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Bored at the border

Roman Goncharenko, eastern Ukraine / jrb
March 6, 2014

Tens of thousands of refugees are in line at Ukrainian-Russian border crossings, according to Russian television. But a DW reporter found no such crowds and a much more mundane reality at two crossings.

Hoptiwka border crossing
Image: DW/R. Goncharenko

Anton only needs 30 minutes to reach the Russian border from his home in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, the country's second largest city. He often makes the 80-kilometer (50-mile) trip to Belgorod for business. The Ukrainian doesn't need a visa for Russia; he just needs to show his passport at the border.

"My wife and I have an account with a Russian bank," said the 40-year-old, who works as an independent IT expert. And he admitted there is often another reason for his trips to Russia: cheap gas. One liter costs about 60 euro cents ($0.83) in Belgorod, compared to 1 euro ($1.38) in Kharkiv.

Since Russia has essentially occupied the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, Anton only drives to Russia when he has to. "The Russians have gone mad," he said, requesting that his full name not be published and no photo taken. He said that he sees Moscow's latest moves as a declaration of war on Kyiv and that Russia is trying to use force to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence.

No sign of refugees

The hilly road to the Russian border crossing passes through some villages where both Russian and Ukrainian flags line the street, together with a string of cafés. "These have always been a welcoming gesture," Anton said smiling. "There is no evidence that people here want to become part of Russia."

Anton said he doesn't believe the Russians will invade Kharkiv as they have Crimea. But he doesn't completely rule out the possibility, since many ethnic Russians live in eastern Ukraine.

Grenzübergang Hoptiwka bei Charkiw
All quiet at the Hoptiwka border crossing near KharkivImage: DW/R. Goncharenko

By Ukrainian standards, the street to the Russian border is in nearly perfect condition, with hardly any potholes. Local residents are quickly cleared at the border crossing, called "Schurawljowka."

There is no sign of the tens of thousands of refuges reported by Russian television. The road is nearly empty, with only the occasional car passing by. The person in charge of the Ukrainian border control, a major in his late twenties, laughed about the Russian broadcasts.

"There is no flood of refugees here," he said, adding that there also is not any Russian military presence.

Just a few days earlier, however, Russia held a huge military maneuver close to the Ukrainian border, according to Anton. "Belgorod was full of soldiers," he said.

Quiet border crossings

No tanks or military vehicles can be seen on the Ukrainian side of the border. But there are more personnel at the border crossing, according to the major. "We have twice as many customs officials as normal," he said, citing the Sochi Olympic Games as the reason.

Anton pointing to Ukrainian guards carrying Kalashnikovs. "That' different," he says.

Anton drives on to the next border crossing, "Hoptiwka," only a kilometer away. No refugees are to be found there, either. The street is so quiet that one wonders whether it's really one of the main arteries between Russia and Ukraine. Hardly any people are present, and only a few dogs run around on the multi-lane road.

Hoptiwka border crossing
And the Hoptiwka border crossing is just as quietImage: DW/R. Goncharenko

A young couple, is at a bus stop. They're Russians from Kursk, both in their mid-twenties. They've just crossed the border and are waiting to take a bus to Kharkiv. "There won't be war between Russia and Ukraine," the young woman said. She went on to call the Russians in Crimea "helpers of the Russian population." The Ukrainian government in Kyiv has called the troop "occupiers."

Anton, who has been to the Maidan, Kyiv's central Independence Square, was amazed by the woman's comments about the political events in the city. "The people in Kyiv are demonstrating for money," she said, politely adding that they had been given "drugs mixed in their food" in order to use violence against the police.

'Nonsense to wage war'

"It's unbelievable how Russian television has brainwashed people," Anton said later.

When the Ukrainian customs officials hear the word "war," they shake their heads. They're finishing their shift and want to return to Kharkiv.

"It would be nonsense to wage a war here," one man said. "There are people on both side of the border who are related to each other. How can they be expected to shoot at each other?"

That's the same question Ukrainian border guards asked themselves in a small canteen at the Hoptivka border crossing. Next to the canteen is an old café called Crimea, named after the Ukrainian peninsula.

"Crimea doesn't exist anymore - it's been abandoned," a woman said of the café. But the soldiers can't help but laugh.

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