ODESSA, Ukraine — Ukrainian physics professor Ludmila Zalyubinska rubbed dirt and tears out of her eyes Monday after being pelted by pro-Russian demonstrators who'd occupied the front steps of the Odessa regional administrative building.
"We're face to face with our enemies here," Zalyubinska said, gesturing to several hundred Russian nationalists who vowed not to let any lawmakers out of the building until they vote to hold a referendum on whether Odessa should become an autonomous region of Ukraine. The regional government of Donetsk voted for a similar measure Monday.
Like others watching the sometimes violent scene on the administrative building steps, she worries that Russian nationalists burning Ukrainian flags, chanting slogans and erupting into shoving matches with their opponents are trying to create a pretext for Russia to move into Odessa like it did last week in Crimea.
"Putin is crazy and these people are really radicals," said Zalyubinska, who was standing opposite the pro-Kiev crowd near two men who held handmade signs that said "Odessa is a Ukrainian city" and "We don't need Russian help."
Demonstrators Monday were far fewer than the estimated 10,000 that marched in Odessa Sunday urging "no to war" and "no to Russia," said Andrew Bondrenko, who watched the pro-Russian crowd with concern. "We want to live like we want – we don't want Putin," he said referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Odessa is a gritty port city with road chocked with potholes and whose cars and buildings are splattered with mud from recent rains. Its Black Sea economy depends a lot on tourism, but if Russian troops occupy the province "nobody else will come here," Bondrenko said.
It is also the home of two warm water ports on the Black Sea and a major railway hub that links oil pipelines from Russia and Europe, and home to the Ukrainian navy. During the days of the Soviet Union, the end of which Putin has called a great tragedy, Odessa was the communist nation's largest seaport.
That fact has people here worried that Moscow may be encouraging pro-Russian mobs to provoke violence so Putin can use it as an excuse to invade.
As Bondrenko spoke, a line of police with sticks stood between him and raucous crowd dominated by men wearing black jackets, watch caps and combat boots. A line of pro-Russian activists linked arms on the front steps. Behind them, holes gaped in the front doors to the administrative building where demonstrators had smashed the glass earlier in the day.
Russian reporters and camera people milled through the crowd documenting emotional shoving confrontations, shoving matches and then cheering as the Odessa regional flag and Russian flag were hoisted up the flag pole. Several people in the crowd carried Russian Orthodox crosses and large flags of their own depicting images of Soviet-era Socialist dictator Joseph Stalin. And they held signs proclaiming "Odessa is a Russian city."
About half of Odessa residents speak Russian as their first language. Putin has said Russia may need to send troops into Ukraine to protect Russia's interests and ensure the security of ethnic Russians in the country.
Anton Davidchenko, leader of the National Alternative movement, which seeks closer ties to Russia, addressed the crowd in a rousing manner demanding the vote on the referendum even after lawmakers adjourned without voting on it.
"We'll stay here until the end," Davidchenko said. "We don't let anyone out of the building until they vote."
The crowd responded with chants of "today, today" and "Russia we are waiting for you."
Around the side of the building, a line of men in black masks and bearing black and orange striped flags blocked the side exits.
Vadim Marushevsky, 31, who said he supported and sometimes joined the demonstrations in Kiev that led to last month's ouster of Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovch, said the pro-Russian demonstration looked staged.
"It doesn't look natural because it's Monday," he said.