KLUSY, Ukraine – On the hill just beyond the border gate, where the road turns from Ukrainian asphalt into Russian dirt, the border patrol was too busy flirting to pay much attention to the crisis dividing these longtime neighbors.
The Russian guards, who work out of two white cars for lack of an actual post, had just greeted the only person interested in crossing from the Ukrainian village this afternoon, and it was clear that the young villager had no intention of going any farther into Russia than where she was standing.
On the Ukrainian side, the camouflaged guards note, disapprovingly or perhaps with envy, that the black-clad Russians “have automatic weapons in their cars.” It’s an unfair advantage, they said, as a shriek of laughter erupted from Russia. If there’s tension at this border crossing, it isn’t about international affairs.
While Russians and Ukrainians stare through gun sights at each other in Crimea, where Russian troops have taken control, the border between the countries here remains decidedly un-militarized.
Border was irrelevant
Before the recent crisis, the border divided a single community, not two nations that might go to war.
Aleksandra Mavlov, who was 2 years old when the Nazis arrived in 1941, has children and grandchildren in villages on both sides of the divide. She grew up with tales of how the Germans rolled in and burned the village to the ground; she remembers the look of the flames. She also remembers that it was the Russians who came to their aid.
“They saved us,” she said. Children who came over earlier from Russia relaxed in the family’s side yard while her husband tore a newspaper into small rectangles and used one to roll a cigarette. “We don’t want war. We want to go on living the way we have lived.”
If Russia succeeds in annexing Crimea, the reaction in this piece of these nations will be heartbreak, as well as family and economic hardship.
In nearby Shchors, the largest town in the area, with about 11,000 people, Mayor Roman Zub explained that since protests began in Kiev in November, and certainly since the Russian troops movements in Crimea, his town has changed.
It’s common on a Sunday afternoon to see Russian license plates filling the parking spaces in front of local grocery stores.
“Food is cheaper here in Ukraine, so Russians come here to shop in normal times,” he said. “And gas is cheaper in Russia, so we go there. Right now, we stay on our own sides.”
That isn’t to say that Shchors remains neutral. A mammoth Lenin statue stands in the center of town, for decades reminding some of the good old days of the Soviet Union. But now residents are talking about tearing it down.
Defense force is unarmed
A volunteer civil defense force has formed to watch out for Russian provocateurs and stop them before they can make mischief. It now has 35 members. They wear fatigues and patrol on foot and in cars, unarmed except for cellphones.
Mayor Zub noted that they haven’t stopped, or seen, any problems yet. And he admits he hopes that if such things do happen, they happen in Kiev, about 125 miles west. His town, he said, has enough trouble dealing with trash collection. In fact, while leading a visit to the border, he can’t help but point out illegal trash dumping.
“War, this is a matter for powerful men and national capitals,” he said. “But we will remain on watch, just in case.”