Ukraine has strengthened frontier defenses with Russia following Moscow’s seizure of Crimea but there is no sign of a major troop build-up in a region where some say they would welcome a Russian takeover.
On a day when a Ukrainian soldier became the first fatal casualty in the confrontation on the Black Sea peninsula, at the southernmost crossing between the two countries, where Ukraine dug anti-tank ditches this week, Kiev’s frontier guards were keen to play down the Russian threat and hope for the best.
“I think everything will be all right in the end,” said Sergeant Oleksy Romanenko, as he lifted a barrier to let in one of a slow trickle of cars arriving from Russia on Tuesday.
But despite President Vladimir Putin saying Moscow had no designs on regions of Ukraine beyond Crimea, tension persists.
Asked how he felt about possibly having to fight former Soviet allies who Ukraine’s president says are ready to invade, Romanenko said tersely: “We are ready to defend our country.”
Border defences have been strengthened by an anti-tank chicane of house-high concrete blocks, placed across the two-lane M14 highway that links the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and runs round the coast toward Crimea, 350 km (200 miles) west.
Mechanical diggers built a ditch and earthwork rampart stretching out several hundred metres on either side of the border post earlier this week. Officials have been keen to show it to media as a sign of their resolve to keep Russia out.
But along its remaining 2,000 km, the frontier is scarcely visible across the vast, rolling farmland of the steppe.
Apart from the border guards overseeing the customs post and checking documents, there was no sign of armed activity, even as Ukraine’s prime minister was saying the conflict had moved from a political to a military stage. Small detachments of military trucks and a few armoured vehicles have been seen by journalists moving in the area in recent days, but not large units.
The new authorities in Kiev are calling up recruits to an army they say was neglected under ousted, Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich. But Ukraine’s armed forces remain heavily outnumbered and outgunned by their Russian neighbours.