Running street battles between pro and anti-Russian forces in the Black Sea port of Odessa resulted in at least 42 deaths, including dozens of pro-Russian paramilitaries who were trapped in a burning building.
The rioting in Odessa represents a sea change in the situation in Ukraine. Previous violence erupted in pro-Russian strong holds in the industrial eastern part of the country. Odessa had remained relatively quiet until pro-government rally held before a soccer game on Friday was attacked by pro-Russian separatists. Later, pro-government protestors attacked a tent city put up by pro-Russian demonstrators, forcing them to flee into a government building. The structure was set on fire, and dozens lost their lives.
Meanwhile, 9 people died in the eastern city of Slovyansk as government troops continued an operation to dislodge pro-Russian militias from municipal buildings.
The riot in the Black Sea port of Odessa, ending in a deadly blaze in a besieged trade union building, was by far the worst incident in Ukraine since a February uprising that ended with a pro-Russian president fleeing the country.
It also spread the violence from the eastern separatist heartland to an area far from the Russian frontier, raising the prospect of unrest sweeping more broadly across a country of around 45 million people the size of France.
The Kremlin, which has massed tens of thousands of soldiers on the Ukraine’s eastern border and proclaims the right to invade to protect Russian speakers, said the government in Kiev and its Western backers were responsible for the deaths.
Kiev said the violence was provoked by foreign demonstrators sent in from Transdniestria, a nearby breakaway pro-Russian region of Moldova where Moscow has a military garrison. It said most of the dead who had been identified so far were from there.
On Saturday morning, people placed flowers near the burnt-out doors of the trade union building, lighting candles and putting up the yellow, white and red flag of the city. The burnt remains of a tented camp of pro-Russian demonstrators nearby had been swept away. People spoke of their horror at what happened.
About 2,000 pro-Russian protesters gathered outside the burnt-out building, chanting: “Odessa is a Russian city”.
At the nearby hospital, residents queued up to offer blood and others tried to find out what medicine was needed so they could go out to buy it.
Oleg Konstantinov, a journalist covering the events for a local Internet site, said bullets had flown in the melee before the blaze: “I was hit in the arm, then I started crawling, and then got hit in the back and leg.”
Moscow’s response to the violence in Odessa was restrained, but threatening:
“People are calling in despair, asking for help, the overwhelming majority demand Russian help,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told reporters on Saturday. “All these calls are reported to Vladimir Putin.”
But he said that the Kremlin has not yet decided how to respond. “This element is absolutely new to us,” he said, according to the Interfax newswire service. He said that Russian authorities have lost their ability to influence pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and that they would not be able to resolve the increasingly violent situation alone.
Ukrainian authorities continued on Saturday their operations to try to dislodge separatists in eastern Ukraine. “The active phase of the operation continued at dawn,” acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook page. “We will not stop.” He said that the Ukrainian military had retaken a television tower near Kramatorsk, although his account was not immediately independently confirmed.
In one sign that the Kremlin may still retain sway over the actions of allies in eastern Ukraine, a group of seven international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were released by separatists in Slovyansk on Saturday after being held hostage for more than a week, Russian envoy Vladimir Lukin told the RIA Novosti newswire agency.
The release was a “voluntary humanitarian act,” he said. It came after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Lukin to the region on Thursday to push for their release. Five Ukrainian military officers held captive alongside the observers were also freed.
The Ukrainian government appears committed to try and take back their country, regardless of what Russia does. What other choice do they have? Either they make a supreme effort to regain control of their eastern provinces, or they allow Vladimir Putin to pick them off one by one, as he engineers more “referendums” on joining Russia in the rebellious areas.
As the violence spreads, it radicalizes ordinary Ukrainians so that the middle ground — remain with Ukraine but gain greater autonomy — appears less and less likely to win out. With constant propaganda from Moscow telling them that Kiev wants to stifle their culture and language, we may already have gone beyond the point of no return and Ukraine will either have to go to war with Russia, or write off large tracts of their territory.