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Between Friends, Family And Country, Ukrainian Police Lie Low

Pro-Russian activists sit at a barricade at the regional administration building in Donetsk on Wednesday. Police have been conspicuously absent at Eastern Ukraine protest sites.
Efrem Lukatsky
Pro-Russian activists sit at a barricade at the regional administration building in Donetsk on Wednesday. Police have been conspicuously absent at Eastern Ukraine protest sites.

At occupied government buildings in eastern Ukraine, there is plenty of razor wire, sandbags and Molotov cocktails.

One thing is conspicuously absent, though — law enforcement.

When protests in Eastern Ukraine started on Sunday, police were everywhere.

The forces protecting a government building stood shoulder-to-shoulder in riot gear as protesters pounded on their shields. Protesters eventually broke through, taking over government buildings in three eastern cities.

But since then, law enforcement seems to have disappeared from the barricades.

In the city of Luhansk, a protester named Boris Daronin has a theory.

"The Luhansk police support the protest in their heart, because their families live in this region, just like us," he says. "But they just don't want to lose their jobs. That's why they act passively."

People on both sides of the debate agree that there's some truth to this. The ranks of the police are still full of people from the previous pro-Russian government, and many of them likely do sympathize with the demonstrators.

It's easy to find cops in the city and on the street, though none of them will grant interviews.

Ihor Todorov, an international relations professor at Donetsk National University, does not want to see Ukraine move closer to Russia.

"Sometimes you get the impression that the work of the police is at best a sabotage, and at worst, a betrayal," he says.

That reflects a widely held view of the police force. According to a recent poll by a think tank called the Razumkov Centre, only 20 percent of Ukrainians trust the police.

Ukrainian cops have a reputation for being deeply corrupt. Economist Alexei Ryabchin says Russian police officers have much better lives than Ukrainian ones.

"They earn more, they have much more responsibility, they have much more authority to act," Ryabchin says. Ukrainian police "consider maybe to join Russia, it would be a good idea."

Police here look at the protesters, and they see neighbors, friends and relatives.

When the government took back an occupied building in Kharkiv this week, the troops who performed the operation were special forces from another part of the country.

A YouTube video from Tuesday shows people in Kharkiv throwing rocks at a bus carrying riot police to the scene of the protests. Soon after, 70 demonstrators were arrested in what the government called an anti-terror operation.

But there may be also be very good reasons for the police in eastern Ukraine to remain inconspicuous. Ryabchin says these demonstrations are a tinderbox, and nobody wants them to explode — except maybe Russia.

"Lots of pro-Russian activists and basically Russian television is waiting to see casualties, to see provocation as a reason to put troops here," Ryabchin says. "So police are trying not to escalate the conflict."

This is also a very difficult time for cops on the front lines. Over the winter, police officers opened fire on pro-European demonstrators in Kiev's Maidan Square. The leaders who gave those orders were booted from government.

Now, the police who followed those orders are seen as villains, creating what a governor in eastern Ukraine calls "post-Maidan syndrome."

Police fear that the commanders who order them to shoot today may be out of power tomorrow.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.