On a bright Sunday morning in February, Ihor Rassokha was at a pro-Ukraine rally in Kharkhiv with a friend, the local scientist Igor Tolmachov.
Suddenly there was an explosion, Rossokha recalled, sounding like a firecracker at a football match. Everyone dropped to the ground but a splinter hit Tolmachov in the heart. He managed to run a few metres before falling over.
“I tried to resuscitate him although I could see the splinter sticking out of his chest,” said Rassokha, who only realised his friend was dead when the ambulance crews refused to load the body. Tolmachov was one of four people, including a police officer and a 15-year-old boy, killed that day. Dozens of others were injured.
The attack, which took place on the day marked by Orthodox believers as Forgiveness Sunday, was the most deadly of dozens of similar explosions in the Ukrainian cities of Kharkhiv and Odessa in recent months.
The violence has raised fears that the instability of the separatist war, largely contained to a pocket of eastern Ukraine, is spreading across the country.
Both Odessa and Kharkhiv are deeply divided along political lines, with large numbers opposed to the government in Kiev and in favour of closer ties with Moscow. Kharkhiv has seen an influx of at least 150,000 refugees from fighting in the east and is just a few miles from the Russian border. The Black Sea port of Odessa, which has deep historical and cultural ties with its neighbour, saw over 40 pro-Moscow activists killed during street battles last May.
Attacks in the two big cities have been directed at pro-Ukraine groups and the military, with targets including the premises of volunteer organisations, bars frequented by activists, military bases, banks, railway lines and even a flagpole.
Though there have been more than 40 blasts since last autumn, only five deaths have been confirmed. The bombers, who use crude explosive devices, seem to want to avoid large loss of life. Instead, they appear intent on destabilising the fragile political situation, intimidating pro-Ukraine groups and creating an atmosphere of fear.
The frequency of attacks has fallen recently after a recent wave of arrests by Ukrainian security services. But on 13 May a bomb exploded on a railway line on the outskirts of Odessa, narrowly missing an approaching passenger train.
“Sometimes you can sense the fear in the air … sometimes you feel something is coming; you feel the danger,” said Kateryna Roshchyna, who works for an NGO in Kharkhiv.
Responsibility for some of the blasts has been claimed by a shadowy group calling itself the Kharkhiv Partisans, which issues statements on YouTube and appears to be based in Russia. But the identity of those behind most of the attacks is unclear.
Ukrainian security services claim to have arrested attackers and seized weapons and bomb-making equipment. They have also released videos of confessions by alleged terrorists, who say they were paid for their services.
The country’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, has published a diary purportedly kept by a bomber in Odessa. The long and rambling text catalogues the amateur efforts of one terrorist cell, and openly discusses payments.
A 3 March entry describes the moments after one bomb was planted: “Igor is nervous and talking more than usual. Zhenya is also nervous and farting. I am shaking and munching on chocolate… Every second we expect the explosion and every second our hopes are fading and then: Bo-Boom. Hooray! We can relax. We haven’t caused significant damage, but we have shown there are people who care about the fate of Odessa.”
Odessans joke that the person used to carry this bomb was given a device set to Moscow time – an hour ahead
Pro-Ukraine activists believe the terrorists are financed and organised by Moscow’s security services, which run training camps in Russia and the breakaway region of Transnistria bordering western Ukraine. They say attacks are orchestrated from the Kremlin-backed self-proclaimed separatist republics in eastern Ukraine.
“They want to destabilise the region and show that the authorities cannot maintain security … we are fighting with Putin and the Kremlin,” said Dmitry Gumenyuk head of Odessa’s Maidan self-defence group. He retold a local joke about a man who is believed to have been killed when a bomb he was planting went off: “Odessans joke that the person used to carry this bomb was given a device set to Moscow time – an hour ahead!”
A protester in Kiev at a rally to demand government protection over the rapid depreciation of the currency. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP
An organisation known as Oberig, has been established in Odessa to collect information on terrorists and pressure the local security services to act. Members claim that the going rate to plant a bomb is $2,000, and that 90% of pro-Russia activists work for cash.
Pro-Russia political groups have been pushed out of public life with many activists fleeing Ukraine
Instability is not only linked to the explosions. Activists also point to political initiatives apparently sponsored from Russia. A group calling itself the Bessarabian Rada, claiming to represent a historical territory encompassing much of south-west Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova, held a founding meeting in Odessa recently. Their website was registered in Russia.
Three weeks later, Ukrainian security forces arrested 20 people allegedly planning to announce the formation of a Bessarabian Republic as a political entity.
Whatever Russia’s role, few deny that hostility towards the government in Kiev is growing in both Odessa and Kharkhiv, fueled by a sharp economic downturn, rising inflation and rocketing utility prices. Pro-Russia political groups have been pushed out of public life with many activists fleeing Ukraine out of fear of arrest, or assault. Posters calling on people to turn in “separatists” hang prominently in cities in southern and eastern Ukraine.
“When people with radical opinions are not allowed to speak of course they go underground,” said Artyom Buzila, a pro-Russia journalist in Odessa who was briefly detained by Ukrainian security forces last month.
No one in either Kharkhiv or Odessa think the explosions are likely to cease any time soon, pointing out that the relatively small death toll is only down to good fortune: bombs have been placed in residential areas and near gas pipes, and several were detonated in the early evening. Many draw comparisons with the sort of day-to-day terrorism associated with living in Israel.
Ukrainian poet Boris Khersonsky, whose own flat has been bombed, recounted a recent dinner with friends in Odessa. “The restaurant was full when suddenly there was the sound of what was obviously an explosion two blocks away. People raised their eyes, looked around and then went back to their food. Nobody ran away, there was no panic. We have already got used to it,” he said.
This article originally appeared at The Guardian