Pro-Russian activists rally Monday at a government building in Donetsk, Ukraine. Photographer: Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-Russian activists rally Monday at a government building in Donetsk, Ukraine. Photographer: Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images

There is a joke circulating among pro-Ukrainians in Donetsk, close to the border where Russian troops have been conducting exercises. It goes like this:

Two Russian-speakers meet in the street, and one starts talking in Ukrainian. His friend asks if he’s afraid the fascists will beat him up if they hear him speaking Russian. "No," says the first, "I’m afraid if I speak Russian, someone will come and protect me."

A few days ago, before today’s speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he said that after taking Crimea he didn’t plan to further divide Ukraine, historian Dmitro Bily wasn’t laughing. Pro-Russian protesters had been ratcheting up pressure in Donetsk, and on Thursday stabbed an opponent to death. He saw worrying parallels in the period of Ukrainian history that he teaches at the Donetsk Institute of Law. He started preparing to evacuate his family.

Standoff in Ukraine

In January 1919, Bily said, the Red Army proclaimed a new socialist government of Ukraine in Kharkiv, having just marched a large army across the border from Russia 25 miles away. When the existing government in Kiev demanded to know what was going on, Moscow answered:

“The military units of Soviet Russia that you have listed are not moving toward or close to the borders of Ukraine. There is no army of the Russian Socialist Soviet Republic in Ukraine.”

The Red Army of the day had no regular uniform or Russian markings, just a red star on the pointy woolen Budyenovka parade ground hats they had found in the imperial storerooms, Bily said. So it was easy for the Bolshevik foreign minister, Georgy Chicherin, to claim that this was a fight among Ukrainians that had nothing to do with Russia.

Indeed, there was a Ukrainian unit within the invading force. And in each town as the army progressed west, a sympathizer was found to invite the Bolsehviks to liberate them from the bourgeois government in Kiev, known as the Directorate, Bily said. Much as the government in Kiev today, the Directorate was recently installed and struggling to impose its writ across a new country divided by language and history. About two weeks later and with little opposition, Moscow’s troops had occupied Kiev.

After Putin’s claims that unmarked Russian troops in Crimea were self-equipped locals, and the appearance now of pro-Russian “self-defense” units in cities such as Kharkiv and Donetsk in Ukraine, Bily was concerned that as in 1919, and once previously in 1917, Russian forces, helped by their agents and the ambivalence of the local population, would walk unopposed across the border, all the while claiming that this is an all-Ukrainian affair.

“It was very similar to now, when you have protesters say: ‘Please save us Russian-speakers from the fascists.’ Only then it was: ‘Please save us workers and peasants from the capitalist exploiters,’” Bily said.

Bily, however, is growing a little more optimistic. Yesterday, the new pro-Kiev governor of Donetsk region, billionaire businessman Serhiy Taruta, told reporters about a trench and earthworks being dug along the Donetsk region’s roughly 100 mile frontier with Russia, to prevent tanks and trucks from rolling across at will. At the formal border crossings there are tank traps in place, shaped like giant cement jumping jacks, and border guards check passports in an effort to filter out young toughs. Ukrainian tanks and other equipment have reportedly been moving toward the eastern border to demonstrate a willingness to fight. According to Russia’s RT TV channel, pro-Russian volunteers have been setting up roadblocks in an effort to prevent the deployments.

Neither the tanks nor the ditch would do much to delay an assault by Russia’s massively superior forces, but they send a signal that an army couldn't just stroll into eastern Ukraine as the Bolsheviks did and that Putin would take a significant political risk if he ordered such a move. If the Russian leader’s assurances are to be believed, Ukraine’s dilapidated military won’t be tested.

Taruta also said that from now on police would act to control protesters. Late last Thursday, according to Mykhailo Zhylim, a Donetsk theater producer who was present, a police cordon separating pro- and anti-Kiev demonstrations made no attempt to stop a group of pro-Russians when they burst through. “They were shouting ‘Fascism will not pass!’ as they attacked and killed someone,” Zhylim said.

Ukraine’s interim leaders still, however, face a difficult choice, between risking that they provide fodder for propaganda about the threat to the country’s Russian speakers, and allowing a power vacuum to develop in which pro-Russian agitators are free to act and make facts at will.

(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcChampion1.)

To contact the writer of this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net.