A Guide to the Potential May 9 Shitstorm in Ukraine
As if the situation in Ukraine weren’t politically charged enough, May 9 is Soviet Victory Day—which commemorates Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union in World War II.
Victory Day parades and public celebrations are traditionally held throughout Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine. But this year, May 9 will be a day of increased tension and potential violence in Ukraine, as pro-Russian rallies are planned across the country marred by separatist tension. Between Ukrainian troop movements on the ground and the mass mourning of deaths from last week, Ukraine is a pressure cooker seemingly primed to erupt on a historically significant day.
Here’s a guide to what’s planned for May 9 in the country’s major flash points:
Interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk gave an impassioned speech on May 8 urging Ukrainians to stay home on Friday. The interim government has already canceled the planned parade in Kiev, but at least three groups have scheduled rallies in the capital city—the pro-Russia Party of Regions, the anti-Maidan Communist Party of Ukraine and the Ukrainian All-Military Union. The events could attract up to 50,000 people, creating an atmosphere ready-made for armed clashes. Should violence break out, the city’s chief prosecutor has called on law enforcement to use force “without hesitation.”
The port city on the Black Sea is still dealing with the aftermath of armed violence over the weekend, which left more than 40 people dead. Most of the fatalities came when pro-Russian separatists were trapped in a Trade Union building that was set aflame during the clashes. “There seems to be an undisputed consensus by all parties that Friday will be a day of black vengeance,” writes journalist Will Cathcart from Odessa.
City officials have massively downsized May 9 celebrations, but the unofficial events are the ones to watch. According to posts on Vkontakte, Russia’s Facebook, anti-Maidan activists plan to occupy key buildings and maybe even throw pipe bombs. Earlier this week, the Ukrainian government sent elite forces to quell potential unrest in Odessa, but eyewitness reports say they’ve all but disappeared.
Fearing violence, some residents of this stronghold of pro-Russian separatism in eastern Ukraine left the city before May 9:
The so-called “People’s Republic of Donetsk” has already seen a call to arms to avenge the deaths in Odessa. Pro-Russian forces blame the deaths on “the current war criminals in Kiev” and are exhorting people to “resist the advance of fascism” on May 9, according to pro-Russian militia posts on VK.
The day’s events could impact what happens on May 11, when a referendum—much like the one passed in Crimea this March—will ask voters to decide whether Donetsk should remain part of Ukraine, become completely independent or join Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin actually urged the city’s leaders to delay the vote because of recent fighting, but the referendum will go ahead as planned. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called the referendum “frankly contrived and bogus,” referring to how militants organized the vote without approval from government officials.
A Pew Research Center poll found that 58 percent of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the eastern regions, including Donetsk, are in favor of maintaining Ukraine’s current borders. When they polled all Ukrainians in the east, that number rose to 70 percent.
Kharkiv is another city in eastern Ukraine where fighting has broken out between pro-unity Ukrainians and pro-Russian separatists. Mayor Gennady Kernes said on May 7 that the Victory Day program “will be considerably curtailed…to prevent risks to people’s lives and health.” The military parade was canceled after the state Security Service said they uncovered a plot by extremists in Kharkiv to set off explosions during the day’s public events.
The Security Service of Ukraine recently arrested extremists in the city, who allegedly planned to disrupt May 9 celebrations. On May 8, a shootout at a checkpoint near Luhansk left one person dead.
A May 11 referendum is also scheduled for the eastern city, which is even closer to the Russian border than Donetsk.
On April 30, news agencies reported that President Putin would visit Crimea after celebrating Victory Day first in Moscow, but no further plans have been announced. It would be his first visit to the Black Sea peninsula since it was annexed by Russia this March.
In 2010, Ukrainian and Russian sailors marched together in the port city of Sevastopol to commemorate the 65th anniversary of Victory Day. It seems unlikely that members of the Ukrainian military, if any are left in the region, will be joining in this year.
UPDATE, May 9, 11:21 AM EST: President Putin has arrived in Sevastopol, Crimea.
Meanwhile, heavy fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists has been reported in the southeastern city of Mariupol. The number of fatalities is unconfirmed.