LONDON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Watching powerless from afar as the drama in their native country unfolds, expatriate Ukrainians are raising their voices in sometimes lonely protest and wondering what new surprises Russian President Vladimir Putin may have in store.
Russia’s effective seizure of Crimea, and its threat of further military intervention to protect Russian-speakers there and elsewhere in Ukraine, have confronted Kiev with its deepest crisis since it won independence from Moscow in 1991.
Putin has said that military force would be a last resort. But for Irina Dorosh, one of just a dozen protesters standing near British Prime Minister David Cameron’s office in central London one morning this week, his words offer little reassurance.
“The most urgent problem is the threat of war in Crimea,” said Dorosh, who has lived in Britain for 13 years and comes to Downing Street every day after dropping off her children at school.
“Putin is cunning, you can’t trust what he says. This could be the calm before the storm,” said the 35-year-old, her shoulders draped in a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.
The crisis came to a head last month when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled by mass protests. Russia denounced his overthrow as a coup and pro-Moscow forces took control of Crimea, a majority Russian-speaking region of Ukraine which serves as headquarters to the Russian Black Sea fleet.
Putin has reserved the right to use all options to protect Russians he says are living in “terror” in Ukraine. Ukraine and the West have rejected that assertion; the United States said on Wednesday there were no credible reports that ethnic Russians were under threat.
Dotted along a stretch of Second Avenue in New York City’s East Village, Ukrainian businesses and restaurants display handmade signs and poster boards demanding “Putin Hands Off Ukraine!”
“Anybody who tells himself Putin is not trying to build an empire is fooling himself,” says Yarko Dobriansky, 31, a server at Ukrainian restaurant Veselka.
Janna Deikan, a 46-year-old piano teacher who left Ukraine in 1990, is pinning her hopes on a robust response towards Russia from Europe and the United States.
“I think Russia is being aggressive. Ukraine is an independent country and its people spoke. The dictator Yanukovich has run to Russia. If everybody helps Ukraine, the EU, the U.S., I think things will be OK for Ukraine,” she said.
Outside a social club where Deikan meets fellow Ukrainians and recruits music students, a memorial with candles and flags has been erected, with a sign that reads: “In memory of those killed in Ukraine during the protests for freedom.”
Peter Polnyj, 68, runs a post of the Ukrainian American Veterans group in Brooklyn.
“I‘m here in America almost 64 years, my parents were born there, not too far from Kiev. My mother is very upset about it. She still has family in Kiev, in that area. I think basically all of this is that Vladimir Putin wants to take over and make it what it was way back when, Lenin and Stalin, all those happy fellows, had an empire,” he said.
Russia has accused the West of engineering Yanukovich’s overthrow - a view readily accepted by some expatriate Russians interviewed by Reuters - and described some of those who toppled the Ukrainian leader as “fascists” and “terrorists”.
Sitting outside an Orthodox church in London, Vasily, 65, visibly bristled when asked about the acting government in Kiev.
“They’re bandits supported by forces from the United States and cowardly European politicians,” he said.
Andrei, a Russian who works as a sales manager in Dubai, thinks Moscow is just defending itself. “We don’t want American missile bases to pop up next to our border,” he said.
Dimitri Yakovlev, 46, who has lived in Paris for two decades and runs a chauffeur service, is highly critical of European Union and U.S. threats to punish Russia.
“In my opinion, it is the West who helped topple Yanukovich. Everything was planned for a long time and now they want to impose sanctions on Russia, I do not see logic in doing this,” he said.
But Olga, a 29-year-old Russian history professor based in Paris, is less convinced by Moscow’s line that the anti-Yanukovich protesters on Kiev’s Maidan - or Independence Square - were mainly supporters of the far-right.
“I have many friends who are researchers in Kiev and who demonstrated on Maidan Square, and while, yes, there were some extremists, they were not the majority of people,” she said, declining to give her last name.
“I think the Russian government has been using them to make people believe that Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians needed protection from Moscow.”
“BROTHER AGAINST BROTHER”
While many older Russians regret the fall of the Soviet Union, an event that Putin himself has described as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, it is the loss of Ukraine that often rankles most.
Russia and Ukraine were united for hundreds of years, and the earliest Russian state was founded in Kiev. Regret at the breaking of those bonds shone through in several of the expatriates’ interviews, irrespective of the speakers’ attitudes towards Putin.
“We’re one people, though we’re now divided. How did it happen?” asked Vasily, the elderly Russian outside the church in London.
Avgustina, a 20-year-old from eastern Ukraine who studies in Poland but is working a three-month internship in the French ski resort of Meribel, told Reuters she did not expect to return home after university.
“I love Russia, my relatives live there, but it is all so sad,” she said. “Why should it be brother against brother?”
Additional reporting by Astrid Wendlandt in Paris, Olzhas Auyezov in Dubai and Maya Nikolaeva in Meribel, France; writing by Mark Trevelyan; editing by Giles Elgood