- Associated Press - Thursday, March 20, 2014

ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine (AP) - The disheveled men barricading the muddy lane leading into a military facility in this eastern Ukraine town say they are making a stand to defend the region’s Russian-speaking majority.

In the nearby city of Donetsk, gangs of pro-Russian activists and Cossacks armed with sticks and bats have been storming one local government office after another, only to leave a short while later.

It looks a lot like Crimea.

But despite feeling or speaking Russian, many in these eastern regions still adhere strongly to their Ukrainian identity, so things could play out far differently.

Russia has been unable to achieve the rapid breakaway of eastern Ukraine and we are focused on a long-term scenario,” said Andrei Purgin, whose banned Donetsk Republic separatist group has been engaged in the seizure of public administration buildings.

Rumblings in the east began soon after last month’s ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, whose political strongholds lay mainly in the nation’s Russian-speaking Donbass industrial heartland.

The protests that brought about his downfall and paralyzed the capital, Kiev, were perceived by many here as ardent Ukrainian nationalism.

In truth, the monthslong protests on Kiev’s Independence Square were focused on a desire to fight corruption and strengthen ties with Europe. But when the new parliament that took center stage after Yanukovych’s overthrow moved to drop Russian as an official language, easterners’ worst suspicions and fears seemed to have been realized.

Although the new government quickly backed off that proposal, the damage had been done.

Police in a dozen cities across the Donbass - including Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lugansk - have struggled to thwart pro-Russian rabbles from seizing local government buildings in protest.

At the military facility in Artemivsk, several dozen pro-Russian activists, many of them wearing black leather jackets, intermittently formed a human cordon Thursday to stop vehicles from entering or exiting. They argue that blockading the facility would prevent the use of armed forces to quell popular discontent against the interim government.

“Power in Kiev has been seized by a junta that wants to speak to defiant people in eastern Ukraine with weapons and force. We will not allow this,” declared Sergei Varyuschenko, a 63-year-old businessman taking part in the endeavor.

Not unlike the encampment erected by protesters in Kiev’s main square, also known as the Maidan, pro-Russia activists in Artemivsk have pitched tents, installed an open-air field kitchen and burn wood in steel drums to warm themselves.

“We’ll show them Maidan. The east of Ukraine will live separately, by its own laws,” said Varyuschenko, who was spending his third day camping out.

For some, like 46-year-old Donetsk miner Anton Skachko, the disillusionment with Ukraine’s new government is about the economic consequences.

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