Home / Headline / In Russia’s southwest, some protest Putin’s warmongering while others prepare to join fight in Ukraine

In Russia’s southwest, some protest Putin’s warmongering while others prepare to join fight in Ukraine

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As NATO countries warn that the Russian military is poised to strike Ukraine at any time, there are mixed feelings in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. Some residents are horrified while others are recruiting volunteers to fight.

Lidiya Olshanskaya, 85, looks out a window from her apartment in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. During the Second World War, she watched from this spot as German troops moved into the city. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

As 85-year-old Lidiya Olshanskaya peers out the window of her apartment in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, her mind flashes back to when she was a five-year-old-girl standing in the same spot.

During the Second World War, she watched German troops move into this city located 120 kilometres east of the Ukrainian border.

She doesn't fear an invasion of her country now, but rather that her government launches one.

"I just want some kind harmony and justice," she said. "What Putin is doing right now is deplorable. I would like my country to not be such a disgrace."

Rostov-on-Don, a city of one million in Russia's southwest, sits on the Don River, which empties into the Sea of Azov, where the coastline is shared by Ukraine and Russia.

As NATO officials warn that the Russian military is poised to strike Ukraine at any time, there are mixed feelings in Rostov-on-Don. Some residents are horrified, while others are recruiting volunteers to help fight.

There is both anger at Russia's aggressive posturing as well as preparation in case a larger battle flares up in Eastern Ukraine — in a region some Russians believe should be part of Russia.

Rare instances of protest

Lidiya Olshanskaya has been protesting for years. She took to the streets when Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, and again last year when opposition leader Alexei Navalny was jailed, after he nearly died from being poisoned.

As part of a widespread government crackdown on dissent, the grandmother was fined the equivalent of $1,700 Cdn last year for taking part in demonstrations.

Now when she holds a sign in public, Olshanskaya — one of few who still protest in Russia — is careful not to be outside for more than 10 minutes, and always alone.

That's the tactic Russian activists are taking, because one-person pickets are the only method of protest that currently does not require prior approval from the authorities.

"The risk goes up all the time that they could arrest you," said Tatiana Sporisheva, 45, who spoke to CBC along with Olshanskaya in Rostov-on-Don earlier this week.

"We don't have big protests anymore, but that doesn't mean that people accept this [situation]."

Sporisheva, who made signs that read "Putin Is War" and "The War Is Near," began protesting Russia's military buildup back in November.

She says even if people in Rostov-on-Don pass by and say nothing, she can tell from "their eyes" that many support her.

Like many who live here, Sporisheva says she has several friends in Ukraine and believes it is "criminal" to threaten a war on people who are so close in "nationality and spirit."

'We are preparing for the absolute worst'

Olshanskaya's last protest was on Feb. 15, one day before the possible invasion date given by unnamed U.S. intelligence sources to some Western media outlets.

There ended up not being an attack on Feb. 16, but Olshanskaya believes that is only because the West made that date public, and Russia had no choice but to back off.

Russian President Vladimir Putin "might attack when everything calms down and everyone thinks there won't be a war," she said. "We are preparing for the absolute worst."

While NATO and U.S. officials have warned that Russia has mobilized enough troops and equipment to launch a full invasion of Ukraine, there is particular concern that intense fighting could erupt in Eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have been battling the Ukrainian army since 2014.

Russia has denied it is planning to invade Ukraine.

On Thursday, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe confirmed shelling on both sides of the 420-kilometre control line that divides most of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (administrative regions) from the rest of the country.

Ukrainian officials said a kindergarten in a government-controlled area was hit by the militias and that teachers suffered concussions.

Russia routinely denies that its troops and forces are on the ground in Eastern Ukraine, but Timur Okkert says plenty of Russian volunteers are.

He fought in Donbas in 2014 and is with the Union of Donbas volunteers, a group that recruits Russians to help in the conflict zone. Okkert claims there are tens of thousands of volunteers currently in Eastern Ukraine.

"They are joining the local ranks that are already there," said Okkert, who lives in Rostov-on-Don. "They are gearing up for service, arming themselves and getting ready for the attack."

Seeking special status

While he believes there could be a large battle, he insists Russia won't instigate it, but could be forced to intervene if the Ukrainian military tries to take back control of two breakaway regions.

Okkert spoke to CBC in an art studio run by his friend and fellow member of the Cossack community, Maxim Ilyinov.

Ilyinov, who paints pop art, had pictures of Russian historical figures on display, alongside portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping and former U.S. president Donald Trump.

Maxim Ilyinov, right, a Cossack artist in Rostov-on-Don, is seen with Timur Okkert, who helps recruit Russians to fight in Eastern Ukraine. They both believe Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine should become part of Russia.(Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Ilyinov said that something needs to happen in the region, because he thinks Donetsk and Luhansk should be part of Russia and that many in the Cossack community agree.

"I know that whatever is taken unjustly will one day be returned," Ilyinov said.

No country recognizes Donetsk and Luhansk as independent, but this week, Russia's State Duma, its lower house of parliament, voted to appeal to Putin to recognize them.

Putin, who spoke to the press after meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Feb. 15, said when it came to Donetsk and Luhansk, his priority is implementing the Minsk Accord.

Under the agreement, which was signed by Ukraine and Russia in 2015, the region would be granted "special status" and hold local elections.

But many Ukrainian officials and members of the public believe this scenario would give Russia a permanent foothold in the country and erode its sovereignty.

Any attempt by the Russian military to seize Donbas by force would be tragic, says Maria Krivenko, the regional head of Yabloko, a Russian opposition party.

Yabloko launched an online petition this week against the military buildup and more than 7,000 people have signed it so far.

Maria Krivenko, head of the Rostov regional wing of the Russian opposition Yabloko party, holds a petition the party started demanding an end to Russia's war threats. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

"If they annex Donetsk and Luhansk regions, this will just worsen the life for Russians," Krivenko told CBC at her party's small office in Rostov-on-Don.

"Most people who I know do not support these military actions … we have no guarantee here in Rostov region that if something starts, we won't suffer here, too."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Briar Stewart is the Moscow correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart

    With files from Corinne Seminoff

    *****
    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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