I speak to friends in Zaporizhzhia city once or twice a week. Mostly they are ethnically Russian and Russian speaking, and most are either running their own small business or working in an NGO or community organisation of some kind. Some are in middle-ranking managerial jobs in the regional or city administration. Without exception they have campaigned in favour of Maidan and against the separatists in the regions next door, including taking part in well-supported demonstrations on Zaporizhzhia’s own Maidan square last winter and spring, which were dealt with very harshly by the local police. These Russian-Ukrainian friends are not motivated by strong pro-European or anti-Russian sentiments, but by self-identification as citizens of an independent Ukraine.
Speaking to one friend yesterday she told me that the mood among pro-Maidan activists in the city has been pretty gloomy since the parliamentary elections in October. Most of them voted for the Poroshenko or Yatsenyuk bloc but the electorate of Zaporizhzhia as a whole voted for the opposition. Then this weekend there have been elections in the self-styled independent republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, and reports today in the Ukrainian media that there are currently some 12,000 Russian troops in these regions, including in the major cities.
There is now a clear expectation among pro-Maidan groups in Zaporizhzhia that Russia intends to replicate the Donbass process, including the separatist referendums, along the southern flanks of neighbouring Zaporizhzhia oblast. Their first targets will be the port city of Berdyansk and the industrial city of Melitopol, where there are local government administrations sympathetic to the Russian and the separatist cause. After that, the friend told me, her colleagues are sure that the Russian aim will be to open a corridor through Kherson and Mykolaiv regions, through Crimea to Odessa, all regions with large Russian-speaking populations. The strategy will be to force a process of federalisation, followed by separation and the creation of a Novorossiya state extending far beyond Donbass.
There is anxiety that the Poroshenko administration is tacitly allowing this to happen by continuing to describe government action in the east as an anti-terrorist operation when it is de facto an armed conflict with Russia. There is a rumour that talks are taking place with Rinat Akhmetov, the Donetsk steel and coal oligarch whose base in Donbass is no longer secure, to move his operation to Zaporizhzhia city where he already owns five big enterprises. The strategy would be to keep the economically important city within the borders of a reduced Ukraine while ceding the south to the separatists and Russians. The feeling among my friends in Zaporizhzhia is that with Ukraine now off the front pages in Europe and the USA, Putin will feel no one will stand in his way.
CREES Doctoral Researcher