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When Bob Burnham received word that his three daughters on their walk home from school were heading straight into a riot in Odessa, he jumped onto his bike and raced through explosions, gunfire, and columns of riot police.
Burnham found his daughters and their three friends shaken but unharmed and escorted them from clashes that quickly turned into Ukraine’s deadliest violence in months.
At least 42 people—mostly pro-Russian separatists—were killed May 2 in Ukraine’s third largest city, just west of the already annexed Crimea. As riots and a fire broke out, rumors spread that revenge could accompany Victory Day celebrations the following weekend. Local officials canceled parades and people stayed home, locking their doors during what is typically a large-scale celebration of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union in World War II.
Burnham, who works for Mission to the World, said Odessa, Ukraine’s largest Black Sea port, was like a “ghost town” following rioting. But in eastern Ukraine, separatist leaders used the Odessa tragedy, instigated by pro-Russian insurgents, as a reason to hold a referendum on May 11 and prove to the world that the region wants to break away from the “fascist government” in Ukraine.
Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said nearly 90 percent of the voters in the region chose secession, and he declared Donetsk a sovereign state that will soon ask to join Russia. Nearby Luhansk region claimed even higher numbers supporting autonomy.
But the West, including the United States, condemned the vote as illegal, and most Ukrainians stayed away from the polls.
“Our friends tell us no one they know actually voted in the referendum,” said Bob Beasley, an American who was in Donetsk teaching seminary courses with his wife Amy during the voting.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said there were reports of “carousel voting, pre-marked ballots, children voting, voting for people who were absent, and even voting in Moscow and St. Petersburg.” Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry called the referendum a “criminal farce” orchestrated by a “gang of Russian terrorists.”
According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, more than 70 percent of the population in the east wants to remain part of Ukraine and only 18 percent favors autonomy.
The conflicting numbers may keep Russian President Vladimir Putin from moving to annex Donetsk and Luhansk regions as he did in Crimea in March. But suspicions remain over the Kremlin’s intentions. Pro-Russian separatists remain in control of government buildings in roughly a dozen towns—potentially complicating Ukraine’s presidential elections scheduled for May 25—and the Kremlin has called for a civilized and “practical implementation” of the referendum results. Burnham said many also fear Putin will use the same tactics to take over the Odessa region.
With the illegal referendum, the European Union hit Russia with a new round of sanctions, adding 13 people to its list of Russians with visa bans and asset freezes. The sanctions still fall short of those imposed by the United States, underscoring Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and business.
Most people say they are going about their daily lives in Ukraine and aren’t afraid to walk the streets, despite the tension in the air. Still, Burnham said death is a common topic these days, and opportunities for ministry have grown: “Sometimes just walking with a brother in the midst of a trial, even without doing anything, is ministry.”
But concern is mounting that Ukraine will not be able to regain control of the east, eventually leading to Russian annexation that could bring loss of certain freedoms, particularly for Protestant churches with Western backing.
“From what we’ve seen in Russia and now in Crimea, there is a growing sentiment against churches that are not Russian Orthodox,” Burnham said. Russian law prohibits churches from meeting in buildings that aren’t designated as “churches,” which could create problems for congregations that rent buildings should Moscow’s meddling reach further into Ukraine.
“We hope and pray that what we are seeing now does not degenerate into civil war,” Beasley added. “There are some pretty aroused tempers.”