Another dispatch from Chris Collison, the former Stranger intern who's been living and working for a TV news station in Ukraine, where he's had front-row seats to a popular revolution followed by a Russian invasion:
Sounds like a nice weekend there. It will be nice to get back to the Puget Sound. The Dnipro beaches are okay, but nothing beats PNW summers. Looks like May Day in Seattle was quite an event again this year.
I haven't been to eastern Ukraine since I was in Crimea, so I don't know exactly what it's like on the ground right now. A colleague of mine went to Slovyansk [where the helicopters were shot down] for a day last weekend. He said he was surrounded and photographed by the rebels when he passed the checkpoints, and again while he was in the center of the city.
It looks like Putin will continue to push. There are few reasons for him to stop. Provocations in Odessa are happening as I write this. We are at the office watching a live feed, and we have already seen provocateurs marching through the streets and starting fights at a pro-Ukrainian protest. One person is reported dead so far. The Ukraine rally was a lot bigger, but Russia doesn't need widespread support in the east or anywhere—just a few guys causing chaos will do, as we are seeing in Odessa today.
Since this isn't a war involving Russian and Ukrainian tanks and soldiers shooting at each other yet, Putin can't lose. Whatever happens, Russia can continue to deny involvement since tanks with Russian flags aren't rolling across the border and blowing up Ukrainian military bases. Sanctions aren't doing much to discourage him, either. Russian media is already working hard to convince the public that the US started the whole mess in Ukraine and is now out to get Russia.
In the last few weeks, Putin's popularity at home has risen to its highest level since the 2008 war with Georgia, and with media beating the war drums and singing the Kremlin's praises night and day, there doesn't seem to be any end in sight.
It makes sense strategically. If Russia can manage to disrupt the presidential election in Ukraine with its meddling in the east and south, it can continue to dismiss the government in Kyiv as a junta and refuse to recognize it. But if Ukraine manages to hold a fair election, Moscow's cries that the Ukrainian government is illegitimate will look even more ridiculous.
It looks like the Kremlin expected a warmer welcome in eastern Ukraine than what we are seeing. Polls show that most residents don't like the new authorities in Kyiv, but they are also pretty strongly opposed to breaking up the country—much more so than in Crimea. Last weekend's rallies were considerably smaller than ones in previous weeks. We are now in the midst of the May holidays, so this Sunday could be big if rebels can manage to mobilize, but they will have to work hard to get locals out. But like I said, Russia doesn't need half the country on its side. It just needs to keep the chaos level high, which is what we are likely to see in the next few days. Ukraine has tightened its border with Russia, so fewer "tourists" are coming in to wave flags and march through the streets. Still, "volunteer" militias are outmaneuvering military forces in parts of the southeast. They shot down two Ukrainian helicopters using anti-aircraft missiles today, so it seems they are well armed with Russian hardware.
The situation for journalists and activists in Donbas is certainly worrying. Kidnappings are becoming commonplace. Simon Ostrovsky from Vice was the most prominent, but rebels have abducted reporters from France, Italy, and Belarus as well. International observers from the OSCE are also still being held as bargaining chips. I'm checking live feeds of the security operation now and more reporters are being reported missing.
The May holidays are a big deal in the former Soviet Union, especially Russia, and there have been reports that major provocations have been planned ahead of Victory Day next Friday.
Thanks, Chris, and stay safe.