Accessibility links

Breaking News

In Eastern, Southern Ukraine, Police Sometimes Melt Away

Where is the thin blue line? Both pro-Kyiv activists and separatists say the police in Odesa did not do enough to protect civilians.
Where is the thin blue line? Both pro-Kyiv activists and separatists say the police in Odesa did not do enough to protect civilians.

ODESA, Ukraine -- Outside the burnt-out shell of Odesa's Trade Union building, Angela Sedova places flowers around a makeshift memorial to the over 40 mainly pro-Russian protesters who died after being engulfed in flames during clashes with Ukrainian-unity demonstrators.

Between sobs, the 47-year-old social worker, who supports anti-Kyiv separatists, describes how the five-story building burned for nearly an hour before she saw any sign of the police. She says local forces deserted them.

"On my way home I went to the police station to write a report [about what I saw] and I said, 'People, are you not ashamed?'" she says.

Eleven blocks away, on Odesa's downtown Deribasivska Street, Ihor and Viktoria, a pro-unity couple in their early 20s, tell RFE/RL that it was near here that police allegedly provided cover for pro-Russian protesters to shoot live ammunition at them.

"I went up to one officer who was there with a few colleagues and said, 'Why did you come here and not do anything [to protect us],'" says Ihor, 24. "He said, 'And what can we do?' I said it seems to me that the words 'police' and 'what can we do?' don't belong together."

Gunmen allegedly killed six protesters, at least four of which were reported to be pro-Ukrainian, before hundreds from the angry crowd decided to storm a pro-Russian tent camp. Pro-Russian supporters deserted the camp but headed into the union building a few meters away.

WATCH: Activists appear to fire from behind police lines in Odesa.

Reporters on the ground said Molotov cocktails were thrown from both inside and outside the building and it is unclear how the fire spread.

Official emergency personnel did not arrive at the union building until it was engulfed in flames

WATCH: Emergency services arrive late to the burning building in Odesa.

Amid snowballing rumors and conspiracy theories, the two camps agree on little, except for this: Both sides say the police failed to protect them.

The failure cost more lives than any single incident since former President Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine in February and a new government took power in Kyiv. But it is only one in a series of events that have seen local Interior Ministry forces either fade away or switch sides when faced with conflict in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Since armed pro-Russian protesters began occupying buildings in early April, Kyiv's police forces have largely withered away in some eastern cities.

Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov has said there are virtually no working police left in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where armed separatists have proclaimed independent republics, which they hope will be absorbed by Russia. Videos have also appeared online showing police officials apparently switching allegiances to the pro-Russian side.

WATCH: Horlivka police say they're siding with separatists.

Legally, Ukraine's police forces are administered centrally from Kyiv. But in practice, regional commanders have always ruled through alliances with local power brokers.

"Many local police chiefs have been effectively paralyzed by often sometimes the lack of coherence and viable orders from Kyiv," says Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on post-Soviet security services. "But even when they are getting orders from Kyiv, knowing that to do that more or less means declaring war on the local political elites."

In Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million just 40 kilometers from the border with Russia, where pro-Moscow protesters briefly held the regional administration building in April, one police detective tells RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that he and his colleagues are forced to act like "prostitutes" for local power-players.

Referring to both former Governor Mykhaylo Dobkin and Hennadiy Kernes -- the city's mayor, who is currently recovering from an assassination attempt in Israel -- as "papa," the officer, who refused to be named, says that police action or inaction is always based on orders from above.

WATCH: A Ukrainian policeman on who calls the shots in Kharkiv.

Kharkiv Cop Says Police 'Prostitutes' Of Local Government
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:00:33 0:00

But regional officers may also consider Kyiv's rocky relationship with police forces when deciding what course to take.

One of the interim government's first moves was disbanding the Berkut riot-police force, which was widely believed to have been responsible for the February killing of some 100 anti-Yanukovych protesters in Kyiv.

And Arsen Avakov, the country's interior minister, appears quick to blame regional police when events go badly -- often voicing his displeasure on Facebook. Two days after the violence in Odesa, Avakov called the police effort "disgraceful and possibly criminal."

In areas of separatist strength, some police appear to be simply unwilling to risk fulfilling orders from Kyiv today without assurances that there will not be new authorities tomorrow.

As mutual distrust has mounted, Kyiv has increasingly relied on pro-government militias, which are sometimes only peripherally under its control, to attempt to restore order in defending against the separatists' own militias.

Similarly unaffiliated pro-government "self-defense" forces have reportedly set up checkpoints on roads leading into Odesa, but local law enforcement has tried to reestablish a veneer of order.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk replaced the former Odesa police chief with Ivan Katerynchuk, an official from the northern Chernihiv region who has openly supported the new government. He has announced an investigation of some members of the force suspected of arming pro-Russian protesters and has threatened to enforce rules outlawing calls for separatism.

And the alluring Black Sea port city -- known more for its multicultural blend of humor than for its political activism -- has been quiet. Speaking to RFE/RL while lounging under flowering linden trees near the city's historic Potemkin stairs, Odesans largely say they want to move on from the worst violence the city has seen since the end of World War II.

But some still fear what will happen if violence does return.

Maksim Miklin, a 25 year-old pro-Ukrainian activist, says people will not be able to rely on government forces. "We understand very well that you can change the head of the police, but there are still going to be the same people [who were there] yesterday," he says.

  • 16x9 Image

    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.