ODESSA, Ukraine — This is a surpassingly strange moment for the people of Odessa, the largest city on Ukraine's Black Sea coast. Outwardly, life couldn't be more normal. Smiling teenage girls stroll arm in arm, admiring the explosion of spring flowers. The myriad cafes and restaurants don't want for customers. And there is even a smattering of foreign tourists, come to admire the magnificent ensemble of 19th-century buildings.
Yet make no mistake: Odessa has a serious case of the jitters. Turn on the TV and you're likely to see Ukrainian politicians loudly accusing each other of treason, or railing at the government for its failure to respond to the mysterious gunmen who have taken over official buildings in the East. "Let's call things by their names: Ukraine is at war," one deputy declared during a live session from the parliament in Kiev on April 15. In Odessa itself, a pro-Russian demonstration on Sunday night turned violent: Some of the participants attacked the car of a TV crew and turned it over. Each day brings a new rumor about possible Russian intervention. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry is now calling upon Odessans to help dig trenches and install anti-tank barriers along the city's beaches, measures apparently designed to thwart a possible Russian amphibious landing. (The measure also evokes powerful psychological imagery of World War II, when spiky, steel "hedgehogs" were used to block German tanks.)
No one embodies this cognitive dissonance better than Vitaly Svychinsky, a 27-year-old independent businessman who also happens to be a passionate supporter of the Euromaidan movement that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych two months ago. Svychinsky and I met, at his request, at a McDonalds in the center of the city. No sooner had we taken our seats than his phone began ringing: "Yeah, exactly. 29 flak jackets. That's right. When do they arrive?" I barely had time to ask my first question when the phone rang again. This time, the call involved pistols. (Svychinksy insists that the only arms owned by the members of his organization are legal gas pistols that have been registered with the authorities.)
Svychinsky and his friends are part of the Euromaidan's "self-defense units." Yanukovych is gone, but now the activists are facing a new enemy in the form of "little green men," the strikingly well-armed, pro-Russian militants who continue to defy the Kiev government from their strongpoints in the East. Odessa, with its strategically crucial port and its proximity to the pro-Russian stronghold of Transnistria in the neighboring Republic of Moldova, could well be a tempting target for the forces of Vladimir Putin. So Svychinsky and his allies, who include pro-Ukrainian groups such as the nationalist Right Sector militia, are now preparing for the possibility that separatist insurgents could turn up in their city as well. (Svychinsky says that his own group consists of a mere 150 men, but insists that all those involved add up to a respectable force.)
Svychinsky and his friends -- consisting mostly of students and professionals, all with military backgrounds -- know that they aren't sufficiently well-equipped to withstand an assault by professional soldiers. Right now the self-defense units are armed only with helmets, shields (mostly wooden), and clubs -- "like your American baseball bats," Svychinsky helpfully explains.
In the event of trouble, the pro-Ukrainian militiamen plan to form cordons around key strategic points designated by a team of experienced military officers. In the case of the eastern city of Sloviansk, the attacking insurgents numbered just a few dozen, yet managed to carry out their mission nonetheless thanks to the lack of any organized resistance. The pro-independence Odessans hope that a well-coordinated response will enable them to hold off the attackers long enough to allow reinforcements to arrive.
It's a plan, to be sure. But the desperation behind it is thinly concealed. The very fact that civic activists feel compelled to improvise defense against a possible military assault reflects the devastating paralysis that has seized the Ukrainian state. The humiliation of the Ukrainian military during the Russian grab for Crimea, as well as the government's current failure to organize a credible answer to the insurgents in the East, dramatize the broader incapacity of the post-Soviet Ukrainian government: the result of two decades of rampant corruption, the cynicism and self-interest of a morally bankrupt political class, and enduring divides along lines of language, region, and religion.
Those problems are especially palpable in Odessa, where pro-Russian feeling is widespread. Long-running squabbles over the status of Russian in schools and in official documents have boosted the pro-Russia camp's sense of itself as a persecuted minority. The views of wide swathes of the public have been shaped by years of exposure to Russia's state-dominated media (which have now been banned by the Ukrainian government). And the city and provincial governments are still dominated by politicians from Yanukovych's pro-Russian Party of Regions -- one reason why Svychinsky and his friends don't expect the official security forces to come to their help at a moment of crisis.
Now, after all those years, even well-intentioned efforts at reform have a tendency to boomerang. Artem Fylypenko, head of the National Institute of Strategic Studies in Odessa (and a self-identified Maidan activist), notes that one of the first things the interim government promised after it took power was a fundamental reform of the deeply corrupt national police force -- a major reason, he says, why the police have been conspicuous by their absence during the insurgent takeover in the East: "It's clear that the police aren't going to defend a state that says it's going to cut their jobs. They're perfectly happy with the current system of total corruption." This is the moment, Fylypenko says, when the past two decades of governance failures have come back to haunt the nation.
There is a bright side. Somehow this messy, dysfunctional, and often disappointing Ukraine has also managed to win the loyalty of a surprising number of its citizens. Despite everything (including widespread distrust of the government in Kiev), polls show that some 70 percent of the population in Odessa still want Ukraine to remain a sovereign country, free from interference by outside powers. Some analysts assert that this loyalty seems to be especially strong within the regular army -- which does give hope that Svychinsky and his comrades-in-arms won't have to do the job on their own if push comes to shove.
ALEXEY KRAVTSOV/AFP/Getty Images