Why Kiev's efforts to control Odessa could backfire (+video)

Ukraine's interior minister announced it has sent a new police unit, involving 'civilian activists,' to bolster security in Odessa after a deadly weekend that left at least 40 dead.

By , Staff writer

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    Ukrainian police officers remove shields which their comrades from another unit laid down earlier outside the police headquarters in Odessa, Ukraine, Sunday, May 4, 2014.
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The Ukrainian interim government announced it is deploying special police forces to Odessa due to the local police's inability to keep order after a weekend of violence between pro-Russia and pro-Kiev rioters in the city. But the move is likely to play into the fears of pro-Russia Ukrainians, given their rhetoric over "fascist" government interlopers in local affairs in the restless south and east of the country. 

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced that the "Kiev-1 police battalion" – which he says incorporates "citizen activists" – has arrived in Odessa, Ukraine's third largest city and a major trading port, The Washington Post reports.

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The move came in response to the local police's release of 67 pro-Russia detainees, ceding to the demands of militants who attacked a police station this morning. The detainees had been seized by police in response to running violence between pro- and anti-Kiev marchers over the weekend, which culminated in a deadly fire in Odessa's trade union building, killing more than 40 pro-Russia supporters, according to Reuters. The New York Times reports that the fire appeared to be set by a pro-Ukrainian mob, made up in part by nationalist soccer hooligans, who sang the Ukrainian national anthem as the building burned.

Kiev's move underscores the lack of control that the interim government wields over the country, both in the east, where it has deployed troops against pro-Russia rebels in the city of Slovyansk, and now in the south. In both regions, local police and government have shown limited willingness to comply with Kiev's orders. As such, it is not surprising that Kiev would deploy a new police unit with unquestioned loyalty to the government.

The Christian Science Monitor reported last week that Kiev also appears to be encouraging the creation of local loyalist militias in eastern Ukraine, including one near the town of Krasnoarmiss’k. And in March the Monitor reported on mass recruitment in Kiev's Maidan, a hotbed of political activism, for a Ukrainian national guard that could act as auxiliary soldiers or police. 

But the decision to send a "civilian activist" police force to Odessa appears particularly tone deaf to the fears of pro-Russia partisans in the east and south. Bolstered by the messages promulgated by Russian state television, many view the Western-backed interim government in Kiev as a tool of "fascists" and street thugs. The chief boogeyman is the ultranationalist group Right Sector, which – along with many other less radical Ukrainians on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan – helped topple the Russia-leaning government of Viktor Yanukovych in February.

Though the far-right elements in both the Maidan movement and in Kiev's interim government are proportionally quite small, a police force from Kiev that includes "civilian activists" will likely be framed as "fascist" interlopers. The result could be to heighten local will to resist and potentially worsening the problem the unit was meant to solve.

The chaos in Odessa comes as the Ukrainian military appears to be succeeding in its campaign against pro-Russia rebels in Slovyansk. BBC News reports that the militants are retreating into the city ahead of an Army offensive, which has retaken a rebel-occupied TV tower in the suburbs. Mr. Avakov said that several Ukrainian troops have been killed in the fighting, though no reliable casualty figures are available for either side.

Germany's foreign minister said on Sunday that he is pushing for a new round of Geneva talks – involving Kiev, Russia, the European Union, and the United States – to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in Ukraine, Reuters reports. The Kremlin said separately that in talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two leaders stressed the importance of "effective international action" to reduce tension.

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