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Editorial columns

Associated Press
Pro-Russian activists break the glass of offices in Donetsk in the eastern Ukraine on Saturday.

Bloody draw in Odessa foreshadows chaos

The more than 40 people who died in Odessa on Friday have given pro-Russian Ukrainians and the propaganda machine in Moscow their martyrs, just as the protesters who brought down the government of President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year had their “Heavenly Hundred.”

Martyrs, however, resolve nothing. The killings mark a further step in Ukraine’s transition from a country wrested by its people from the grip of a corrupt dictator to chaos.

Just as the interim government in Kiev stepped up its “anti-terrorist operation” in the country’s eastern regions, moving armored vehicles and helicopters against the armed rebels who hold a number of small towns there, peaceful Odessa on the Black Sea was preparing to host a soccer game. The local club, Chernomorets, was to play Metallist from Kharkov. Before the game, both clubs’ fans agreed to march in the city center for Ukrainian unity.

The country’s nationalistic football fans were one of the driving forces of the winter revolution against Yanukovych. Even in eastern cities such as Kharkov, the fans hate Russia and violently oppose separatism. So when hundreds of local pro-Russian activists attacked the march, the more numerous soccer fans fought back resolutely. The final tally appears to be 46 dead and more than 100 wounded.

This account is filled with modifiers, because objective information is hard to come by. The best one can do is gather information from opposing sides and try to patch together a coherent picture.

In Ukraine, a single truth no longer exists. People believe what they choose. The official rhetoric from Moscow and Kiev is only marginally less extreme.

A Ukrainian operation to clear out rebel strongholds appeared to fail miserably, and whether Moscow controls the rebels is increasingly questionable. Reporters from the New York Times spent some time with a rebel company in Slavyansk and found it staffed by military veterans holding Ukrainian passports but feeling a strong affinity for Russia. Sergei Zdrilyuk, a man accused by Ukrainian intelligence of playing a key role in the rebellion, is a Ukrainian citizen who speaks the language fluently and denies ties to Moscow.

Police in the eastern regions, and in Odessa during the riots, have appeared reluctant to follow orders from Kiev. The Odessa force initially aided the pro-Russian rioters, though some of the latter ended up under arrest in the aftermath. On Sunday, all 67 detainees were freed by police, who said the regional prosecutor’s office had demanded it. The prosecutors denied issuing such orders, but the deed was already done. Kiev promptly appointed an out-of-towner as Odessa’s new police chief, but that will not change the fact that the demoralized force is unwilling to fight on either side.

Polls show that only a small minority of Odessa residents would like it to become a Russian city. Even in the more pro-Russian eastern regions, secession and a Russian invasion are not popular ideas. Putin knows that and is not sending in troops, even though the Odessa massacre gives him a plausible pretext to do so. He is not, however, willing to tell the pro-Russian rebels to lay down their arms, either: If he did so, nationalists within Russia would brand him a traitor and the rebels might refuse to stand down. If that happened, Russia would lose leverage in any talks on Ukraine’s future.

The game that started with the bloodless takeover of Crimea is now out of hand. People are dying, and both Putin and the Kiev authorities are powerless to stop the bloodshed. While one of my Kiev friends, a nationalist, went to Odessa to donate medical supplies to the wounded pro-Russians, many Ukrainians chose to say that the victims deserved to die. Sergei Petrenko, who runs the Ukrainian office of Russia’s biggest Internet company, Yandex, was among them, writing on Facebook: “People died after calling for violence for several months, provoking disturbances and coming out with foreign flags.” Petrenko, who opened the Yandex office in Odessa, deleted most of his comments from this thread, but the Russian media circulated screenshots. In the comment thread, another Yandex employee from the Moscow office vehemently opposed Petrenko’s stand.

In Odessa on Friday, Chernomorets and Metallist played to a 1-1 draw. In the Ukrainian mess, there can be no winners, either – and probably no diplomatic solution sponsored by any outside parties. Ukrainians will need more time, and probably suffer more pain, before they manage to sort out their allegiances and divisions by themselves.

Bloomberg View contributor Leonid Bershidsky is a Moscow-based writer.