Masked Men Protect Parliament

Armed men from protest groups surround the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev on March 17 Photograph by Oleg Pereverzev/Corbis

This morning, a cluster of masked men with assault rifles gathered at the door leading into Ukraine’s parliament. Veterans of the war in Afghanistan, they played an important role in the fortifications that protected the protesters in Kiev’s central square who ousted President Viktor Yanukovych last month. They report to their own commanders, who they say communicate with Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense.

A line of 15 men had come to guard parliament’s proceedings from provocateurs. The 15 were armed with automatic weapons they said they had purchased for hunting purposes. Their commander, Anton Primushka, said they numbered about 700 men and could mobilize 11,000 within 24 hours to deploy to southeastern Ukraine if Russia continued its incursion on Ukrainian soil.

Inside, the parliament voted on a presidential decree to carry out a partial mobilization involving 40,000 reservists after the referendum in Crimea on joining Russia passed with 96 percent approval on Sunday. “If there’s a war, we will work with the Ministry of Defense like a special group, we don’t need to be taught anything, we have experience and have all been to war,” Primushka said. “We can’t stand aside now when they are tearing our country apart.”

Across the capital, residents wondered where Russian President Vladimir Putin would stop—whether he would push into Ukraine’s eastern cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv, or Odessa—after violent protests there last week killed three people. Putin has repeatedly reserved the right to use force to protect Russian-speakers outside his country’s borders.

Kiev residents wondered if the West would continue to pressure Putin to back down, or how he could do so while saving face with his own population—which has granted him the highest presidential approval rating in three years, according to a poll released by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion.

Some wondered if the world around them was spinning out of control. “If Mr. Putin would decide to go further, it would be a different world around us, there would be no international legal base anymore. There would be no trust anymore, it would be the end of modern diplomacy,” said Bohdan Yaremenko, an ex-diplomat who resigned after a career in the foreign service last week.

“If they [the West] are not able to defend Ukraine, how would they convince Iran not to go for the nuclear weapons? If it is the only means, and Putin would prove it, the only means to protect [one's country] and not be destroyed is to have nuclear weapons, same as North Korea and same as the rest of the world? We would start the next tour of global armament.”

On the streets of Kiev, shops were open as usual, as people debated the future of their country. Many seemed unconvinced Ukrainian troops could protect their borders against Russia. Vladimir Byksha, 25, who works at a coffee cart outside the parliament, said he had watched the Crimean referendum with trepidation. He said he would not be joining the Ukrainian army if there were a draft—he had no faith in the institution. Byksha had managed once before to skirt Ukraine’s previously mandatory military service. He had been convinced the army was “a waste of time.”

Instead, if Russia moved further into eastern Ukraine, he said he would join a guerrilla resistance movement. “Why join an army of 50,000 troops when Russia has 220,000 along our borders?” he asked. “There would be no point. After one day of fighting, half of us would be dead and the other half would be taken as prisoners.”

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