The supply of Russian weapons has turned the separatist-controlled territories into a real war theater. The population supports the insurgents because they promise to restore order and Soviet values. The region can rapidly turn into a new Transnistria.
Today the region is embroiled in war. Not everywhere, only in a triangle 200 km long on each side, with the corners of this triangle being the cities of Sloviansk, Donetsk and Luhansk.One month was enough for Donbas to change drastically. At the end of April there was only an anti-Maidan, that engaged in mass activities imitating the methods used by protesters in Kyiv, however, in this case to express distrust to the new government of the country.
Around 2-3 million people live in this triangle. The roads got deserted. Life has stopped. Most people do not go to work. They stay at home and try to protect their homes and families. The shops are open only a few hours a day. Food can be bought, water and electricity are available. Life goes on in spite of everything. But fear has crept into hearts. Everyone is looking for any sort of news and hopes that his house will not be struck by a shell.
A month ago, the majority of checkpoints on roads were controlled by civilians equipped with sticks in their hands. Now there are fewer roadblocks, but they are reinforced.. Abundantly armed young men in camouflage uniforms and balaclava masks oversee them.
Ukrainian army still controls the airspace and holds several strategic positions, particularly Karachun mountain where the Sloviansk TV tower stands, as well as Donetsk civil airport, a military airfield in Kramatorsk, and a number of important points on the roads. However, wherever the army stays, it is always in danger. Attacks occur all the time. The terrorists are equipped with modern man-portable anti-aircraft missiles that are very dangerous for helicopters.
A real war is done by professionals. At the moment, the backbone of the separatists is formed by experienced men who came from Caucasus or Russia. Local volunteers help them. Offensive actions are coordinated by the Vostok battalion that emerged as if out of thin air. The fighters can be identified by gray chevron. Who commands this battalion? No one knows.
I had a chance to see those guys in action on May 26 in Donetsk airport. They went on the offensive and tried to besiege the airfield using grenade launchers and individual weapons. It was very noticeable that men were not afraid of fire, moved under fire in jerks, knew how to hide in critical situations. and used their guns with dexterity, skill and expertise
The Ukrainian army that previously was often indecisive, trying not to hurt civilians, acted toughly during this siege. Airstrikes took out two KamAZ truckloads with reinforcements. Several days later, 34 coffins upholstered in red cloth were transported to Russia in a huge refrigerated truck with red crosses and code “200” painted on it, code 200 being used by Soviet military since Afghanistan to say “corpses”.
Ironically, our border guards let that truck out without any problems, despite the fact that it contained evidence of participation of foreign “volunteers in a war.” But no one thought that it would be worth keeping this evidence. This is what war is like…
The battle for the airport seemed to be the separatists’ way of challenging the newly elected president Petro Poroshenko. From now on, the gist of the conflict becomes clearer and clearer. The main point is to try to create a new Transnistria, unofficially supported by Russia, in order to enfeeble the Ukrainian state as long as possible. This new region could be called “Transdonbas,” or Bermuda Triangle, because it’s another black hole where anyone can now easily disappear as it has already happened to several OSCE groups.
Armed order kept by paramilitary groups dominates the region. However, alternative governance also tried to establish itself in each separate city. Coordination between these different structures is weak. Conflicts break out between the local separatist leaders, particularly, between Viacheslav Ponomariov, the self-proclaimed mayor of Sloviansk, and those who stay in the premises of the Donetsk RegionalOblast Administration.
I got a chance to witness one of these conflicts. Every day at 5 p.m. Ponomariov gives a press conference in the city hall turned into a bunker, with windows blocked with sandbags. Accompanied by armed men, he arrives in a blue armored Mercedes bearing the flag of Donetsk National Republic instead of license plates. Every day he reiterates that at the moment he is winning the war. A few days ago, when someone asked him to comment the decisions taken by the leaders of separatists in Donetsk, he literally exploded: “There are only liars sitting in the Administration! They have no right to speak on our behalf…”
That’s the atmosphere down there. Still, no point in kidding ourselves. Although the leaders of the revolt cannot find a common language and coordinate their actions poorly, they use the same terminology and represent the same political identity: they oppose the Kyiv “junta”, they are against the “putsh”, against the “fascists supported by NATO.” This movement has its own ideology that is about trying to revive the Soviet Union vs 2.0.
The separatists see themselves as the heirs of the soldiers of the “Great Patriotic War” [this is how Soviet historians called the Second World War – translator’s comment], they “have to resist the USA and Germany,” “neo-Nazis,” and “imperialists.” But that’s not all. They also want to restore “social justice” and set up the power of “people’s community.”
During the first weeks of the conflict, this Soviet dimension did not show through that much. However, today it is becoming increasingly clear. In Donetsk and Luhansk there are already “people’s courts” that punish the rebellious ones as well as secret police that was modestly called NKVD [Soviet abbreviation for People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, Communist secret police in Stalin’s times and predecessor of KGB– translator’s comment].
The rebels dream to once again nationalize the local economy and destroy the oligarchs. This explains a weak attempt to seize Rinat Akhmetov’s apartment in Donetsk. The locals destroyed several supermarkets and robbed a hockey stadium.
Therefore, we have a revenge of Donbas proletarians. In their opinion, for the last 20 years the “country was robbed.” Obviously, these people did not benefit from the changes. That’s why they hope to “seize from the rich what they stole the poor”.
The idea has found an eager audience in the local population. The brutality and chaos? It’s Kyiv’s fault. Ukrainian army is viewed as “a foreign power” that bombards civilians. “We are not terrorists, and they shoot at us,” they complain.
Olena sells dried fish at the market in Karlivka village, 30 km east of Donetsk. She says the same things as many others: “Yes, I voted at the referendum. And I did not go to the presidential elections. Kyiv is doing everything to divide people rather than to unite them.” She continues complaining: “We hardly survive. It’s hard to earn except for a crust of bread.”
There is a barricade built by separatists about 100 meters from the market. On May 23, there was a four-hour fierce battle taking place between the Donbas and Vostok batallions. A roadside cafe burned to the ground. The Donbas battalion, outnumbered by the separtatists, had fallen into an ambush and lost five soldiers. The Ukrainians failed to reclaim Karlivka from the separatists.
We drive down from the highway. Three kilometers away from here is Halytsynivka village, a collective farm in the past. The newest building here is the Karl Marx Palace of Culture. An antiquated tractor passes by, rumbling mercilessly. “Who controls the village? Kyiv or Donetsk?” we ask the tractor driver, a tall bare-chested man with straw hair and an Orthodox cross on his neck. “God knows,” he replies, after a minute of reflection.
Independent Ukraine looks like a distant reality from this place. But the “People’s Republic” of the separatists also seems to be an abstract idea. Like many others, this village is a no man’s land, neglected for the past 20 years. Who will conquer it? No one is able answer this question today.
Translated by Tanya Kononenko, edited by Alya Shandra