Ukrainians give NATO war games a cold reception

A series of military exercises organised by NATO are getting under way along Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. But the so-called ‘sea breeze’ war games will be met by anti-NATO protesters, who have gathered in force in Odessa

The summer season is in full swing in the Black Sea resort of Odessa in southern Ukraine. Thousands of holidaymakers crowd the streets and beaches to enjoy the sunshine and the water.

But others have come for a different reason.

At the weekend, a group of around 30 people rallied in blazing heat opposite the local administration. They call themselves 'Rus' – a pro-Russian movement. They're protesting against what they describe as an unwanted guest – NATO.

The Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine went further, setting up camp near a military base – a venue for a joint NATO-Ukrainian military exercise called 'The Sea Breeze'. Several hundred people have camped out in the area, to once again make NATO officials see that some Ukrainians regard the alliance as an enemy.

But despite these efforts, it looks like the exercises are going to go ahead anyway. Over a thousand naval, ground, Para troop and special force personnel from 15 countries are in the city for what is being regarded as one of the biggest events of its kind on the Black Sea coast.

Before 2006, the military rehearsals were something many had got used to, but two years ago, things went wrong. Thousands took to the streets of the Crimean city of Feodosia in mass anti-NATO rallies. The protest eventually led to the exercises being cancelled that year. The driving force behind the protests was the pro-Russian Party of the Regions – Ukraine's most-popular party, which now sits in opposition in parliament.

This time, the party is restraining itself from mass acts of civil disobedience. And Vladimir Gennyk, leader of Odessa's nationalists, which support the government's intention to join the alliance, believes that's enough of a reason for pro-NATO movements not to stage any rallies in response this time.

Meanwhile, the Progressive Socialist Party says it will continue picketing the base until the war games are over. And many observers agree that, despite only having some 200 protesters at the camp, their intentions show how serious the NATO issue is for Ukraine.

The Sea Breeze war games have been held for more than a decade, but it’s only in the last three years that they has developed a broader meaning. Several opinion polls suggest that more than half of Ukraine's population would say no to joining NATO in a referendum. So what seems to be just a routine military training exercise is turning into another national disputes – a chance for political forces to reiterate their positions.