Russian weapons have transformed separatist-controlled territories into a battlefield. The locals support the rebels for promises of order and Soviet values. The region could quickly become the new Transnistria
It took one month for the Donbas to change completely. At the end of April, it hosted a mass protest, an Anti-Maidan, its participants imitating protesters in Kyiv while expressing protest against Ukraine’s new government.
Today, the region is witnessing a war. The action area is a triangle with around 200km on each side, around the cities of Sloviansk, Donetsk and Luhansk.
Between two and three million people live in this triangle. The roads are deserted. Life has ground to a halt. Most people do not go to work. By doing so, they are trying to protect their own homes and families. Shops are open for a couple of hours a day. It is still possible to buy food, there is water and electricity, and life goes on despite everything. But people live in fear. Everyone searches for any news and hopes that their buildings will not be hit with missile fragments.
A month ago, the vast majority of checkpoints on the roads were controlled by civilians with batons in their hands. There are fewer checkpoints now, but they have been fortified. They are manned by well-armed young men in camouflage and balaclavas.
The Ukrainian Army maintains control of the skies and holds several strategic positions, such as Karachun Hill, where the Sloviansk TV tower is situated, the civilian airport in Donetsk, the military airfield in Kramatorsk, and a number of significant spots on the roads. However, wherever it may find itself, danger is all around. There are constant attacks. The rebels have portable anti-aircraft missiles, which pose a great threat to helicopters.
A real war is a matter for professionals. Today, the backbone of the separatists is made up of experienced men from the Caucasus or Russia. They are helped by local volunteers. Offensive actions are conducted under the leadership of the Vostok (East) battalion, which seemed to appear from nowhere. Its fighters can be recognised by their grey chevrons. No one knows who this battalion is subordinate to.
Its members were seen in action on May 26 at the Donetsk Airport. They went on the offensive, trying to besiege the airport, using grenade launchers and individual weapons. It was obvious that the men are not afraid of fire. They move jerkily under bullets, are able to take cover in problem situations and skilfully use their submachine guns, indicating that they are used to operating these weapons.
The Ukrainian Army, which had often been indecisive in the past, trying not to injure the civilian population, acted strongly during this siege. The Air Force bombed two armoured KamAZ trucks. Within several days, 34 bodies, wrapped in red fabric, were transported to Russia in a huge refrigerated truck, painted with red crosses.
However strange it may seem, Ukrainian border guards allowed this truck to cross the border without any problems, even though it contained evidence of foreign “volunteers” participating in the war. But no one thought that it was worth holding it.
The battle for the airport seemed to be the separatists’ challenge to the newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko. The essence of the conflict is now becoming ever clearer: it is an attempt to organise a new Transnistria, unofficially supported by Russia, in order to weaken Ukraine for as long as possible. This new region can be called “Transdonbas” or even the “Bermuda Triangle”, because in essence, it is a new black hole, where anyone can easily disappear, as has already been the case with several OSCE groups.
Military order reigns in the region, under the leadership of paramilitary formations. However, an alternative authority has also tried to establish itself in every town, trying to claim key positions. Coordination between these different structures is weak. Conflicts are constantly flaring between local separatist leaders, particularly between Vyacheslav Ponomariov, the self-proclaimed Mayor of Sloviansk, and those who are currently occupying Donetsk Oblast State Administration offices.
The author of this article actually witnessed one of these conflicts. Ponomariov holds a press conference every day at 5 p.m. in the city hall, which has been converted into a fortress, with sand-bagged windows. He arrives in an armoured blue Mercedes, with the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic instead of the license plate, flanked by armed “guards”. Every day, he reiterates that he will win the war right now. Several days ago, when asked to comment on decisions made by separatist leaders in Donetsk, he literally exploded: “The Administration is filled with liars! They have no right to speak on our behalf...”
This is what the atmosphere is like. However, there is no point in having any illusions. Although the leaders of the rebellion cannot find a common language and badly coordinate their actions, they use the same terminology and represent one political identity: they speak against the “junta” in Kyiv, against the “putsch” and against “the fascists supported by NATO”. This movement has its own ideology, which lies in the effort to revive a new version of the Soviet Union.
The separatists see themselves as the successors of the soldiers of the “Great Patriotic War”, who “must oppose America and Germany”, “Neo-Nazis” and “imperialists”. They also want to revive “social justice” and establish the rule of “people’s communities”.
In the first weeks of the conflict, this Soviet dimension was not particularly noticeable. Today though, it is becoming more obvious. “People’s courts” have already appeared in Donetsk and Luhansk that punish those who do not toe the line, as has a secret police force, which has modestly been called the “NKVD”.
The rebels dream of nationalising the local economy once more and destroying the oligarchs. This is where the indecisive attempt to seize Rinat Akhmetov’s apartment in Donetsk stems from. Locals smashed up several supermarkets and robbed the hockey stadium.
So, what we see is the revenge of the Donbas proletariat. In their view, the past 20 years have seen the “plundering of the country”. These people obviously gained nothing from the changes. For this reason, they hope to “confiscate from the rich that, which was stolen from the poor”.
The discourse finds a grateful listener among the local population. Brutality and disorder? Kyiv is at fault. Here, the Ukrainian Army is seen as a “foreign force”, which bombs local residents. “We are not terrorists, but we are being shot at,” the locals complain.
Olena sells dried fish on the market in the village of Karlivka, 30 km east of Donetsk. You can hear the same from her as you would from many others: “Yes, I voted in the referendum, but not in the presidential election. Kyiv is doing everything possible to divide, rather than unite people.” She continues her complaints by saying: “We can barely drag out a miserable existence. Just about all we can get for our hard work is a crust of bread.”
The barricade built by separatists is about 100 metres from the market. There was a desperate battle here on May 23, between the Donbas and Vostok batallions. The roadside café-restaurant burned to the ground. Having fallen into an ambush and without an advantage in numbers, the pro-Ukrainian Donbas battalion lost five of its fighters. Ukrainians were unable to retake Karlivka from the separatists.
We are turning off the highway. 3 kilometres away is Halytsynivka, a former kolkhoz. The newest building here is the Karl Marx Palace of Culture. The engine of an ancient passing tractor bangs mercilessly. We ask the tractor operator, a huge guy, naked to the waist, with straw-coloured hair and an Orthodox cross on his chest: “Who controls the village? Kyiv or Donetsk?”. “God only knows,” he responds, after a minute of thought.
From this road, independent Ukraine seems to be a distant reality. But the separatists’ People’s Republic is also something abstract. Just like many others, this village is a no man’s land, which no one really turned their attention to in the last 20 years. Who will win it? No one can answer this question today.
In the first weeks of the conflict, this Soviet dimension was not particularly noticeable. Today though, it is becoming more obvious. “People’s courts” have already appeared in Donetsk and Luhansk that punish those who do not toe the line, as has a secret police force, which has modestly been called the “NKVD”