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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
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Ukraine's steel workers have launched a campaign to assist police in taking back territory from Russian-backed separatists. Rinat Akhmetov, one of Ukraine's oligarchs, owns a steel company, and on Thursday his workers  confronted the separatists in five cities. The New York Times reports:

Thousands of steelworkers fanned out on Thursday through the city of Mariupol, establishing control over the streets and banishing the pro-Kremlin militants who until recently had seemed to be consolidating their grip on power, dealing a setback to Russia and possibly reversing the momentum in eastern Ukraine.

By late Thursday, miners and steelworkers had deployed in at least five cities, including the regional capital, Donetsk. They had not, however, become the dominant force there that they were in Mariupol, the region’s second-largest city and the site last week of a bloody confrontation between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian militants.

Metinvest operates two steel plants in the city of Mariupol. The city has been the site of recent clashes between government forces and separatist gunmen. The New York Times reports:

Several dozen Metinvest workers in overalls and helmets cleared out barricades of rubbish and tires outside the Mariupol government building Friday. Trucks carried it away and by midday, the barricades were nearly gone.

"(Locals are) tired of war and chaos. Burglaries and marauding have to stop," said Viktor Gusak, one of the Metinvest employees cleaning the street.

A few hundred meters (yards) away, three men sat in the park cooking soup. One of them, unemployed Serhiy Atroshchenko, told the AP they were all that was left of Mariupol's pro-Russian separatist force.

"We were duped," Atroshchenko said. "Akhmetov used to keep his eyes closed (to what was happening), but now he decided to make a deal with Kiev authorities."

Despite the claims from Atroshchenko, however, there are reports that the steel workers have an agreement with both sides, and they are keeping the peace today -- without the typical shows of force.

So why are the separatists in retreat? Is it because they trust the steel workers to keep the peace without relying on the police? Is it because they feel outgunned by police? Has a deal really been signed between Akhmetov and both parties, or has Akhmetov simply backed Kiev while the separatists, at least in Mariupol, feel that they have no recourse but to cooperate with the steel workers? In all likelihood, it is a combination of some or all of these possibilities.

The fact remains that despite Russia's narrative, and the very vocal pro-Russian minority, polls consistently show that separatism is not popular at all in eastern Ukraine. The steel workers could simply be a formalized embodiment of that popular opinion. Will it work? It's too soon to tell, and many have questions Akhmetov's motives, so this is a story we will be watching very quickly.