DONETSK: Pro-Russian militants who have overrun public buildings in more than a dozen towns in eastern Ukraine have encountered little resistance from police, prompting Kiev to level charges of law enforcement "inaction" and "treachery".
But for many of the low-paid officers ordered to confront insurgents and large crowds by a distant government they don't trust, the real issue is one of mixed loyalties.
As a result, when the rebels come knocking, often the police are not even there to put up a fight.
Or, as in the city of Lugansk this week where a squad of riot police found themselves hemmed in by crowd of 2,000, they find themselves overwhelmed.
In a rare successful defence, a hardy group of interior ministry officers later managed to prevent Lugansk's regional police headquarters falling to the armed insurgents. But there was a price to pay: their superior had to bow to the crowd's demand for his resignation.
In most areas though police have just stood aside while buildings were occupied. Kiev has reacted by dismissing police chiefs, deepening the sense of grievance nursed by officers.
The inaction has also given rise to the impression that law enforcement forces support the pro-Russian militants.
"It's simple," Sergei Harmash, an activist in the city of Donetsk in favour of Ukrainian unity, told AFP. "Most police in the region back the separatists.
"They share their ideas. The ranks of the pro-Russians include several ex-policemen and soldiers, they all know each other and are sometimes even related. And even when that's not the case, they are waiting to see which side will end up in power."
A reluctance to intervene led to fourteen pro- Ukraine demonstrators being badly wounded on Monday, when a march in Donetsk was attacked by pro-Russian thugs wielding knives, bricks and bats.
The riot police meant to protect the rally let the militants through and only half-heartedly moved to try to stop the beatings.
"When we get set upon, we contact the police. They write down the complaint and then do absolutely nothing," Harmash said. "They have the resources to stop them or to protect us but they choose not to."
In the town of Torez, south of Lugansk, where a flag of the self-declared "People's Republic of Donetsk" hangs over the town hall, rebels said the police are cooperating with them.
"We are working very well with the police here. We are working together to stop the fascists and criminals from Kiev coming here," said the local rebel chief who gave only his first name, Vladimir.
For Vadim Karasev, an analyst at the Kiev-based Institute for Global Strategy, "security officials in the eastern regions don't want to defend the central government. They don't consider them as 'their' authorities."
Many police officers from the east were sent to Kiev when street protests against the Kremlin-backed then-president Viktor Yanukovych started to gather pace last November. They were told then that the pro-EU demonstrators were their enemy.
Yet the government installed after Yanukovych fled the country in February is derived, in part, from that protest movement.
That has left eastern officers confused -- and bearing the blame for the brutal violence used to try to repress the protests, which included shooting into the crowd.
But Karasev said a more basic motivation could also be persuading police in the east to side with the pro-Russian militants.
"According to available information, some 'emissaries' recently offered them a salary of $200-$300 (150-210 euros) more than they have now for joining the Russian side," he said.