Fifteen months into Ukraine’s bitter conflict, some have begun to hope that the region’s first effective ceasefire just might turn into a longer peace.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, who says he has worked “every day and night” of those 15 months, is not ready to dream just yet. “This is not the end of the war, but instead a change in tactics,” he told The Independent in a rare interview. “We know where the Russians and their proxies are still hiding their weapons, their tanks and their artillery – for now the order has been given to cease fire, but for how long?”
Though the ceasefire has held for two weeks, other conditions of February’s Minsk agreement have not yet been met. Meanwhile, Ukraine says it has drawn up its own “red lines” in collaboration with its Western partners. Among them is full and immediate access to rebel-held areas for international monitors, Mr Poroshenko said. Failure to deliver on these conditions would put the entire peace plan at risk, “with clear consequences – and sanctions” for the Russian side. Mr Poroshenko was adamant that “fake” elections in separatist-controlled areas, currently planned for October and November, would draw such a response.
Another “red line” for the Ukrainians is the release of 11 Ukrainian “political” prisoners currently held in Russian prisons. Only two weeks ago, the Crimean film director Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 23 years’ imprisonment for “terrorist activity” in what was a highly dubious trial. Mr Poroshenko said Mr Sentsov’s only crimes were “to be Ukrainian” and “to be proud of it”.
Over the weekend, The Independent learnt from the hostage negotiator Vladimir Ruban that the Russians had supposedly offered to exchange Mr Sentsov and co-defendent Oleksander Kolchenko for two Russian servicemen captured by Ukraine near Luhansk in July. When asked, Mr Poroshenko denied that such an offer had been made, but added that it was wrong to equate “unarmed, innocent Ukrainian heroes” with “armed, aggressor troops” captured on Ukrainian soil. Mr Poroshenko may well be waiting for a more opportune time to exchange the soldiers.
There is no official direct diplomatic communication between Russia and Ukraine. Instead, the main negotiating channels remain four-way meetings, held in conjunction with French and German mediators. The next head of state meeting is due on 2 October.
Some reports have suggested Mr Putin has begun to take a more emollient tone in phone calls, but Mr Poroshenko was quick to dismiss any suggestion that personal relations between the two leaders might have improved significantly. “There will never be friendly relations while Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are killed by Russian weapons”, he said. “Ukraine has implemented every tiny part of the Minsk agreements, and Russia is only just beginning.”
In truth, Ukraine has itself yet to fulfil the most contentious provisions of Minsk, such as re-establishing financial relations with the separatist territories.
And attempts earlier this month to pass constitutional amendments to give more powers to the rebel-held east, in line with Minsk, ended explosively, when a live grenade was thrown at parliament. Three national guardsmen were killed, and a further 138 injured.
Mr Poroshenko claims pro-Russian elements operated alongside “hostile local oligarchs” to engineer the violence that day. “We know that 1,100 of the 1,500 protesting in front of parliament were bussed in,” he says. The attack represented a “shift in Russian tactics”, pivoting away from the eastern front towards Kiev itself. Mr Poroshenko believes Russia is trying to destabilise Ukraine “from the inside”.
The second-biggest threat to Ukraine comes not from Russia, but from the country’s oligarchs, Mr Poroshenko believes. While one of his election promises was to temper the power of the oligarchs, he has come under fire for failing to dispose of his own assets. He says the market “isn’t right” for a sale and insists his government is undertaking a “serious attempt” to limit the control of oligarchs.
Over the weekend, his ally, the governor of Odessa region, Mikheil Saakashvili, went further to suggest a small number of oligarchs now effectively “own and operate a shadow government in Ukraine”. In several attacks last week, Mr Saakashvili also created a storm by linking the Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to “attempts to obstruct reform” and “acting in the interests of oligarchs”. Mr Poroshenko declined to comment on the allegations, but noted Mr Saakashvili retained his support.
Mr Saakashvili’s populist, anti-corruption style has proved popular and there had been speculation that Mr Poroshenko might invite the native Georgian to replace the increasingly unpopular Mr Yatsenyuk. Received wisdom is that the President is unlikely to appoint the maverick reformer this side of local elections. Nonetheless, an online petition demanding Mr Saakashvili be installed as Prime Minister has already garnered the support of some 25,000 Ukrainians.
So does Mr Poroshenko see the swashbuckling governor as a future Prime Minister? “Absolutely, he’ll make a great Prime Minister,” answers the President. “Of Georgia.”
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GENEVA, Switzerland — One evening in late October, the skies above Dnipropetrovsk whirled with the sound of helicopters. Below, armored vehicles and a 500-strong SWAT team moved in assault formation. Even by Ukrainian standards, it was a dramatic scene. As he was dragged from his doorstep, the target of the exaggerated raid — the businessman-turned-politician Hennadiy Korban — seemed as shocked as anyone. Regardless of what he might have done, it just wasn’t how things were done in Ukraine.
Korban was airlifted away, first to Chernihiv, a provincial town north of Kiev, and then to the capital itself. His allies immediately cried foul, claiming political persecution. Prosecutors responded, after some delay, with an official explanation. The operation was “part of an ongoing battle with organized criminal groups,” they said. Korban was responsible for “kidnappings” and the “misappropriation of donations given for the frontline.”
A self-styled “conflict manager” who made his name in Ukraine’s ultraviolent 1990s, Korban could hardly profess moral purity. But claims of selective justice from a politically motivated prosecutor’s office rang too true, and Korban’s plight attracted support from quarters not ordinarily sympathetic to him.
It was, after all, no secret that Korban’s boss — the spiky, potent billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky — was in serious conflict with the country’s president, Petro Poroshenko.
* * *
On the day of Korban’s arrest, Kolomoisky was 2,000 kilometers away at his lakeside apartment in Geneva. The billionaire slept, as he says he always sleeps, a full night, waking untroubled at 10 a.m. He learned of Korban’s arrest four hours after the event.
“I live my life to my own rhythm and take a fatalistic view of everything,” he says. “If things happen, they happen.” Kolomoisky was not the only person unaware of the operation. Several members of the government, including the prime minister, were deliberately kept in the dark.
Kolomoisky is a complicated and provocative character; a complete contrast to the anodyne bling of the lobby bar at Geneva’s President Wilson hotel, where this interview takes place. Almost without noticing, Kolomoisky switches between a sharp business brain and hotheadedness, between the most courteous European manners and expletive-laden tirades.
Behind one shoulder are the paradisiac vistas of the Wilson Quay and Lake Geneva, a suitable backdrop for a Bond movie. Behind the other is a Christmas tree constructed entirely from fluffy, white teddy bears. Kolomoisky’s rounded build and white beard, since shaved, complete the seasonal look.
The oligarch begins in conciliatory mode. His associate’s arrest was “the predictable result of the country’s war effort,” he says. Everyone was a patriot: Korban was a patriot, Poroshenko was a patriot, and Kolomoisky was a patriot.
Korban had broken some rules. He said things he shouldn’t have said — probably. He didn’t know his place in “the hierarchy of power” at a time of war — sure. He was insubordinate — of course. Then again, some wounds ran deep. Korban had spent most of last year fighting separatism on the frontline, and there were serious differences of opinion about military tactics. He had strong feelings about the crushing reverse inflicted at Ilovaisk last summer, where several hundred Ukrainian soldiers were wiped out in a Russian-led ambush.
In the days following Korban’s arrest, Ukrainian media looked for signals from Kolomoisky about how he was intending to play out the crisis. Several commentators sensed the oligarch was somehow attempting to distance himself from his junior partner. This is his position today — or initially at least. Korban was “independent,” Kolomoisky says, and any idea of him being “my man” was “journalistic parrot talk.”
Kolomoisky’s assertion of being an entirely neutral bystander does not hold for too long, however. Eventually, he accepts the obvious: The arrest was about more than just Korban.
Poroshenko had taken a strike at him — Kolomoisky — he says; and he had done so because he was the only oligarch unwilling to cut a deal. Rinat Akhmetov, Viktor Pinchuk, Sergei Lyovochkin, Dmytro Firtash — these other oligarchs were exactly where the president wanted them, dependent.
“Take Firtash in Vienna,” he says. “I’ve seen him a couple of times in the last months, and the guy is in a terrible state, morally defeated, no fight in him. The only thing he is thinking about is how to avoid extradition to the U.S.”
Other oligarchs had chosen a path of cooperation. The Yanukovych-associate Sergei Lyovochkin, for example, was now “openly collaborating” with the president. He was hoping to become prime minister — an unlikely proposition, “but, then again, no one expected the criminal Yanukovych to become president either.”
“Tell me,” he continues. “Could a political figure in the U.K. be arrested if the head of state has a conflict with a leading businessman? Could Milibad [sic] be imprisoned over a battle with Lakshmi Mittal? Could he?”
Kolomoisky begins to free himself from any visage of political correctness. The only difference between Poroshenko and Yanukovych, he says, is “a good education, good English and lack of a criminal record.” Everything else is the same: “It’s the same blood, the same flesh reincarnated. If Yanukovych was a lumpen dictator, Poroshenko is the educated usurper, slave to his absolute power, craven to absolute power.”
The last time Kolomoisky and Poroshenko spoke was August 21.
* * *
In early spring 2014, the very future of Ukraine was in doubt. A popular revolution had paralyzed much of the nation, and had set in motion an altogether different wave of terrifying counterreactions across the east. Russia’s “little green men” began appearing on the shores of Crimea, separatist flames broke out across many eastern cities, and a screwy Russian military fantasist named Igor Girkin, aka “Strelkov,” barricaded himself in a sleepy town called Slavyansk. It was an explosive mix that even the most skilled or resourced authority in the world would have had trouble containing.
The new government of Ukraine was neither.
In the chaos, Kolomoisky seized the moment. First, he intervened to disrupt a plan that would have seen an alternative eastern republic established in Ukraine’s second city and former capital, Kharkiv.
Kolomoisky was good friends with city’s main power player, the crafty mayor Hennadiy Kernes, and he pushed him not to make a deal with the retreating Yanukovych. At this point Kernes was unsure of his allegiances; indeed, he seemed to be supporting the other side. “I told him he was risking everything by betting on the wrong horse,” Kolomoisky recalls. “He didn’t understand the regime was over.”
Kolomoisky persuaded Kernes to visit him in Geneva, which he did in late February, after Yanukovych had fled for Russia. Unusually, Kernes was in full listening mode, and agreed with Kolomoisky that he would return to Kharkiv and declare himself a Ukrainian patriot. Slowly, the separatist storm in Kharkiv — at one point the most violent in the land — began to dampen down.
A few days later, Kolomoisky suggested to then acting president Oleksandr Turchynov that he be made governor of his native Dnipropetrovsk region, which had shown real signs of going the anarchic ways of neighboring Donetsk.
Obviously, the appointment of Ukraine’s second richest man to high government position was not the most logical consequence of the Euromaidan revolution. But there was such disarray in Kiev, Turchynov readily agreed to the proposal.
In quick time, Kolomoisky delivered on security in Dnipropetrovsk. There were all kinds of rumors about how he did this: marches to the woods, summary shootings, gang warfare. Kolomoisky refuses to discuss the methods used, save for saying that they were necessary at a time of undeclared war. Were I to disclose what we did”, he says, “Poroshenko would declare that I was part of an organized crime group and file criminal charges tomorrow.”
What was important was the result: “We had a problem, we dealt with it, and thank God we did.”
Dnipropetrovsk remained in a febrile situation for many months, and the job of defending it was not one for the faint-hearted. Local security officials repeatedly raised the threat of a Russian invasion to the highest level possible. Full mobilization plans were enacted — tanks, planes, special forces, artillery. And Kolomoisky took a leading role in creating new and well-equipped territorial “volunteer” battalions.
The most important thing, says the oligarch, was the process of securing the street. “If robbery, rape, murder and pillage had become the norm in Dnipropetrovsk, the people would have welcomed any strong hand, Ukrainian or not.”
* * *
Kolomoisky earned plaudits from friends and enemies for his decisive action in those months. Not everyone was convinced that his investment in military means was a completely selfless endeavor, however. Many began to express concern that the oligarch had used the war to build up private armies that he was now using to settle business and political scores.
A well-placed governmental source says that the president became concerned by what he saw in the early months of 2015. “We understood we had to act to disarm his irregular forces or to bring them under the direct control of the army command,” the source said.
The standoff between Poroshenko and Kolomoisky peaked in March this year, coinciding exactly with government attempts to curb the economic influence of the oligarchs.
The change that affected Kolomoisky most directly was a new law, passed on March 19, that returned control of notionally state-controled businesses to the state. There were several examples of minority-shareholding oligarchs exercising full de facto control via loyal managers installed under the previous regime.
Kolomoisky’s people were particularly fond of blocking undesirable management changes by not turning up at board meetings and ruling the meetings inquorate. The new law made the tactic impossible by reducing quorum to 50 percent.
That very evening, Kolomoisky received news that an ally had been removed as chief executive of the oil pipeline operator UkrTransNafta, a company where he was a minority shareholder. Within a matter of hours, Kolomoisky presented himself at the company’s Kiev headquarters with a group of armed men.
When asked by journalists what he was doing there, he subjected them to a torrent of profanity, before claiming he had come to protect the company from a “raider attack” and “Russian saboteurs.”
Kolomoisky made another controversial appearance March 22, this time at the headquarters of the oil and gas behemoth Ukrnafta, where he held a now-insufficient 43 percent stake. Kolomoisky claimed, once again, that he had traveled there to protect his business interests from a raider attack. He said that the 40 or 50 men who accompanied him were, in fact, the company’s own private security forces.
“Poroshenko and his scribblers peddle this myth about Kolomoisky working with his private armies, yet they don’t understand the difference between an army and a private corporate security firm,” he said.
But the president had seen enough and, encouraged by American and European partners, in late March he asked Kolomoisky to leave his post as governor of Dnipropetrovsk. The deal was simple: Kolomoisky’s business would be left alone if he stopped attacking the government; and Poroshenko promised Kolomoisky that his team would be not be touched by law enforcement in connection with anything they may or may not have done while defending Dnipropetrovsk.
The agreement did not, however, resolve the fate of Ihor Palytsa, Kolomoisky’s long-time business partner, who he had helped install as governor of neighboring Odessa region. Palytsa was to remain in position for just two more months, before he was sensationally replaced by the former Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili.
That appointment triggered a dramatic and public war of words between Kolomoisky and Saakashvili. Saakashvili told journalists Kolomoisky was a “gangster” and “smuggler.” Kolomoisky told them Saakashvili was “a dog without a muzzle” and “a snotty-nosed addict.” If nothing else, Kolomoisky won on linguistic style.
Kolomoisky says things had not always been so unfriendly between the two men. In 2011, they went yachting together in Croatia: “He was there with his favorite, this big-titted economics minister of his — his lover,” says Kolomoisky. “I even gave him money for his election campaign in Georgia.”
Just before Saakashvili was installed in Odessa, the Georgian traveled to Dnipropetrovsk to visit him, Kolomoisky says. “He showered us with praise and his Georgian toasts, told us how wonderful we were, how I had replaced him as Putin’s enemy number one,” recalls Kolomoisky. “Then he went directly to Poroshenko to ask for Palytsa’s job.”
Kolomoisky shows no sign of forgiving the betrayal. “If I ever catch sight of him, I tell you, I will smash his face in. As soon as he leaves his post, I’ll beat him up and down like a dog,” he says.
He looks me in the eye: “Well, you’re from Liverpool. You grew up on the streets, didn’t you?”
* * *
Poroshenko and Kolomoisky may have had a deal to stay out of each other’s business, but politics soon got in the way. Ahead of October’s local elections, the presidential administration became increasingly concerned that Kolomoisky was working to bring down Poroshenko’s governing coalition and to force snap parliamentary elections. With some justification, they feared that such elections would lead to a “Balkanization” of the national Parliament and destroy Poroshenko’s already fading grip on power.
Kolomoisky says he sees no future in the current coalition. “And I don’t see any prospects for Ukraine until it returns to its proper constitutional set-up either,” he says. “We are supposed to be a parliamentary-presidential republic, but Poroshenko has managed to switch that around.”
In the build-up to the election, Kolomoisky supported an incongruously broad palette of political movements — from the populist, anti-Russian Dill party to a new, eastern-leaning party called Renaissance, made up of the more pragmatic wing of Yanukovych’s old Party of Regions.
“Rather than tell you who I support, let me tell you who I don’t support,” he says. “I don’t support Poroshenko’s bloc, I don’t support the Opposition Bloc, and I don’t support Yulia Tymoshenko” — the former prime minister.
The presidential administration was, in fact, working on the assumption Kolomoisky was collaborating with the newly resurgent Tymoshenko. Both hailing from Dnipropetrovsk, the two shared a long — if complicated — history.
Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine. Photo by Aleksander Prokopenko/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images
Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine. Photo by Aleksander Prokopenko/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images
“She has every chance to become prime minister or president still, though it’s true that she isn’t getting any younger.”
The prospect of a grand anti-Poroshenko coalition could easily have been a strong enough bond to unite them. Tymoshenko was still the most assured politician in the land: No one matches her populist touch or hunger for power. And Poroshenko had reason enough to fear her. When, as prime minister, Tymoshenko plotted to overthrow President Yushchenko in 2006, Poroshenko was the man chairing the country’s National Security and Defense Council.
Tymoshenko has denied ever making contact with Kolomoisky in the run up to the elections, but Kolomoisky insists the two did, in fact, meet in Europe in August.
“We talked about Ukraine, about her ambitions,” he says. A conversation about assisting her did not progress far because Tymoshenko would not leave the coalition: “I couldn’t support her because she is a prostitute. You can’t just be a little bit pregnant. You can’t pretend you are in opposition and be in government at the same time.” He pauses, smiles. “It’s immoral.”
In the end, Tymoshenko polled 13 percent — not as much as anticipated, but a solid enough launchpad for another stab at the presidency down the line. “It was a warm-up,” says Kolomoisky. “She has every chance to become prime minister or president still, though it’s true that she isn’t getting any younger.”
Kolomoisky’s own parties polled solidly right across the country. And in a fiercely contested second round run-off, his close associate Borys Filatov was elected mayor of Dnipropetrovsk.
* * *
The success of Kolomoisky’s allies in the elections was certainly a headache for the president. Overall, however, the October election results fell short of being a complete disaster.
Poroshenko avoided the Armageddon scenarios — a coup, enforced early parliamentary elections or Tymoshenko as prime minister. All scenarios were possible had his coalition partners polled as predicted.
Instead, the president now has at least the prospect of muddling through — for as long as the he can control Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s 82 MPs, and manage the now public dispute between Saakashvili and Yatsenyuk.
Meanwhile, it is hard to predict how the president’s relations with the ever-recalcitrant Kolomoisky will play out. On the one hand, there is no obvious knockout punch for either man. A serious escalation likely means mutually assured destruction. And both men face serious challenges in the months ahead.
The situation on the eastern front lines might be calmer than a year ago, but the winter will still be tough for the president, with diversifying security risks, an increasingly disloyal Parliament and the potential for social unrest.
A deadline looms for the controversial parliamentary votes on decentralization and amnesty for the east, both of which were pledged by the president to Western partners during the Minsk peace negotiations. The last time decentralization was discussed in Parliament August 31, live grenades were thrown and four national guardsmen lost their lives. Poroshenko does not yet have the 300 votes needed to carry it through.
Equally unhelpful is the fact that the IMF has delayed approving a final tranche of its agreed 2015 loan over concerns that Ukraine will have problems balancing its budget.
Kolomoisky’s businesses, on the other hand, are not looking quite as formidable as they once were. Minority-owned Ukrnafta still owes €320 million to the taxman (Kolomoisky says the company is owed at least as much by others). His market-leading PrivatBank bank has also attracted the attention of the head of Ukrainian Central Bank, Valeria Gontareva, who has asserted the bank might need significant recapitalization.
The oligarch disputes her figures. “This clever f—ing Gontareva comes along to a hugely successful bank — one that’s nearly 25 years old — and says just everything that has happened over the past 20 years was terrible,” he says. “The problem is that one day she talks about 128 billion hryrvina [€5.1 billion] and then the next she says, no, it’s 15 billion [€602 million]. And today she has her tongue stuck up her arse because she doesn’t know what to say next.”
Such fighting talk aside, it does, however, seem as though both sides have pulled back from all-out war. An emergency peace process has begun, with the head of Poroshenko’s administration, Borys Lozhkin, placed in charge of direct communication with Kolomoisky and his associates.
With a long history of doing business with all of the main players in Ukraine, Lozhkin is considered someone naturally suited to compromise. Kolomoisky confirms he talked to him on a daily basis. “I’m not fighting with anyone there, I’ve done no harm to anyone and I try to find dialogue with everyone,” he says.
Kolomoisky, meanwhile, is recruiting as many friends as he can. He says he enjoys good relations with the prime minister, who, he says, is “the best of all of the viper’s nest.” He also revealed he was coordinating moves with his one-time competitor, the country’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov.
“You know the joke about the dying Armenian?” he asks. “He surrounds himself with all his children and relatives, and he tells them to take care of the Jews. They ask him why. ‘Because if they aren’t there,’ he says, ‘they will come after us next.’ Akhmetov and I need to take care of each other, because if he goes, they’ll come after me. And if I go, they will come after him.”
Double or bust, the oligarch thus presents the president with a real dilemma: Continue to target Kolomoisky, and you face a broader fight you just might not win.
The sensible money would be on the Ukrainian oligarchs — and Kolomoisky — thriving for some time to come.
Original text published on Politico Europe here
Slavik’s voice was laced with panic. “No one is coming for us. We are surrounded by the enemy,” he had told me over a crackling telephone line. There were, he said, many losses, many soldiers lying on the floor around him – “some dead, some injured. Commanders need to send in reinforcements, or start negotiating a way out.” I would get the message out, wouldn’t I?
Over the course of that Saturday 17 January, I spoke to him on two further occasions. It was clear the 22-year-old Slavik had grown more and more terrified as he became trapped in Donetsk airport. “We’ve been looking around for people’s arms so we might stitch them on again,” he had said. By our third call of the evening, Slavik reported that a comrade missing his arm had bled to death. “If they don’t come for us by day break, we are done for. Done for.” That was the last contact I had with him, the last contact anyone had with him.
Slavik was a gifted boy. Growing up in western Ukraine, he never studied properly, but always seemed to do well. He was “an intellectual”, according to his father, with interests from the saxophone to theatre. He studied at the Kharkiv arts academy, but within a year had abandoned college. “He said he didn’t like the way they taught, and it was typical of him – always seeking out injustice to the point of stubbornness”.
Given his circumstances, joining the elite 80th paratrooper brigade in Lviv wasn’t the worst of outcomes, and his father recalls his pride at seeing his son in uniform. But Slavik’s tongue soon got him into trouble. He fell out with superiors after an argument over an armoured personel carrier he claimed wasn’t fit for service. He ripped up his military contract and went home.
That was in November 2013. By summer 2014, Slavik was receiving terrifying updates from the frontline, where former colleagues were defending Lugansk airport, and had found themselves fenced in by Russian-backed forces. He lost four of his closest friends in the battle, and felt he had to do something. By September, against the advice of his father, he went back to the Lviv training range. “I didn’t want him there – I told him it was a politicians’ war,” his father recalls.
Just before Christmas, Slavik travelled east, eventually ending up in Donetsk airport. Built during the height of the Cold War, Donetsk airport was the epitome of modern design. It covered a huge territory, and provided any number of hiding places within its serpentine grid of tunnels, bunkers and underground communications systems. There were entries into nearby mines, and into Donetsk itself, though much of the network had not been accessed for decades. For the Russian-backed rebels, the airport was an Achilles heel that prevented them from taking full control of the city. “The defence of Donetsk is impossible without the airport,” says Shiba, a deputy rebel battalion commander, using an alias. For the Ukrainian side, meanwhile, the airport had turned into a symbolic Stalingrad, with much war propaganda invested into the image of the indestructible, Terminator-style “cyborgs” who defended it.
Birds fly near the traffic control tower of the Sergey Prokofiev International Airport damaged by shelling during fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces in Donetsk, October 9, 2014. SHAMIL ZHUMATOV/REUTERS
With the old terminal falling into rebel hands during the December “ceasefire”, the main focus of the January battle was the new terminal. During the week before it fell, the Ukrainians inside were steadily beaten down to the second and third floors of the building; and then, by Saturday, to just a part of the second floor. “They were crawling all over the place like rats – above, below, and on either side,” says Sasha [not his real name], an injured paratrooper, speaking from his hospital bed. “You could hear them baiting us from behind the walls. They were saying things like ‘time to surrender, Ukies, we’re coming to cut your throats’.”
Throughout that Saturday, there were several attempts to remove injured Ukrainian soldiers from the new terminal, but all were unsuccessful. At about 4am on Sunday morning, however, Ukrainian forces staged a major counter-offensive along the south side of the airport, which allowed a convoy of light army vehicles to retrieve the most seriously wounded. The operation was considered a success, though many Ukrainian soldiers remained trapped in the new terminal. Slavik was one of them. During the battles, military spokesmen claimed government forces were in full control of the airport. Then, some time around midday on Monday, the airport reverberated to the sound of an explosion. According to rebel commander Shiba, the blast was caused by the Ukrainian side “for reasons known only to themselves”.
Evgeny, a soldier serving in the 93rd brigade, sees things differently. “The explosion came from the centre of the hall, perhaps 40m from where we were, and was caused by explosives thrown in through a hole from the third floor, which we simply didn’t control.” All the internal walls were blown away by the blast, he says. Although few died, most soldiers received concussion injuries. An even bigger explosion followed at 3.30pm the following day. All of the supporting walls in the floors above gave way, crushing soldiers among the falling concrete. “We were running out of munitions,” says Evgeny, “but the worst thing was this sense of phantoms flying around you. You had so many people writhing in agony, moaning, crying for help.” Some of the injured were still shooting from horizontal positions, according to Evgeny: “They realised it was a fight to the end.”
Evgeny himself escaped on foot on Tuesday evening, scampering to safer positions the other side of the landing strip. He was the only one of his original group to make it home. He estimates that of soldiers in the new terminal, at least one third died, and a further third were seriously injured. As of 7.30am on Wednesday, Slavik was still in the new terminal, trapped under the rubble. His father battled his own fears in order to keep his son’s spirits up during a series of short telephone calls. “At the start we had hope. Slavik told me how he’d spoken to a British journalist, and how some deputy defence minister had followed up and assured him that help was on his its way.”
By Wednesday, however, it was clear that Slavik was on his own. “I said to my wife I was going to get the little one,” Slavik’s father says. “I got everything together in quick time – passport, money, papers – and I set off in the car. But I was an absolute wreck and I lost my way four times in the first hour.” He abandoned plans to drive there, and boarded the next train going east.
Some time after 7.30am on Wednesday 21 January, Slavik was captured by rebel forces. The following day he was paraded as part of a column of Ukrainian POWs in front of angry locals in Donetsk. Slavik’s father has been working ever since to secure the release of his son, and has even made an personal appeal to rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko for mercy. These efforts have been independent and largely obstructed by Ukraine’s security services. “They tell me I’m doing my country no favours, but I’m only doing what a father needs to do,” he says.
Sasha, the paratrooper in hospital, recognises Slavik from the tale, and agrees with the father’s position. “Every one of those soldiers who fought in the airport is a hero. Sure, Slavik might have been scared, but we were all scared. There was not one second when you weren’t completely petrified. What’s important is that Slavik didn’t leave his comrades behind.” Sasha shakes his head and pauses for a while. When he continues, he tells me the airport is an experience he’d wish on no one, but that it wouldn’t stop him going back: “Too much blood has been lost. Even now, I see the faces. Those faces . . .”
A young woman, a nurse, appears from behind the soldier’s hospital bed. “Your temperature is above 38C. The interview stops now,” she says.
Published 3 February 2015. Original story here
It is the eyes that you notice first, not the trademark braids. They are wild and hypnotising, hinting at an energy and ambition that has fuelled Yulia Tymoshenko’s tempestuous political career.
Many discounted Ms Tymoshenko after an uninspiring presidential run last June suggested Ukrainians had grown tired of her. Yet in the space of just a few months, Ms Tymoshenko’s singular vision has secured her an improbable return to the centre stage of Ukrainian politics. A new opinion poll put her Fatherland Party on course to be the largest party in this month’s local elections, with 19.5 per cent of the vote. Ms Tymoshenko was also a close second for the presidency.
“Today, my connection with the people has been re-established,” she declared in an interview with The Independent. “For two and a half years, I was isolated in a fortified prison cell, with my opponents able to throw all kinds of mud at me.” She had regained her popularity once Ukrainian society had been given the chance to judge things “soberly”, she said.
In truth, a large part of the Ukrainian population remains hostile to her. Her critics point to involvement in the old Ukrainian regime, and to her attempt to push presidential interests at EuroMaidan (a wave of demonstrations calling for the ousting of the then President Viktor Yanukovych in 2013) at a time when others were mourning those killed by riot police. It was, many considered, an attempt to gatecrash a funeral.
Was her speech then poor judgement? Ms Tymoshenko paused. “Perhaps,” she said, “after my time in prison I might have lost the sense of what the nation was thinking.” Humility has never been Ms Tymoshenko’s best card.
A source close to government suggested Ms Tymoshenko continues to harbour bitterness about the defeat in last year’s ill-fated presidential bid when she was defeated by Petro Poroshenko. “She has always considered Mr Poroshenko’s presidency an act of outrageous injustice – snapped from under her nose after years in prison,” the source said.
Success in Ukrainian politics is traditionally a factor of spending huge amounts on advertising and media airtime, as it is in many other countries. Ms Tymoshenko was at a major disadvantage on both counts during last year’s election. Mr Poroshenko’s own Channel 5 lobbied in his interests, while other oligarch-owned channels, having decided her star was fading, limited her air time.
This year, however, the same channels have given Ms Tymoshenko a clear run to turn her populist fire on the largely detested government of the Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, She talks about the subjects Ukrainians want addressed – corruption, living standards, Russian aggression and new gas tariffs – while skirting over her past record. And her ratings have improved accordingly.
Poroshenko is creating more social tension, and aggression that will bring Putin closer into the heart of Kiev
Ukrainian politician, Yulia Tymoshenko
Several sources in government suggested that the increased airtime was initially encouraged by President Poroshenko, who was then locked in battle with Mr Yatsenyuk. But things seemingly went too far. Now, Mr Yatsenyuk has been reduced to a lame duck, and Ms Tymoshenko is an arguably more dangerous rival for the President.
Ms Tymoshenko does not waste a moment in criticising Ukraine’s government. Their socio-economic policies, forced on the country in conjunction with the West, have caused “great suffering”, and are a “recipe for revolution”, she argued.
“They are creating more social tension, and aggression that will bring Putin closer into the heart of Kiev,” she said. “It won’t just be a revolution this time, but an uncontrolled uprising that could sweep Ukraine away as a country”. Ms Tymoshenko says she is best placed to understand the hardship ordinary Ukrainians are facing, “having been brought up by a single mother,” and “having lived in poverty” most of her life.
Ms Tymoshenko has been criticised for her finances and claimed links to oligarchic interests. Indeed, sources suggested she had recently met the controversial oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky in Europe. “I have worked 15 years battling such clan interests,” Ms Tymoshenko said. If her “more realistic” analysis of governmental policies fell now in line with the interests of some oligarchs, that was pure coincidence, she added.
Ms Tymoshenko once again finds herself in a key position – with the fate of coalition government largely in her hands. If she were to take her party out of the coalition now, she could bring down the government. Several governmental sources have suggested she has recently been using this leverage to lobby to return as prime minister – “the least of her ambitions”.
Ms Tymoshenko told The Independent her party would not leave the coalition “while the country was at war” since “to do so would be the same as opening the borders to the Russians”.
Others are less sure. “No one is as hungry for power or for victory as she is,” said a source in Kiev. “She will do anything for power"
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DAGESTAN, Russia. The totemic Eastern Mosque rises from the outskirts of Khasavyurt, a formless market town located 1,000 miles south of Moscow, in the predominantly Muslim republic of Dagestan.
In the weeks leading up to his arrest in early April, Imam Muhammad Nabi Magomedov hardly left its walls. When he did, he traveled in a convoy with armed guards. He was concerned for his safety, his aides say, and he knew an arrest was likely. Shortly before his detention, he had even taken to social media to warn that he was being monitored by security services.
Magomedov had reason enough to be worried, having recently staged — and won — a standoff with the Russian state over the fate of Khasavyurt’s smaller Northern Mosque. The authorities argued the mosque had become a major Islamic State recruiting post in the region. Privately, many local activists did not disagree: Some of the congregants “might” have acted as recruiters, they told Foreign Policy. But when Russian special forces turned up in February to shutter the mosque, it was seen by local activists as a step too far. “If there are criminals, arrest them — don’t close the mosque!” one said.
It did not take long for the region’s security services to find out they’d miscalculated. Within a few hours of the mosque’s closure, Magomedov had assembled more than 5,000 followers from other congregations across the republic, who then marched on the town hall and demanded the local administration reopen the mosque. The standoff lasted a few hours before the authorities caved in. It was an embarrassing about-face and also served as an alarming reminder of the imam’s ability to mobilize.
But the fight over the mosque wouldn’t end there. On April 8, following Friday prayers, government security forces cordoned off the larger Eastern Mosque. Magomedov gave himself up for questioning. In the middle of the interrogation, his associates say, he was taken away by security officers in masks and transferred to a regional counter-extremism center in Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital. There, they say, he was beaten. A local court ordered that he be detained until an investigation is completed; he has been in custody since.
The stakes of the fight against extremism in Russia’s southernmost republic are high. In recent years, Dagestan has overtaken neighboring Chechnya as the country’s most deadly region. Ethnic heterogeneity — more than 30 languages are spoken locally — and political infighting have contributed to a power vacuum that has made the republic a fertile ground for the insurgency. Links between the region and Syria are already well-established: Russian is now the third-most spoken language within the caliphate, behind Arabic and English, and a disproportionately large number of Russians make up the Islamic State’s high command.
A series of terrorist attacks this year, claimed by the local branch of the Islamic State, has raised the specter that the group is planning to use Dagestan as a base to come good on its 2015 promise to spill blood in Russia “like an ocean.”
“From what I see every day, [the Islamic State] is stepping up its efforts here — on the Internet and through networks in certain towns and cities,” said activist Sevil Novruzova, who lost her brother to a local insurgency in 2008. (He was killed in a security operation within months of joining up with extremists.) Since then, Novruzova has collaborated with authorities on counter-extremism efforts. “Make no mistake, our youth is being used,” she said. “We might be running out of time.”
But if Russia is stepping up its efforts to tackle the insurgency here, the harshness of its tactics — which target a broad range of anti-Russian forces, not only the Islamic State — could also backfire. In the weeks before his arrest, Imam Magomedov had warned of the dangers of a too-forceful approach to combating terrorism in Dagestan, predicting a coming backlash. “I tell the police they are pushing people away from us,” he said in an interview with FP. “They are men, and if they get hassled every day, they will do things.”
* * *
Magomedov was the fifth Salafi imam to be arrested in Dagestan since the beginning of the year. In comments to FP, a member of the local security establishment, who asked to remain anonymous, said authorities were committed to breaking up the management of the region’s ultra-conservative Salafi mosques, which, they argue, have become terrorism incubators.
In Makachkala, law enforcement officers were certainly keeping close watch on the congregation at the city’s last remaining Salafi mosque on Vengerskikh Boitsov Street. In the space of five minutes on a recent Friday, a group of police officers pulled at least a dozen bearded men from the crowds making their way toward the mosque. To drill in the point, leaflets distributed at the mosque remind attendees of their rights in case of detention. According to the mosque’s press officer, Muhammad Abu Khamza Magomedov, about half the congregation is now on a high-risk police register.
Being on the register means being asked to leave blood, saliva, and even 30-second voice samples. Once registered, the men face a number of restrictions: They are generally limited to local travel; their employers may be contacted to let them know they are on the list; and they are often the first ones to be arrested at the time of any trouble, sometimes on a flimsy pretext.
“More and more, we are being asked to defend young Salafi men who turn to us after arbitrary detention,” said Selim Magomedov, a lawyer in Makhachkala who defends several Salafi clients. “If a fighter has a father or a brother — especially a younger brother — the practice now is that law enforcement will also suddenly find grenades and cannabis on him.” It is, argues the lawyer, “a combination so standard that whenever any Dagestani hears it, he becomes suspicious.”
The threat of closure has hung over the Vengerskikh Boitsov mosque since late 2015. The other main Salafi mosque in the capital, Al-Nadiriya Mosque on Kotrova Street, which was attended by Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev during his time in Dagestan, was closed abruptly in December. A month earlier, authorities had also attempted to impose their own choice of imam at the Vengerskikh Boitsov mosque but were rebuffed by its management.
That Dagestan has a serious problem with disaffected youth turning to radical Islam is clear enough. By the estimates of local security services, between 900 and 3,000 young Dagestanis have joined the Islamic State over the last few years, the vast majority of them Salafi Muslims. One of the clerics from the Vengerskikh Boitsov mosque, Nadir Medetov, swore allegiance to the Islamic State, and he has urged others to join him in Syria since.
But intense scrutiny from security services is putting Salafi moderates in a difficult situation. According to Murad Dibirov, the now-detained Imam Nabi Magomedov’s assistant, moderates were being “caught between two very big fires” — the Russian state, ready to crack down at the first signs of radicalism, and the Islamic State, ready to recruit from their congregations should clerics appear too quick to appease. The imam’s attempts to reach a peaceful settlement on the Northern Mosque issue, for example, had provoked a YouTube admonishment from fighters in Syria. “They said we were mistaken to not call people to arms and then said our imam was not worth following,” Dibirov said.
Under close watch, Makhachkala’s Vengerskikh Boitsov mosque seemed to be trying to play it safe. On a recent Friday, much of the service, which took place in front of a packed congregation, was devoted to matters of personal hygiene: “A Muslim has the obligation to be clean at mass. He does not come to Friday mass smelling of garlic. He does not smoke. A good Muslim cleans his teeth, washes himself, and wears his best clothes.”
This time last year, the same preacher was stressing the superiority of sharia over Russian legislation, one follower admitted.
* * *
The main transport artery that leads from the capital of Makhachkala into Dagestan’s mountain villages narrows at the mouth of a small tunnel. On any given day, government counterterrorism operations underway on the other side of the tunnel might force it to close, so travel here is unpredictable. Some days, a journey might take 10 minutes; at other times, several hours.
On a recent day, however, an operation was just finishing, so gray vehicles were pulsing back out of the tunnel. It was a display of modern Russian military prowess, with three dozen modernized Ural trucks, the latest “Tiger” four-wheel-drive vehicles, and perhaps a hundred stony-faced soldiers cooped up inside. Waiting on the other side was a dramatic, rugged, mountainous road leading to the ultra-conservative village of Gimry. Cars shared the path with wandering livestock, and the roadside was peppered with green signs in Arabic and Russian, several containing quotes from Imam Shamil, a local leader who led a guerrilla resistance movement against the Russian Empire in the 19th century. “Heroes do not think about the consequences,” one declares.
Dagestan has always been a reluctant part of Russia, and by nature of their geographical isolation, radical religious views, and general poverty, the mountain villages on the other side of the tunnel have played key roles in the region’s centuries-long on-off war with the Russian state. At several more recent points in history, these villages fell completely under the control of militant Islamists and existed as self-governed enclaves within Russia.
Gimry, with a population of 2,000, emerged during the 1990s as a key stronghold of the anti-Russian insurgency, closely associated with the so-called Caucasus Emirate, a local jihadi organization linked to al Qaeda that has since almost entirely been superseded by the Islamic State.
The police avoid taking chances here. The village of Gimry itself is cordoned off from the outside world, as it has been since 2007. Locals enter via a security checkpoint and have to declare a passcode upon arrival and exit. Practically every resident is on a police register.
Further down the road, Radik, a patrol police officer on loan from Tatarstan who asked to be identified by his first name only, says a pressure-cooker atmosphere has developed inside Gimry. Few of his colleagues believe the isolation policy could hold forever, he says. “You can see the people are tired of us. You go into the village, and you will find lots of angry widows and sons without fathers. It’s a matter of time before the sons grow up into fighters,” Radik said.
Over the last few years, Gimry has seen a steady outflow of jihadi fighters to Syria, though the level of this outflow is fiercely debated. A source within the local security services suggested that perhaps as many as 50 of Gimry’s 2,000 residents are now fighting for the Islamic State in one way or another. Another source, a leading local Islamic publisher who asked to remain anonymous, says that number is vastly inflated, and many of those presumed fighting in Syria are in fact living normal lives in Turkey.
Forty miles or so northwest of Gimry, the village of Novosasetli, with a population of 2,500, has a similar story. Up until a few short years ago, it was known across Russia as a center of Islamic teaching, and many made the pilgrimage there to listen to its famous clerics. Over time, the village has also become a leading exporter of jihadis. Depending on whom you listen to, between 20 and 50 of its residents left to join various jihadi causes. Initially, they left to join the fighters of the Caucasus Emirate in the forests and mountains, but after this group ceased to be a serious military concern in 2014, local commanders almost completely switched their allegiance to the Islamic State. Many fighters now head to Syria.
“We find out what has happened to the ones who went via WhatsApp, which ones are dead, and so on,” said Ahmed Khaibulayev, a deputy of the village council.
According to the security services, a preacher by the name of Abu Umar Sasitlinsky, who was active in Novosasetli until leaving for Turkey in 2013, radicalized many of the village’s young men. According to his followers, Sasitlinsky was no more than a philanthropist, the founder of the Islamic Center for Orphans — an incongruously expensive-looking and now abandoned three-story facility built on the edge of the village. Security sources insist such activities were merely a ruse, and in fact Sasitlinsky was using Bahraini and Saudi funds to recruit for the Islamic State.
At one point, a traffic barrier separated this ultra-conservative village from the outside world. That is gone, but the Russian government remains unwelcome here. The village builds its own roads, installs its own broadband systems, and has its own sharia court. Khaibulayev says the locals do not trust the Russian police. “We don’t let them in unless it’s a very serious issue,” he said. “The security guys realize it’s better to keep their noses out.”
For most of Novosasetli’s residents, indeed, the state remains synonymous with counterterrorism raids. Not so long ago, such raids were frequent, targeted at insurgents who would occasionally stay in houses on the edge of the village during the cooler winter months. Khaibulayev says bored village kids used to follow military trucks as they entered the village. “It was almost a local attraction: First came the trucks, then the armored carriers, then local police, the security guys, and then you had explosions as someone’s house was blown up.”
The insurgents had a certain amount of local support, Khaibulayev admits, “especially among youngsters who thought giving them cash and food was the right thing to do by Islam.” But a turning point came in June 2014, when Russian security forces used grenade launchers to blast their way through a hut housing a known fighter and his girlfriend. Both were killed in the attack. The ferocity of the operation caused those in the village to rethink their policy; following a meeting, village elders decided to ask the insurgents to leave. Since then, a truce of sorts has formed between Novosasetli and security forces, but signs of resentment — and potential trouble to come — still linger.
On the road alongside collapsed concrete rubble, a van swerves past, with a dozen or so children clinging on to the back bumper.
“Allahu akbar,” the children shout, giggling.
Text originally published here
The driver's voice teeters between depression and aggression.
"What kinduva life do yoo call this?!" he shouts. "Weerrall peepul … peeeeepul, for sheeettin sake! ... Fook, Ruussia, yoo make me want to cry!"
We veer from side to side of the snow-covered track. Outside, the mercury pushes twenty under, and the black cloak of Siberian night is falling. "Thiziz uh crrrriminal ... village" the driver says. "We had ah shoooting here ... pulice n'everything". Turning toward me, he makes a frustrated gesture, before opening his toothless mouth and releasing a putrid burst of ethanol breath.
The car jolts and the driver returns his attention to the road. He continues his story: "The prisssnurs, they had guys in the school, taking tax from the kids, for fooks sake!... 'magine?! Poor wons had to give 100 rubles, the middle wons, 200, and the rich wons, it's fooking 250 rubles, fook me!"
The harsh Zabaikalsky region, some 4,000 miles from Moscow, is not, typically, a good news factory; locals do not leave their front doors in the morning expecting miracles. But two flashes of anarchy earlier this month have led some to wonder if the bad is about to get badder, and if the dark days of Siberia's tumultuous 1990s are returning.
The first episode, here in Novopavlovka, saw parents revert to mob law against a group of young criminals embedded in the local school. The second, in nearby Khilok, saw institutionalized teenagers attack a police station with stones and metal weapons. Separated by just a few days, the episodes were sufficiently unnerving for Moscow to send investigative teams to the region.
According to excitable local media, the root of the problems was a movement pushing youngsters into the criminal underground. This movement has a name — AUE — standing for "Arestantsky. Uklad. Edin," or "Prison. Order. Universal."
Chita, the administrative capital of Zabaikalsky, is, on first appearances, pleasant enough. A smattering of historical buildings and bustling central streets set it apart from other Russian provincial capitals. But one only has to travel to Chita's more insalubrious and jobless outskirts, to see a different picture altogether.
"The default mode on these streets is crime," says my guide, Andrei Kulikov, 37, a former convict. "Chita is built on prisons, and no one is ever more than a phone call or family member away from the underground."
We stop by School 17, an unhappy, drug-infested cluster of wooden huts on the edge of existence. School 17 has no street lighting, and utility supplies are basic, but the neighborhood is a reasonable first port for those recently released from any one of the region's ten prisons.
It is in places like this, says Andrei, that former inmates connect with keen teenage runners. The criminals call them the ragged ones, and they help with anything from drug deliveries to organizing "grev" — supplies of tea, cigarettes and cash for serving prisoners.
"This isn't the place to be walking around at night, mind," says Kulikov. "There are weapons on the street — and no one respects the understandings no more."
In criminal circles, the "understandings," or Russian prison code, are laws above laws. They forbid all cooperation with the police, establish an obligation to collect grev, and map out an alternative system of order and justice.
According to another former convict, Sergei Chugunov, the criminals' courts are the "fairest in all Russia." If someone has been unfairly imprisoned, he says, criminal authorities will "always" find out the truth via their networks outside. Chugunov himself spent four years serving alongside Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Chita's most famous inmate, in Krasnokamensk.
Keen to hit home the "morality" of Chita's underworld, Sergei invites me to one of its more notorious hangouts. The bar is named after Yermak Timofeyevich, the Cossack who conquered Siberia in a shower of blood. "It doesn't matter who you are, this place will always welcome you," says Sergei. "Just don't leave your valuables in the cloakroom."
The bar's color scheme is fecal brown, interrupted only by a mirror ball and fairy lights. From time to time, the DJ, a stocky man in his late forties, makes a weird comment few seem to register, but which adds to the otherworldly atmosphere. "Who likes to walk around their apartment naked?" he asks.
A bottle of vodka later, and news breaks that a lynx has run into town. Another half bottle, and the DJ returns to the microphone. With a wink to Sergei, he announces the presence of an "English guest," and dedicates a chanson, a traditional song from the criminal underworld, to the moment.
By the time the first verse of "District Prosecutor" is over, the room has reached transcendental highs; everyone is dancing violently, screaming with delight:
"For you I'm no one, and for me you're no one"
"I spit at the law, you send me to prison!"
In a town so obviously pregnant with prison culture, I ask Sergei about the process of recruiting kids to the AUE cause. He denies youngsters are actively recruited: "It is against the code; you can't recruit, but you can't push away either." Besides, he argues, the "whole of Chita is AUE" — "it's a mentality."
A rough street survey of two dozen Chita schoolchildren suggested almost all knew about AUE, about the understandings and grev. A few of them admitted to contributing for grev, and some said they knew someone who did. One said a book "How to become a Thief" was doing the rounds at school.
The older children become tight-lipped when asked about AUE — refusing to answer further questions.
Several hundred Chita teenagers are subscribed to AUE groups on Russia's most popular social network VKontakte. When contacted, the majority offered laconic responses of the sort: "Go f*ck yourself," "agent!," "AUE! Freedom to thieves" and "AUE! F*ck off." One 17-year-old AUE follower, Dmitry F., warned against unwelcome interfering. No one would speak to me, he said: "That's the deal. We didn't start this, but we'll finish it. Take my advice, you'll be better off that way."
A Village at War
If Chita's AUE teens want to stay in the shadows, the other side, understandably, are even keener to preserve anonymity.
"I want you to write everything down, but you must promise to change my name," says Lyudmila, one of Novopavlovka's 4,000 residents. "You can't imagine what we've come to. We're at war, terrorized by these kids, by their parents."
It has been three weeks since Novopavlovka residents saw their village shoot to the top of national news. It all started when a group of teenagers, working under a local criminal boss, began extorting grev payments in the local secondary school. Payments were set between 100 and 250 rubles per month per child. Those who couldn't pay accrued debts.
The children were sworn to secrecy, but parents eventually found out. The turning point came around the new year, when one indebted 13-year-old boy was stripped of his coat, on a day when the temperature outside was minus 40 degrees Celsius. One of the boy's classmates decided to raise the alarm, and told his father, Ivan, what was going on.
The extortioners were well-known to police, but had dodged prosecution because of their age. Over the years, they had developed a sense of invincibility, and things looked to be going the same way again.
At the end of January, however, a group of parents led by Ivan took matters into their own hands.
The results of their action left several of the gang with injuries, though Ivan says reports of him inflicting "serious injuries" on the boys are exaggerated. "It's said that we crippled a 17-year-old … The maximum we did was break a nose or two." Ivan says the physical showdown was initiated by the boys themselves, when they challenged his son to a fight.
The AUE boys, however, went to the police to file a complaint, and now the vigilante parents are anxiously waiting to hear whether they will be prosecuted themselves.
According to Lyudmila, about 40 percent of the village youngsters are AUE: "The only thing our village gave them is hopelessness, but the criminals made them feel wanted. Children sense when they aren't wanted."
The harshness of Siberian life hits home when we make our way to the neighboring town, Khilok (population 10,000). Set in beautiful snow-covered hills and conifer forests, Khilok could be in Switzerland, were it not for everything else. Most locals live in damp, unforgiving wooden huts, without heating or water. Pensioners and children wheel water cans along the streets.
"We know its shitty living but we're resilient and we've got used to life's little hardships," says Yury Lukyanov, 62, a railway worker now on his pension. "It's the crime we can't cope with."
Like the majority of residents, Yury says he is unnerved by the boys from the state juvenile correctional school on the northern edge of town. He says he is scared to go out at night, and complains of unrelenting robberies. "If you leave the house unattended, they'll come around to steal something," says Yury. "They watch and gather intelligence for more serious criminals too."
Yury says locals are infuriated the youngsters appear to live both above the law, and better than the rest of the town: "They get fresh fruit and vegetables, more than our kids could dream about. And yet 17 of them head off to trash the police station!"
"These kids are untouchable" he says. "You can't put them in prison and you can't arrest them. Because they're protected by the state. Because they're Putin's children."
Syria? No Problem!
After negotiations through a fence, we meet with four of "Putin's children" — Sasha, Seryoga, Ilya and Lyokha — all of them "heroes" of the police station rampage.
So were they brave or just dumb? "Brave," they say in chorus, laughing. "The pigs started it anyway," says Lyokha. "They arrested our mate, and that's not on." Their friend's only crime was being drunk at school, they say.
The boys admit to being attracted by the romance of prison culture — the tattoos and the understandings. But when asked about AUE, they look to the ground and claim ignorance.
As for the future, well that is a choice between crime and the army. "It's not a bad career in the army right now," says Lyokha. "Yeah, I'd have no problems going to Syria," agrees Seryoga.
We say our goodbyes and head for the local restaurant. The menu is limited: fried sausage, buckwheat, chocolate, vodka and cognac. "Soup might be on later," says the waitress. We opt for the cognac.
"You're here about the boys, aren't you?" says a woman, a rare voice in a town that doesn't speak. She moves closer to our table. "I'm a dermatologist, I used to work at the school and I can tell you they are out of control. Every year, we'd get several cases of syphilis. In 13 year olds!"
The woman drops to a whisper. "You ask anyone — they're terrified of them boys. They only know how to rob. They've started stealing sticks and garden equipment. God only knows what they're planning."
The last stop of the evening is the police station, where the story began. When we arrive, seven officers are sitting behind the metal grill in various states of blankness. Some are reading magazines, some drinking tea. Others are filling out crossword puzzles.
I knock on the window, and ask if I can get a comment. The receiving officer looks at me, then at his colleagues.
"There's no one who can talk to you here," he says.
A Message to Nowhere
Pursuit of an official commentary turns into a fruitless ring-a-roses around the regional offices of official government bodies.
Eventually, the region's deputy governor agrees to meet. A doctor by profession, Sergei Chaban was happy to see me, he said, provided I was "objective in my reporting."
The local authorities understood the problem: "We're not ostriches burying our heads in the sand — it's there, we don't deny it exists, we see the graffiti around." But, he says, the media reports of a widespread AUE system were exaggerated. "There are individual episodes of criminals recruiting youngsters to the cause … but overall, juvenile crime is on the way down ... down by 20 percent over the last two years."
For Chaban, one solution would be to re-militarize the region. Until recently, Chita was the headquarters of the Siberian Military District, but a reorganization in 2010 saw resources move to the Far East Khabarovsk region, leaving the region's teenagers short on legitimate male role models.
The deputy governor says the government is looking to open new military, patriotic and sporting programs in the region. "We have just opened a new elite Suvorov military training academy," he says. "We hope boys can now start talking to military men, not criminals."
Roman Sukachyov, head of the region's Human Rights Center, is less confident about the governmental approach. He says tackling a problem like AUE requires "dealing with an entire philosophy" that permeates official life. "It's difficult to reduce the influence of criminal ideology when the [state-sponsored] Channel 2 put on a criminal chanson special on New Year's Eve," he says.
The regional government also needed to "get real" about the extent local police chiefs were cooperating with criminals. To demonstrate his point, Sukachyov plays me a video of a joint drinking session between a head of the local criminal police and a criminal underboss. "The whole system is intertwined: Police agree rules with crime bosses, and there is little local populations can do about it," he says.
Some locals seem to have given up on the power of government. The Novopavlovka parents, for example, say they have decided to take their problem to "higher instances." "The criminals' own rules say that you aren't supposed to involve the police," says Ivan. "So we've decided to make our own connection a little further up their chain of command."
"The only way our village can start sleeping soundly is if the criminal authorities put people back in their place."
Some identities and identifying features have been changed.
Если последние два года и должны были научить нас чему-то, то хотя бы тому, что войны, развал страны, вооруженный сепаратизм — все, что еще недавно казалось невообразимым, может случиться, и случиться очень быстро.
Весной 2014 года во время событий на Востоке Украины я своими глазами видел, как бедное, оказавшееся за бортом глобализации, гордое и бесправное население обрабатывали ложью, полуправдами и статистикой. Я видел, как эти люди боролись за то, чтобы их изоляция от остального мира стала еще более глубокой, что прямо противоречило их интересам. Я видел, как нетерпимость, страх, ярость и обоюдная ненависть образовывали нужный фон для этого конфликта.
Наблюдать, как то же самое происходит у тебя на родине, очень непросто. И не только потому, что ничего подобного ты не ожидал (хотя и поэтому тоже). Но главное — это вера в британский электорат, на который всегда можно было положиться; терпимость, центризм, благоразумие — вот чем известны британцы с правом голоса. Мы не сходим с ума, мы не раскачиваем лодку. Мы выстроили систему общественных институций, медиа и аналитики, которой еще неделю назад мог позавидовать весь мир. Но настал момент, и наша политическая система повернулась к нам самой безобразной из своих сторон.
Мы не знаем, к чему приведет выбор Британии покинуть ЕС. Этот выбор уже стоил жизни молодому депутату, матери двоих детей, карьеры премьер-министру, а вероятно, карьеры и лидеру оппозиции — это мы поймем уже скоро. После этой невероятно агрессивной кампании перед нами предстала страна, глубоко расколотая пополам: этот раскол прошел между поколениями, территориями и людьми с разным уровнем образования. Никогда еще в Британии не было столько агрессии. Такое не удавалось даже Тэтчер.
Теперь, когда многие осознали всю серьезность последствий принятого ими решения, весьма вероятно, что полный «Брексит» страна так и не совершит. По крайней мере, одна из ведущих партий развернула кампанию, цель которой — отменить результаты референдума в ходе ближайших парламентских выборов. Несколько депутатов заявили, что постараются блокировать решение о «Брексите» в парламенте, большинство которого по-прежнему за то, чтобы остаться в ЕС. Интернет-петицию с требованием проведения повторного референдума подписали уже 4 миллиона человек.
Но, отвергая демократическое волеизъявление народа, мы рискуем погрузиться в еще более густой мрак и спровоцировать настолько глубокий политический кризис, что наихудший из украинских сценариев — массовое насилие — может стать реальностью.
Как так получилось?
До недавнего времени европейский вопрос оставался невротической идеей небольшой ультраправой группы внутри Консервативной партии. Левые и центристы, находившиеся большую часть этого времени у власти, были настроены в целом проевропейски, и в политической повестке этой темы не было.
Но, как и во всем мире, финансовый кризис 2008-го стал испытанием для политиков. В Британии стали бурно расти антиглобалистские и антимигрантские настроения, популизм и цинизм. В результате левоцентристское правительство лейбористов ушло в отставку, и к власти пришла правоцентристская коалиция.
Вместе с правыми в большую политику вернулся и европейский вопрос, который со временем грозил подорвать авторитет Дэвида Кэмерона как премьер-министра. Борьба за лидерство в партии была не за горами, поэтому он пошел ва-банк и пообещал правому крылу консерваторов этот референдум. В итоге референдум дал ему лишних 13 месяцев во власти и — окончательно погубил его репутацию.
Но если правые инициировали референдум, то выиграли его традиционно левые. Более 40% лейбористского электората — по всему промышленному поясу севера и востока Англии — проголосовало за выход из ЕС.
Рабочий класс не поверил главному доводу кампании сторонников Европы, что ЕС — важный источник британского благополучия. Терять им все равно нечего, сказали они, хуже уже некуда. Так сложился исключительно необычный альянс между рабочим классом и лидерами кампании за выход из ЕС, в основном неолибералами, выходцами из элит, правыми консерваторами, карьеристами, далекими от рабочих и их интересов.
Британия бедных купилась на ложные аргументы сторонников выхода из ЕС, утверждавших, что кризис 2008 года случился из-за Европы, а в снижении уровня жизни виноваты мигранты. При этом статистика завораживала. Территории, где мигрантов меньше всего, отдали за выход из ЕС больше всего голосов, подтвердив, что дело не в реальности, а в ее восприятии. Напротив, подавляющее большинство жителей Лондона, самого мигрантского города страны, проголосовало за то, чтобы остаться в Европе.
В четверг обозначился и другой раскол — поколений. Исход референдума в значительной степени решили голоса пенсионеров. Эта электоральная группа обычно придерживается сложившегося status quo, избегая резких движений. Но сейчас пожилые стали бунтарями, а молодые — теми, кто избегает рисков. Как в Донбассе и в Крыму, пенсионеры голосовали за ностальгию — они хотели в прошлое, где они были молоды, пусть даже мир ушел вперед. Три четверти молодежи проголосовали, чтобы остаться. И теперь они очень недовольны.
Добро пожаловать в Британию, где перестали верить фактам
Некоторые взволнованные русские и украинцы пытались связать победу кампании «Брексит» с действиями Кремля. И хотя обитатели Кремля, без сомнения, приветствуют выход из ЕС страны, наиболее скептически настроенной по отношению к России, вероятность того, что они сыграли в этом хоть сколько-то значимую роль, крайне мала. На протяжении всей кампании британцы очень резко реагировали на все, что можно было расценить как внешнее вмешательство. Даже весенние попытки президента Обамы приумножить голоса за «остаться» были сочтены контрпродуктивными.
Но Россия была видна в том, как эта кампания проводилась. Британская политика, конечно, всегда была макиавеллистской по своей природе. Стратеги всегда знали, куда нанести удар (вопросы экономики, миграции etc.), и били сильно. Но никогда до сих пор не применялась тактика, основанная на манипуляциях. Никогда до сих пор черное не выдавали за белое. Никогда до сих пор не произносилось столько просчитанных ложных утверждений. Никогда до сих пор британская политика не повторяла цинизм постсоветского пространства.
Британцам было велено не думать, а верить на слово. Например, один из ведущих сторонников кампании за выход из ЕС, член кабинета министров Майкл Гоув просто утверждал, что 90% экономистов, которые предупреждали об опасности «Брексита», были «нацистскими» пропагандистами. Поэтому и опрос, проведенный непосредственно перед выборами, показал интересное разделение между голосовавшими за «выйти» и «остаться». На вопрос, кому они доверяют, голосовавшие за «остаться в ЕС» отвечали ожидаемо: они доверяют экспертам, учителям, не доверяют политикам. Желавшие «уйти» из ЕС не доверяли никому.
Дональд Трамп мог бы быть доволен.
Конец партийной политики
Участники кампании за выход, ограничившие себя чистой верой, потом признались, что вообще-то плохо представляли себе, что именно произойдет в случае победы. Будут у Британии с Европой такие же отношения, как у Норвегии? Как у Канады? Сможет ли она быть ассоциированным членом? И какой ценой?
Сейчас у Британии нет плана и нет политики по отношению к Европе. Кэмерона больше нет, основная оппозиционная партия — Лейбористская — находится в разгаре внутреннего переворота, угрожающего положению ее популистского лидера Джереми Корбина.
Учитывая парламентскую математику, лидеру — стороннику «Брексита» будет сложно получить большинство в палате общин. И свою лепту во всю эту сумятицу может внести перенос на более ранний срок всеобщих выборов. Они, по-видимому, состоятся в ближайшие 6—12 месяцев. Это может вернуть — или не вернуть — стране стабильное правительство.
Ранние всеобщие выборы теоретически могут предоставить шанс одной из оппозиционных партий в последний момент начать кампанию «Остаться в ЕС». Но с учетом того, что большинство в основных лейбористских районах проголосовало за «Брексит», трудно представить, что за это возьмутся лейбористы, занимающие сейчас второе место, — они боятся выборов, которые могут лишить их поддержки в среде рабочего класса.
Вероятно, бо́льшую тревогу главным политическим партиям должно внушать то, что в пятницу Британия оказалась в совершенно новой политической реальности. Страна больше не делится привычно на левых и правых. Теперь Британия, по сути, разделена на «внутри» и «вовне», на граждан мира и жителей «маленькой Англии», на привыкшие к комфорту городские слои и обнищавшие рабочие классы.
Неудивительно поэтому, что все больше говорят о новой лево-правой надпартийной коалиции, которая будет вести кампанию ровно по одному вопросу: Европы.
Тем временем лидер Шотландской национальной (и националистской) партии и первый министр Шотландии Никола Стерджен заявила, что Шотландия, проголосовавшая за «остаться», попытается остановить «Брексит», не давая юридического согласия на процедуру. Это опять же неизведанная территория, а сама попытка может иметь — или опять-таки не иметь — конституционные последствия.
Если Стерджен не удастся предотвратить «Брексит», то Шотландия, скорее всего, выйдет из состава Великобритании. Стерджен уже выразила намерение провести повторный референдум.
Потребовалось чуть больше двух лет, чтобы внутренние дрязги британской Консервативной партии привели к потенциальному распаду Соединенного Королевства — и Европы.
Теперь все может стать гораздо хуже, прежде чем станет лучше. Когда британская экономика прочувствует на себе все последствия изоляции и вывода инвестиций и наступит почти неизбежная рецессия, внутреннее давление и межэтническое напряжение должны только усилиться. За последние несколько дней мигранты стали жертвами целого ряда атак самозваных «защитников». Дома некоторых мигрантов были изуродованы граффити, которые велели «отправляться домой».
Конечно, остается надежда на то, что, в отличие от Украины двухлетней давности, наша еле работающая политическая система сможет прийти к согласию и мы избежим худших сценариев. Но трудно смотреть без пессимизма на этот полный превратностей период британской истории.
The all-too-familiar sight of masked men, Molotov cocktails, wooden sticks and explosives returned to the streets of Kiev, as violence between police and the mostly nationalist protesters broke out after a contentious vote in the Ukrainian national parliament. More than 100 people were injured, and one national guardsmen died as a result of a grenade thrown during the clashes.
The violence was the worst in Kiev since the current government took power in February 2014, and dramatically highlights the vulnerability of the Western-brokered peace deal agreed in Minsk in February this year.
Key to that was the introduction of the decentralisation bill, devolving more autonomy to the regions, including those currently under separatist control, which was insisted upon in order to help secure the agreement of the rebels and win the backing of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
The planned new law has proven extremely controversial, with opponents suggesting constitutional changes are being pushed through undemocratically at Western insistence, and that they effectively freeze the conflict in eastern Ukraine, implicitly ceding control to the pro-Russian rebels who control large parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
On the eve of voting, however, explicit mention of the special status of the eastern regions was removed from the bill, as government officials were said to be involved in intensive last-minute haranguing and wooing of wavering MPs.
Nonetheless, in true Ukrainian style, a tumultuous session in parliament followed. The message was clear from the first minute of the debate, when MPs from Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party stormed the parliament hall to occupy the speaker’s podium. Once the session began, they attempted to drown out discussion with loudspeakers, sirens, and by chanting “shame” over the speeches. At times, it seemed that the speaker’s only way of restoring decorum was by shouting “Glory to Ukraine” – although even that soon lost its power. Several scuffles broke out around the podium.
In the end, the government was only able to muster 265 votes from the 368 lawmakers in the hall, and two of the coalition member parties voted against. While this simple majority was enough for the bill to pass its first reading, it was not the 300 “super-majority” required for a constitutional change to be fully approved. Its second reading is now likely to be delayed for some time, putting at risk the deal supposed to secure peace in the east.
In a live address on television, Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, called for life imprisonment for the person who threw the grenade – who police said they had arrested – and said the right-wing protesters were “worse” than the separatist rebels because they were destroying the country from within “under the guise of patriotism”.
“The cynicism of this crime lies in the fact that while the Russian federation and its bandits are trying and failing to destroy the Ukrainian state on the eastern front, the so-called pro-Ukrainian political forces are trying to open another front in the country’s midst,” he said.
The Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the bill “a difficult but a logical step toward peace”, and insisted that it wouldn’t give any autonomy to the rebels.
But news that the bill had passed its first reading was enough to tip the already aggressive crowd of protesters waiting outside the parliament building into violence.
Several had come prepared, dressed in masks and brandishing wooden sticks. At about 1pm, The Independent saw a group of men begin to assault policemen with sticks. A short while later, another small group broke through the substantial police cordonand began throwing missiles – bottles, stones, bricks – at the police. Eventually, the missiles became Molotov cocktails and, it is believed, grenades or improvised explosive packages of some description.
There were several pools of blood around the south and west sides of the parliamentary building, but it is unclear whether these were the result of multiple incidents, or of the injured being treated elsewhere. Several of the reinforced windows had been damaged by shrapnel or some other for projectile.
Anton Heraschenko MP, an adviser at the Interior Ministry, suggested at one point that gunfire had also been involved in the clashes, but this was not confirmed and others argued that the injuries were more consistent with shrapnel.
Judging by the banners, a large number of the violent protesters were associated with the far-right Svoboda (“Freedom”) party. Bloggers later posted several pictures of leading Svoboda members on the front lines of the clashes.
After coming to prominence during the Euromaidan revolution, Svoboda has become a largely marginalised force in Ukrainian politics. In last October’s parliamentary elections, they were unable to muster enough votes to break through the 5 per cent barrier, effectively shutting them out of power. They had until yesterday been relatively.
Many have questioned the timing of Svoboda’s intervention, noting that it plays into the hands of a Russian narrative that Ukrainian politics are excessively influenced by the far right.
Mr Yatsenyuk said the day’s events signalled the opening of a “second front” against Ukraine and called upon all political parties to denounce the protests.
The officer who was killed in the clashes on Monday was a 25-year-old conscript, the Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, said. A further 122 people needed hospital treatment, most of them officers, but including some Ukrainian journalists and two French reporters, he added.
Published 2 September 2015. Full story here
A trip to the General Staff building in Kiev, the engine room of the Ukrainian war effort, is a journey back in time. Once inside the crumbling compound, and past several guard stops, you’re greeted with wide, brown Stalinist corridors, and walls decorated with Soviet-style military pomp. There is little attempt to hide the country’s deep, common history with its eastern neighbour, and now adversary.
Like many of Ukraine’s top military officers, commander-in-chief Colonel-General Viktor Muzhenko has a long association with Russia. He spent his formative years as a young cadet in Leningrad, the present-day St Petersburg; many friends and family remain on that side of the border. Yet the past 15 bloody, fraught months at the helm of the Ukrainian armed forces have left him altogether apprehensive about the intentions of once fellow compatriots. Ukraine’s top commander says he holds little hope that key conditions of the Western-brokered Minsk peace accord – aimed at stopping the conflict between government forces and the Russian-backed separatists – will be fulfilled.
“I don’t believe Russians will withdraw their troops, hand over control of the border, or allow free elections in Donbass, no, absolutely not,” he said. “I can only assess what is happening at the moment and there is currently little evidence of movement on any of these fronts.”
Col-Gen Muzhenko confirmed that while a ceasefire has largely held since 29 August, reconnaissance groups have remained active along the front lines. A significant enemy military presence – “more than 40,000” – remains inside the separatist enclaves, he said, and “all of them are answerable to a Russian chain of command”.
This month, 95,000 troops took part in extraordinary exercises in Russia, he said. The commander interprets these as a direct threat to Ukraine. “Where else can they be headed? I very much doubt Russia could put such a force together for Syria.”
Last year, at a time when Ukraine was much less prepared militarily, Russian tanks were described as being just “a few hours” away from Kiev. Today, the threat of a full-scale invasion seems diminished, but Col-Gen Muzhenko says Ukraine has not ruled it out due to the “volatile” nature of the situation.
“We have plans for every possible scenario – from defence to offence… we have to be ready to react,” he said.
In his time as Commander-in-Chief, Col-Gen Muzhenko’s own actions have attracted much criticism from public and military alike. They point to his role in the damaging capitulation at Ilovaisk in August 2014, then the loss of Donetsk airport in January 2015, and the equally humiliating retreat from Debaltseve in February. Many believe army incompetence and hubris cost many Ukrainian lives. Some estimate the number of soldiers lost in the Ilovaisk battle alone to be more than 1,000 (official figures are nearer 500). Col-Gen Muzhenko told The Independent that about 90 per cent of the information he received during the Ilovaisk battle turned out to be false.
It was, he says, a failure of Ukrainian intelligence gathering and deliberate Russian misinformation.
“The Ukrainian army was deliberately destroyed over the past decade – systematically,” he said, referring to what he called the presence of foreign agents undermining the military. Intelligence had improved significantly since then, he claimed, but the reality of Russian infiltration “remains an issue”. Summer 2014 represented a chaotic low point for the Ukrainians, and was the “worst moment in the war” for the commander himself.
“We had entire units to the south of Donetsk in Ambrosievka and Uspenka abandoning their positions without orders,” he said.
Some of the soldiers were “defeated psychologically”, and were “lacking proper military preparation”.
A Ukrainian sniper holds on the position of Ukrainian forces on frontline in Lugansk, last month (Getty Images)
In reality, an unanticipated surge had meant that many soldiers felt outgunned. Some of those who left say they had run out of ammunition.
Russia denies involvement in these crucial battles, but credible evidence appears to suggest otherwise. Around the time of the surge, 10 Russian paratroopers were captured inside Ukrainian territory; they claimed to have “got lost”. Over in Luhansk, Ukrainians captured documents and two armoured vehicles from what they say was Russia’s Pskov 76th Airborne division. An independent Russian newspaper corroborated this version, reporting major casualties in that division, and drawing on interviews with bereaved wives.
Col-Gen Muzhenko said regular Russian forces had a tactic of operating in the second wave of attack, to reduce visibility. He also made new claims about a previously undisclosed role of Russian special forces in the battle for Debaltseve in February. He said the appearance of such units within the town itself was the factor that forced the Ukrainians to retreat.
"I can’t have your readers thinking the Ukrainian commander-in-chief has Napoleonic tendencies"
Colonel-General Viktor Muzhenko
“We were holding Debaltseve right up until Russian special forces and marines entered the town – we had a supply route, had ammunition, but that was a game-changer and we had to leave,” he said. The forced retreat from Debaltseve happened after the signing of the Minsk agreement, at a time when a ceasefire was supposed to be in place. Col-Gen Muzhenko rejects criticism that the retreat from Debaltseve was “panicked”. Instead, he says military planners could not order the withdrawal as quickly as they had liked since they were waiting for enemy artillery to be repositioned from the east, from where it could easily hit Ukrainian escape routes. As soon as that happened, Ukrainian forces began to withdraw. “The retreat was planned, co-ordinated and staged, and with minimal losses,” he said.
Given the level of hostility that now exists between the two countries, once part of the same state, did Col-Gen Muzhenko ever envisage returning to Russia?
“If this wasn’t an interview, I’d tell you exactly how I’d like to return,” he says.
“But please understand me right – that was a joke.
“I can’t have your readers thinking the Ukrainian commander-in-chief has Napoleonic tendencies.”
Original article here
At first sight it seemed an improbable appointment: a man who had served twice as president of neighbouring Georgia, parachuted in as governor of a single region of Ukraine. But for the government in Kiev, beset in the east by pro-Russian rebels, and facing entrenched corruption and an array of powerful oligarchs elsewhere, it was an obvious choice.
Two months later, Mikheil Saakashvili, exiled from the country he once ran, is settling into his new role as governor of Odessa – not just the Black Sea port city with its population of one million, but the wider and strategically crucial region around it.
He has embarked on a string of dramatic reforms on whose success, he believes, the future of the region, with its large Russian speaking and perhaps Moscow leaning minority, depends. And he will be reminding anyone who will listen that among the greatest threats, not just to Ukraine but to a wide swathe of eastern Europe, is the Russian president, Vladmir Putin.
While the two presidents were initially on good terms when Saakashvili emerged victor of the Rose revolution of 2003, things turned sour quickly.
“Putin does not respect national borders and he will push everywhere,” he said, speaking with bitter experience of a man whose own country went to war with Russia in 2008, but was unable to prevent the seizure of two pro-Russian enclaves, now effectively lost from Georgia’s national territory.
“I predicted that Ukraine would be next in 2008, and that the Baltics would be next,” he said. He believes his prescience at that time means that people should pay attention to what he thinks now.
“There is no way that they will not go to the Baltics next. There is no way that they will not revisit Georgia or Azerbaijan. Putin is obsessed with the idea of testing Nato – this was clear in my long conversations with him.
“Putin said three major things. One, we will make Georgia like Northern Cyprus. The second was that Ukraine was not a country but a territory. And the third thing was that the Baltic countries were not defendable. He said all these things, until we were no longer on talking terms.”
Mr Saakashvili was speaking to The Independent in one of his first interviews with a western newspaper since he was appointed governor of Odessa by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko at the end of May – one day after he voluntarily gave up his Georgian citizenship and assumed Ukrainian nationality.
He made an immediate impression within days of his appointment. He was seen publicly haranguing local prosecutors for running “racketeering schemes” against local businessmen; the video of this performance was watched by millions. Later, he took aim at air regulators, declaring a new open skies policy above Odessa.
“Oligarchs can have their airlines, but they can’t expect me to let them have a monopoly,” he said. Few missed the thinly veiled reference to Igor Kolomoisky, rival and major shareholder in the national flag carrier, Ukraine International, and leading player in the Odessa port.
Sitting in his office on the fifth floor of the Odessa regional government administration building, on the edge of the city centre, he talked in detail about the challenge he faces to overcome the culture of corruption, mafia and powerful oligarchs that have become entrenched in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He says he is not afraid of threats against him personally. “I am the only person still walking who Putin has menaced to kill,” he said, speaking in English. But he does believe that the Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all of which, like Georgia and Ukraine, were once part of the Soviet Union – should increase their defences urgently.
“Putin asked whether Lithuanian president Adamkus really [thought] two or three scrap metal planes from Nato [could] defend him,” recalled Mr Saakashvili, then recounted the Russian president’s chilling next remarks: “We are laughing at this equipment. Does he really think Nato will fight for the Balts?”
Tensions in Odessa were running high after 42 mostly pro-Russian demonstrators were burned to death when a trades union building was set on fire in May last year – an incident that some feared might be used as a pretext by Russia to step in, much as it had when it seized Crimea. Saakashvili has promised further investigations into what happened, and to establish a permanent memorial to those who died.
But his main strategy for making Odessa more secure against any threat from Russia is his drive to eliminate corruption and Odessa’s pervasive mafia – much as he did in Gerogia. While he was president, the country rose to eighth place in ease of doing business indices and his economic achievements were coined the “Georgian miracle” by supporters.
He believes that Putin is nervous about the ideas presented by his Odessa experiment. “Changing the fundamental economics in a Russian-speaking region gives us a chance to kill corruption and undermine the whole of the Putin story,” he said. “Putin says only brutal force can hold post-Soviet countries together. A reformed, thriving, Odessa would challenge that.”
He has no doubt about who his enemies are. Who are Putin’s closest allies? “I would say corrupt officials. Corrupt officials in Ukraine are naturally anti-Western. Usually when you talk to corrupt policemen or customs officers, they are very angry about Americans and they are naturally soft on theRussians.
“And that has been myexperience all the way through. On the other hand, if you look at the younger generation, they want cleaner governments and are very much pro-Western.”
The faded resort and port city of Odessa has certainly seen better days. But the energy and direction he and his team of sharp-suited advisers are bringing have led many to believe that the whole of Ukraine’s faltering reform programme might just be jump-started here.
And following initial bewilderment at the appointment, many Odessa residents and foreign investors have begun to hope in the new governor. “He’s over the top”, says American investor Theadeus Worlff. “But I think that’s what this place needs. It’s a clash of civilisations, and we need a larger than life character.”
Saakashvili seems happy to fulfil that role. “Putin doesn’t like me or people like me,” he said. “We defied Putin’s understanding of what the post-Soviet world was to be.” Under his watch in Georgia, he says, there were “many times less criminality than in Russia” and it was the least corrupt country in the region. “All these things make him nervous. And I think that’s he’s still very worried about Ukraine. Because if Ukraine makes it, everything built around him will collapse.”
Published 21 July 2015. Original story here
Part II of interview here
The bunker is dark, damp and cramped. At its entrance stands a bespectacled former football player from Donetsk who goes by the name of Ostrich. He is shouting frenzied instructions into a radio as mortar rounds from the Ukrainian side pound the rebel positions around us. One lands very close.
“Casualty, we have a casualty,” cries a voice over the airwaves. “Fast One is dead. Dead.”
The former seaside resort of Shirokine, eleven miles east of the Ukrainian-controlled industrial city of Mariupol, offers perhaps the most obvious evidence that the conflict is once again spiralling out of control.
Positions may not have shifted here for many months: the Ukrainians still control the western heights above the village, the Russian-backed rebels controls the streets and the 700 yards in between is a no-mans land. But shelling has intensified significantly and international monitors have not been inside the village for nearly two weeks.
Contrary to Ukrainian government warnings of an rebel offensive on Mariupol through Shirokine, there’s is little evidence of an imminent Russian-backed push. In fact, the rebels seem poorly equipped and demoralised.
There is very little of the control, coordination and supply of men and equipment that typified the Russian-backed assault and capture of the strategic town of Debaltseve in February.
You can stumble into the rebel positions in the centre of Shirokine almost by accident and our presence genuinely surprised the soldiers on duty
The soldiers themselves are a motley mix of locals, mercenaries and Russians. Few of the privates seemed to be regular army soldiers. For many of them, there is nothing left at home, or no home to go back to.
There was “Shadow”, the commanding officer. He came from Zaporozhye, in territory held by the Ukrainian government. Returning there now would be “suicidal”, he said.
Then there was “The Fisherman”, an affable bearded officer from St Petersburg, and the “Little One”, a 21-year old officer from the Russian Caucasus, and “The Fast One”, real name Artyom, a charismatic 28-year old from across the Russian border in Rostov.
He had spoken to us little more than 40 minutes before the fatal mortar fell into his trench position. He was from a troubled family, he had said: his mother was serving time in prison and father had disowned him.
Nonetheless, he was proud to have become a tattoo artist and had promised a free trial of his skills as soon as the war was over. Artyom had been drawn to Ukraine by a desire to “save Russians from fascism”, he said, and he seemed to believe it.
The soldiers told us of their disillusionment with senior commanders, who they said had not been seen “for a long time”.
“They are sending people who don’t even know how to use a rifle,” said Ostrich.
His colleague the Fisherman added: “It’s good you’re here, because you’d have got a very different story in HQ.”
“As day turns to night, you’re happy you’re alive. If you wake up in the morning it’s a miracle”
The soldiers said that one or two losses per day had become normal, and as there didn’t appear to be more than 50 troops on the front line, that is an alarming rate of attrition.
And then there are the civilians. Names of those who have stayed are scribbled on the front gates but the soldiers suggest that no more than two dozen people are still living in the village, and these are undoubtedly the poorest and most infirm.
Yuri Gudilov, 66, said he had stayed despite the danger because he could not afford to rent an apartment in nearby Mariupol.
“My pension is 1500 hyrvina (£50)” and a rental costs 2000 hyrivna alone”, he explained but conceded that “only a fool” would not be frightened by what was happening in the village.
“I’m holding out, but it’s unlikely I’ll make it through the winter if this continues”, he said.
“You’re both shooting, and all we want is peace,” he told a rebel soldier. “I just don’t understand what you’re fighting for.”
“For Novorossiya,” says the soldier.
“Yeah, right,” says Mr Gudilov.
The officer known as the Little One whispers not to pay him any attention. “We’re aware he’s a Ukrie”, he reasoned.
The next time we see the Little One is at an evacuation point in the east side of the village. We meet under the cover of darkness — because leaving during daylight hours is considered too risky.
The agreed plan is that we travel together with Artyom’s corpse. The Little One, as Artyom’s commander, is emotional.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’ve wet myself from grief. He was my best friend”, he says. “They are sending us here, sending us all to his deaths”.
As soon as he had delivered the body to the morgue in Novoazovsk, 15 miles behind the ceasefire line, the Little One says is going directly to see his commanding officer to demand his company receive proper reinforcements.
“Otherwise we’ll all just dismiss ourselves from duty”, he said.
A day later he is back on the front in Shirokine, having been promised reinforcements and a new offensive on Ukrainian positions.
He’s not convinced it’s going to happen.
Published 2 June 2015. Link to story here
The mercury stops at -30 and fierce winds whirl snow through the improvised campsite. Stuck out in frontline positions near Debaltseve in the Donetsk region, the soldiers of Ukraine’s 128th mechanised brigade have observed the nature of Ukraine’s “ceasefire” at first hand. Their sunken, haunted stares, speak of its success.
“The politicians might call it whatever they want, but what is said in Kiev and what is happening on the ground are two very different things,” says Private Yury Trush, who has been stationed in Debaltsevo since September.
According to Private Trush, military activity has been relatively consistent throughout the ceasefire, with the exception of three weeks in late December, when things became “relatively calmer”. That ended abruptly on New Year’s Day, he said, when the region once again became subjected to regular shelling by mortars, rockets, and heavier artillery.
Debaltseve, back under Kiev’s control since late July, is one of four or five key strategic points on the military map of eastern Ukraine. As an important transport hub for road and rail, Kiev has been keen to hold on to the town despite obvious geographical vulnerability – surrounded as it is by Russian-backed rebel forces to the west, east and south.
From day one, pro-Russian agitators have made threats to fully encircle and ambush the Ukrainian troops based there while the city and its environs have been among the most shelled of the conflict.
Approximately a thousand homes have been damaged or destroyed since July, and military and civilian deaths run into the mid-hundreds.
Developments over the past week have done much to dash immediate hopes for a political solution to the conflict that has dragged on since April. As Ukrainian authorities introduced wider restrictions on travel in and out of rebel-held territories, fighting in Donetsk resumed at levels not seen since September.
From Sunday night to Monday morning, Ukrainian military authorities recorded 63 separate attacks on their positions. Heavy shelling was also clearly audible in the regions adjacent to rebel-held Horlivka and Yenakieve to the south-west.
Several new videos of military convoys moving in rebel-held territories have also appeared on social media in the past few days. One, filmed on Saturday, showed a column of at least 30 modern military vehicles travelling in the border town of Krasnodon in the Luhansk region.
Andrei, a resident of Horlivka in the Donetsk region, told The Independent that several dozen new military vehicles had entered the city in the past week. Given the difficulty in accessing the city, it is impossible to verify the claims. Yesterday, Andrei Purgin, Deputy Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic declared that rebel forces had “returned to a phase of active military operations”, and it now seems probable that turbulent times await the region.
What is less clear is whether any new push from either side will make any material difference to the demarcation lines, which have been reasonably stable since September.
Three lines of defences have been prepared by Ukrainian forces all around the region, and given the abundance of troops and military equipment on both sides, any military push is now likely to prove costly.
Military press officer Pavel Parfenyuk said that Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve were ready for every eventuality. “Everybody understands that it’s better to be prepared than to look for reasons later – we are ready for an all-out war, we are ready to attack and we are ready to defend”, he said.
The bitter winter conditions had made operations on the ground difficult, he admitted, but “soldiers understand this is not a Black Sea resort”. Confused and fearful, locals are also resigned to hostilities continuing for the foreseeable future.
At the beginning, many of them signed up to the promises of improved pensions and social provisions, and so supported the pro-Russian rebels. Many say they voted for the 11 May “independence referendum” without really understanding what it meant.
Today, the general opinion on the street has changed to ambivalence. “We’re for anybody, so long as the fighting stops,” many residents repeat to The Independent.
Nina Nikolaeyvna, a local shopkeeper, says she has a generally positive view of the soldiers based in Debaltseve. “There are good soldiers and there are mad soldiers – but this is just like the local population,” she says, before nodding to damage on her tiled floor caused by Kalashnikovs.
She says she is often frightened of the shelling, so sleeps in the bomb shelter next to her shop so as not to be outside for long at night. “People have taken to drink – it’s the one way to stop the fear,” she says. The selection on show in Nina Nikolaeyvna’s shop seems to prove the point – there are more than 30 varieties of strong spirits, a few snacks and not much else. Soldiers admit that a significant proportion of the locals remain hostile towards them. Some refuse to believe rebel fighters might be firing at their “own”.
Others blame the Ukrainian army for making the town a military target. Graffiti around the town declares “Death to the Banderovists [Nazi sympathisers]!” and implores locals to bear arms against an “army of advancing fascists”.
Military authorities have decided to leave the graffiti up for the time being. “It’s so bizarre, we just find it amusing,” says Zoreslav Kainski, deputy commander of the Lviv police battalion, which is tasked with patrolling the town and keeping public order.
He says that he is not offended by local opinions, which he puts down to the absence of Ukrainian television in the town.
As across much of Donetsk region, the only terrestrial channels available to watch are the Russian and rebel channels, which tend to offer a particular kind of news angle. “It’s the television speaking,” Mr Kainski says with a shrug. “And you can’t win them all.”
Published 12 January 2015. Link to original publication here
Commuters were waiting to travel to work. The tram and bus terminal in Kuprina Street, south Donetsk, was busy. Some had boarded a waiting bus when, at around 9.30am today, missiles fell from the sky, killing 13 people and injuring another 20.
“Here I am, cleaning up blood and brains, and they have the nerve to call us terrorists,” cried Irina Petrovna, 52, as she held up a blue bucket after the shelling in Ukraine’s troubled east.
The event served as the latest reminder of how December’s uneasy truce has broken down and given way to full-scale hostilities. It came eight days after a civilian bus was shelled while waiting at a Ukrainian checkpoint on the Mariupol-Donetsk highway.
Over the last week, Donetsk city centre has become largely deserted after dark. The thunder of artillery is commonplace. Fighting has been concentrated in the districts nearest Donetsk’s ruined airport, located six miles to the north of the city. But shelling has in recent days also reached central streets. Donetsk airport has become a symbolic Stalingrad, with stakes high for both sides. Without the airport, Russian-backed rebel forces were unable to claim control of the city. For the Ukrainians, the loss of the airport would represent a big moral and strategic defeat, with possible consequences for Ukrainian sovereignty in other cities.
Over the last week there have been various versions as to the situation at the airport, with each side claiming full control. On Wednesday, however, Kiev appeared to admit defeat by stating it was concentrating on holding positions around neighbouring villages. The military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov said government forces had withdrawn. “We left the new terminal because it looks like a sieve and there’s simply nowhere to hide there,” he said.
The Independent was on several occasions able to speak to “Slavik”, the nom de guerre of a 22-year-old Ukrainian paratrooper serving in the 80th brigade. Last weekend, Slavik said he was one of a number of Ukrainian soldiers still in the airport’s new terminal. He was nervous, explaining that rebel forces had encircled the unit, that Ukrainian artillery was providing “insufficient” cover, and that they were experiencing heavy bombardment.
Slavik said he could see a number of soldiers on the floor – “some dead, some injured”. Ukrainian forces had not been able to create a corridor to evacuate the seriously injured, he added. By Monday this week, The Independent was unable to reach Slavik. At some point during the course of the day, the new terminal building was bombed by rebel forces, crushing the Ukrainian soldiers that remained inside. Many were killed in the explosion, and others remained trapped under the rubble.
Speaking to The Independent on Wednesday, the Ukrainian negotiator Vladimir Ruban revealed that he was in discussions to allow access to the terminal to remove trapped soldiers who, he said, were dying from injuries.
Later that day, rebel forces released videos showing they had captured 11 Ukrainian soldiers from the airport, including Slavik. Today he was at the front of a column of war prisoners, brought to the scene of the Kuprina Street bus explosion for a public parade of disgrace.
Locals who had gathered for the parade were shouting insults, spitting and on occasion striking the prisoners. The rebel military escort did little to impede them from doing so.
Much confusion remains as to who, or what, was behind the bus attack. Craters at the scene suggested they were consistent with shorter-range, high-trajectory missiles. Rebel authorities at the scene also put forward a mortar theory, contending that they had been launched by pro-Ukrainian partisan groups from within the city.
At the same time, the rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko declared there had been artillery strikes in the area, and a rebel representative claimed a 152mm howitzer had landed in a factory alongside the bus terminal.
Near one of the residential blocks to have been hit in recent shelling, 25 Prospekt Mira, there were two craters. Vyacheslav Saransky, who was at home at the time, says that the missiles landed at 8.15am, and that two residents had been hospitalised.
An American military specialist who saw photographs of the damage said he believed it was probably caused by “a 120mm mortar, of type 2B11”. The most common variant of this mortar munition is the so-called Sani (Sleigh), developed by the Soviet Union in 1981. The maximum range of such missiles is 4.7 miles, less than the nearest known Ukrainian military position.
Whichever way this attack is interpreted – as evidence of rebels shooting their own, or of pro-Ukrainian partisans operating within the city – it is certain to radicalise both sides further.
“If the enemy does not want to keep the ceasefire, we will kick them in the teeth”, said Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko.
Link to original story here
Some of the soldiers were agitated, others euphoric. Shouts of “Glory to Ukraine” went up, and victory salutes were brandished. Yet their posturing seemed hollow, given the operation they were engaged in: Ukraine’s withdrawal from Debaltseve, after days of fighting against Russian-backed rebels in the strategic town.
The vehicles came thick and fast. Tanks, armoured cars, trucks, school buses, ambulances — a lot of ambulances; the evacuation used whatever transport the military could get its hands on. Some of the soldiers made the last few miles on foot.
As outgoing missiles roared from the nearby fields, one soldier was flung from an armoured vehicle that had been travelling too fast. He was knocked unconscious and seriously injured, while his comrades had little patience with the prying eyes of the media that gathered. “Take your f***ing cameras 20 miles up the road,” said one, pointing towards Debalsteve.
“Tell Putin he’s a dick, and Poroshenko that he’s his used condom,” shouted another soldier. Few had positive words for their political or military leaders.
Last week’s Minsk agreements promised a ceasefire, but offered no resolution to the standoff at Debaltseve, a transport hub in the east of Ukraine where government forces were partly surrounded. From almost the moment the deal was signed, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted “rebel forces” had undertaken a “defensive encirclement operation” of the town. Until today, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko insisted it remained under Ukrainian control. That Putin’s assessment was closer to the truth – but both sides were ready for the fight – raises questions as to how realistic a ceasefire was ever likely to be.
Soldiers retreating from Debaltseve told The Independent that the railway town had been effectively encircled for 10 days, ever since rebel forces took the village of Lohvinove, four miles north of the town.
From this point the main highway out of Debaltseve became impassable. It was not impossible to break through enemy lines along alternative country roads, the soldiers said, but such an operation was perilous. On Monday, only one vehicle from six made it through to the other side. Not long after the battle, rebel forces encircled the main military headquarters to the south side of the town.
A Ukrainian communications officer with the nom-de-guerre of “Iron”, told The Independent his group of perhaps 50 soldiers had been surrounded. “We still had munitions, but we were relieved when the order came through to withdraw,” he said. Fighting had been relentless throughout the period of the supposed ceasefire, he said.
After destroying 90 per cent of the military equipment at the base, the soldiers began leaving Debaltseve just after midnight on Tuesday evening. Iron’s group eventually reached Artemivsk, the next town north, at 9am the next day, having survived two ambushes. They broke through with “minimal casualties.”
Other units do not seem to have been as lucky. Speaking anonymously, an officer of the Krivbas battalion said that he estimated 10 per cent of the 400-strong battalion had been killed in the retreat, with a further 10 per cent taken captive. Their convoy came under mortar shelling, he said. Part of it was destroyed, and many of the soldiers made their way by running and crawling through mine fields.
“You forget about the mines when you’re being shot at,” said Klim Kaznachey, a soldier. Having survived a similar encirclement in Ilovaisk last August, he had critical words for military commanders, complaining that a lack of planning that left soldiers surrounded and vulnerable. “Both situations were idiotic, if we carry on like this we will lose Ukraine,” he said.
Medics at a holding hospital in Artemvisk were guarded about the numbers of wounded and killed, claiming such information was classified. One suggested between 80 and 100 wounded soldiers arrived on Wednesday.
The Independent saw nine wooden coffins and four body bags lying outside the local morgue. Between two to five thousand civilians remain in Debaltseve, unable or unwilling to leave. The town itself is lifeless: livestock roam the central streets and people rarely leave underground bomb shelters, some of them apparently running out of water. Humanitarian workers have been unable to access the town for over a week. Volunteer workers Diana Makarova and Natalya Voronkova, who had until recently organised much of the evacuation of Debaltseve, said they had received hundreds of desperate requests from the town and surrounding villages.
The volunteers said military activity had prevented them from helping for the last 10 days. “One day we received a text from a woman asking us to save her mother and grandmother; two days later came another message, asking for help to bury her mother, and save her grandmother”, said Ms Voronkova. “Shelling doesn’t scare me, but this impotence is the most frightening feeling in the world.”
Published 18 February 2015. Link to story here
Ilona already knows the sound a bomb makes. The three-year-old is keen to impress she can tell the difference between a mortar and the thud of the trap door, which periodically slams shut above her head.
The other children in the bomb shelter are even more knowledgeable. They know what a “Smerch” rocket is, and how it differs from the smaller “Uragan” and larger “Tochka-U” missiles. The boys explain how the rattle of machine gun fire can be differentiated from mortars, and from rocket launchers.
There are 40 adults and 12 children living in the damp and cramped cellars of one house on Kosareva Street in Petrovsky district in west Donetsk. Three of the children in the bomb shelter are now sure they want to become war journalists. Two are eyeing jobs as soldiers, and one wants to be an aid worker.
This week is an landmark of sorts for them, marking five months of life underground.
Their home in Petrovsky is the last settlement before a buffer zone between rebel-controlled Donetsk and its suburb Marinka, which has been seized by government forces. The district is one of the most dangerous in all Ukraine. Almost half of the concrete residential blocks have been damaged. It remains too risky to spend long periods above ground. Nearly all the adults in the shelter have stories of a friend or relative dead or maimed. And all understand their temporary home offers little protection in the case of a direct hit.
Natalya Leonidovna, 59, tells The Independent that her sister and husband had been killed during fierce fighting in August. “Life is not without difficulties down here, but it gives us the best chance of staying alive,” she says. “My sister and her husband died: all they did was go out into the courtyard, and it was wrong place and wrong time.”
The adults do their best to keep the children active and amused, though depression is written across their faces. Some continue to work, mostly in the local mine, where salaries haven’t been paid for months. Pensioners have not received any payments since July. Some need medication, but it is either unavailable or too expensive. Temperatures regularly drop to an unseasonable minus 22C.
In the absence of legitimate government, self-organised local volunteer groups are doing their best to fill the void. The “Responsible Citizens of Donbass” – an unlikely union of independent journalists, local politicians and businessmen – is the most visible of these ad-hoc formations. Every day, the team of volunteers brave missiles and icy roads to deliver blankets, clothes, basic medicine, food and children’s toys. They are a lifeline for many thousands of people across Donetsk.
Evgeny Shibalov, a journalist for one of Ukraine’s most influential newspapers Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, is one of the original five “responsible citizens”. He says the group was formed in response to Kiev’s withdrawal from the region – a position “driven by short-term politics, ruthlessness and an incapacity for discussion”.
The decision to stop pension payments has been disastrous. Mr Shibalov says: “Kiev seems to be fighting for territory alone; it has forgotten about the people.”
There is talk of yet another “ceasefire” in the city this week, but the evidence on the ground is thin.
The underground residents of Kosareva Street say shelling has intensified over the last seven days. And even when artillery battles eventually die down, they face a long road to normality. “War chips away at the confidence – and then fear begins its work,” says Dr Ivan Moskovoi, head doctor at the local psychiatric hospital.
It is not the first time that Dr Moskovoi has experienced a humanitarian crisis. Back in 1986, he was one of a group of medics sent to Chernobyl to administer emergency psychological support to the local population.
Then and now, he observes, he saw people go one of two ways. There is a first group – full of bravado – that quickly gets used to the situation. “These are the guys who eat fish from the river without thinking, and die soon afterwards,” he recalls. The second group responds through fear and stress. “This group develops debilitating mental illness.”
The psychiatric hospital came under attack in December by missiles probably fired from the north-west, where Ukrainian forces were based. Staff did what they could to repair the hospital, but the building remains without central heating. Patients huddle around a single stove to keep warm.
The shelling is the latest in a series of disasters for the patients, many of whom are struggling to process the conflict. “Healthy people can develop coping strategies, but mentally ill people have a tendency to become terrified,” says Dr Moskovoi. One patient became so scared that he decided to attack a pro-Russian fighter when he went home for the weekend. “I won’t tell you what happened next,” Dr Moskovoi adds.
The idea of keeping a psychiatric hospital open in an active war zone could be viewed as ill-advised. Kiev authorities had mooted the idea of moving the hospital from Donetsk, but have offered no assistance in moving. It is, Dr Moskovoi says, the “definition of madness”. Kiev stopped paying staff salaries in October; his Chernobyl pension was also blocked.
After five months under artillery fire, much from Ukrainian positions, and the cutting of welfare payments, few in Donetsk’s Petrovsky district remain well-disposed to the Kiev government. In Donetsk there was a constant refrain by all those we spoke to: “When will the war end?” they asked.
On Tuesday, the country’s President Poroshenko hopes to have an answer as ceasefire talks once again resume.
Published 8 December 2015. Original story here
A week before he died, Aleksey Mozgovoi was dismissive about threats to his life. “They wouldn’t risk making anybody a hero,” he told The Independent. Those would be his last words on the subject. Seven days after his last interview, on Saturday at about 5.30pm local time, the outspoken rebel commander was assassinated in a hail of gunfire.
Mr Mozgovoi could not have failed to understand the dangers he was facing. Barely two months earlier, he survived an almost identical ambush on the Alchevsk-Luhansk highway just outside the village of Mikhailovka – almost the same spot where he would eventually meet his end. Then, Mr Mozgovoi escaped with minor shrapnel wounds: the directional mines used in the attack were too far from the road to cause serious injury. Mr Mozgovoi had described receiving death threats from “corrupt” people connected to the “feeding trough” of humanitarian aid. But he had always declined to name names.
Directional mines were again believed to be at play when he died. Investigators working at the scene told The Independent that they had found craters from mines as well as spent shells consistent with machine-gun and Kalashnikov fire. A trail of blood, glass and tyre tracks left no doubt as to the terror of Mr Mozgovoi’s final seconds. Six others were believed to have died in the attack, including Mr Mozgovoi’s press secretary and three civilians.
Authorities of the “Luhansk People’s Republic” have been quick to push a theory that subversive groups loyal to Kiev were responsible for the assassination. This has also become the official position of the acting commander of Mr Mozgovoi’s “Ghost” battalion, Yuri Shevchenko. “I believe that in the context of war, it is criminal to put forward other versions,” he told The Independent.
In the seemingly lawless rebel-held eastern regions of Ukraine, many factions of rebel groups have emerged in recent months. A “Ukrainian nationalist” group identifying itself as “Shadow” claimed responsibility for the attack. It has, however, made similar and generally unreliable claims in the past. Few in Mr Mozgovoi’s battalion seem convinced by the official story of Ukrainian subversive groups. Kirill Androsov, a deputy commander with responsibility for humanitarian aid, said he would “never” believe such a story. “His killers were internal,” Mr Androsov said elliptically, refusing to elaborate.
Another soldier on the highway, going by the nom-de-guerre of “Tiny”, said he did not believe Ukrainians had the capacity to launch such an elaborate attack deep inside rebel-controlled territory.
The Luhansk official press service issued a statement saying that the assassination of Mr Mozgovoi had been designed to “undermine the union between Alchevsk and Luhansk”.
It is well known that Mr Mozgovoi had difficult relations with the Russian-annointed leaders in the region. Separatist leaders in Luhansk, for their part, have made little secret that they considered Mr Mozgovoi to be an exasperating partner. After the removal of other outspoken leaders, Mr Mozgovoi had also become the most visible. In January, Alexander Bednov, commander of “Batman” battalion, a unit with strong Russian links, was killed in Luhansk under suspicious circumstances. Later, another field commander, Cossack leader Nikolai Kositsyn, was sent back to his native Russia.
Yesterday, as the soldiers of Ghost battalion gathered around the Alchevsk security services building that Mr Mozgovoi had made his home, they mumbled about their shock at their commander’s death. Some had been drinking heavily through the night. Deputy Commander Androsov said he had lost a “father figure”. He said: “Aleksey changed me. Before, I always thought about myself, but now I think about the people.” Mr Androsov revealed that some soldiers had found Mr Mozgovoi’s methods “too severe” and had deserted. The people who remained in the battalion were hardcore “idealists”, he said.
Among the three civilian victims of Saturday’s attack was Yakov Tarakai, 37, and his heavily pregnant wife. Yakov’s mother, Raisa Tarakai, had also made her way to the gathering outside the Alchevsk security services building. Dressed in a black headscarf, Mrs Tarakai said her family had been against the war. “Everyone thinks we’re separatists, we’re rebels, but we’re peaceful people, and we just don’t want our kids to die,” she sobbed. “I just can’t imagine that I won’t be seeing Yasha again.”
Several of the soldiers were in tears. “Mother, forgive us, it’s war”, one said. “I can’t imagine that I won’t be able to go upstairs to see my commander,” added an emotional Mr Androsov, who promised that the battalion would cover funeral costs for the pensioner.
Unhappy with the suggestion of burying her son in military uniform, Mrs Tarakai eventually managed to persuade the deputy commander to buy him a proper suit. “He was a young man and he hadn’t prepared for his funeral,” she said.
Many now assume the future of Mr Mozgovoi’s battalion to be under threat following his assassination. Such a development would follow the example of Mr Bednov’s Batman battalion, which was quietly dissolved following his death. But representatives of the Ghost battalion said it would continue under a new commander, but they did not seem overly confident.
By 6pm last night, a crowd of about 600 soldiers and locals had gathered at the main square in Alchevsk, a town north-east of Donestsk, to mark the passing of a man who had become an unlikely local celebrity. They were treated to a reading of Mr Mozgovoi’s own, eerily appropriate poetry.
It’s not so bad to die in May
It’s easy to dig the grave
Nightingales will sing
For the last time –
And with it, an era seemed to pass.
Published 24 May 2015. Link to story here
The nearer you get to the frontline, the better the soup. This unexpected principle is one of few that still unify the warring parties in eastern Ukraine. And in the heavily sandbagged military HQ in separatist-held Stakhanov, no amount of artillery fire in nearby Pervomaysk or evident difficulties in the food supply chain can get in the way of cook Galina Dmitrevna’s exceptional borsch.
Dmitrevna is one of six women working 24-7 in three shifts. She does so without respite, feeding dozens of ragged and largely uncommunicative fighters that stream in and out of her kitchen. The only time she seems to look up is to register emotion at the news coming from the other side of the front, as dutifully transmitted by “Cossack Radio.” The updates are unrelentingly gloomy: “Two pensioners have been violently robbed by Ukrainian soldiers”; “Ukrainian teachers are being forced to work without pay”; “The World Bank is discussing ending financial assistance to Ukraine.” Only Russia is the beneficiary of good news: The West is now, apparently, ready to remove all sanctions. It’s an exclusive of sorts.
A few doors down from the kitchen is the smoke-filled nerve center of Commander Pavel Dremov’s military operation. Dremov is a 37-year old former bricklayer who has emerged as the savior of Stakhanov, a hitherto-forgotten mining town in the northwest corner of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic. What is interesting is that the commander has styled himself in complete opposition to his fellow separatists in Luhansk and what he calls its “shady businessmen,” who deal “money, power, and ceasefires with the Kiev ‘junta.’” Dremov has offered Stakhanov citizens an alternative vision—a new, socialist, neo-Soviet “Cossack” republic that works for the people, especially the poor and elderly. And, as goes without saying, one that ignores any talk of a ceasefire deal.
It’s a call that falls on easy ears in Stakhanov. Named after the Soviet shock worker famed for record coal production (fallaciously, historians say), the town’s best days are long behind it. For a start, this most-famous-of-all-mining towns no longer has any working mine to speak of. The decline of Stakhanov, which accelerated during the post-Soviet 1990s, saw working men and women undergo a humiliating transformation from the Soviet Union’s most privileged class to one living among a cancer of crime, poverty, gambling and oligarchy. Many Stakhanov citizens were forced to travel to Russia in search of any old seasonal work to support their families. Others reluctantly acquiesced to the new ways of working. In short, Stakhanov was looking for a break; and when Ukraine fell into revolutionary anarchy earlier this year, some of its more active citizens took their chance.
The first separatist tent appeared on the main square in Stakhanov on February 17, almost a month before the Crimea referendum, and a fortnight before mass rallies began in Donetsk. Despite legal threats from Kiev, there was little local intervention to stem the initial tide. By the beginning of April, the movement had reached critical mass over in the regional capital, Luhansk, where several of Stakhanov’s citizens were leading the charge. One, Valery Bolotov, an associate of the region’s most controversial oligarch and politician, Oleksandr Yefremov, would go on to become the head of the breakaway Luhansk Republic (he was removed in August, and remains out of favor). Another local boy, Oleksiy Karyakin, was one of a group of activists whose arrest served as the pretext for the storming of the Luhansk Security Services headquarters on April 6. This was a key turning-point in the conflict—it led to its immediate militarization when the headquarters’s arms room was unlocked a day later. Karyakin remains a leading figure in the Luhansk “People’s Government” today.
Eight months on from those modest February beginnings, Stakhanov’s main square is again in focus, this time filled elbow-to-elbow for a mass rally. There are perhaps three thousand locals here, and the acoustics are so terrible that within ten minutes everyone is suffering a collective migraine. The event has been styled as an opportunity for the converted to ask questions of their new leaders; for others, it is a moment to assess the colors of their new self-appointed authorities. It is a tightly controlled operation. Plain-clothed agents with radio headpieces mingle among the crowds. Cossack soldiers—most, it seems, sporting battle scars—strut the stage menacingly. Occasionally, they huddle to share a joke or relay information, no doubt relating to the now heavy artillery fire in neighboring Debaltsevo and Pervomaysk. One Cossack soldier decides to show off his newborn baby girl to the crowd.
Commander Dremov’s men perform carrier pigeon roles, heading into the crowd to collect written questions for the People’s Commander. Sometimes, they slip in a helpful planted question of their own, such as: “When will we liberate (Ukrainian-controlled) Lysychansk and Severdonetsk”? (Dremov smiles, before replying “soon”). The straight-talking bricklayer clearly enjoys playing to the crowd: “We’ve had enough corruption and slavery here for a century! We’re not fools—neither Poroshenko nor Putin are interested in an honest country!” Nothing would be allowed to get in the way of destiny, he declared: “We will build a Cossack republic right here in Stakhanov!”
“So we’re all Cossacks now?” whispers a man standing to my right. “Shh, Vitya,” says the woman alongside him. “Think before you open your mouth.”
It wouldn’t be right to say that the dissenting voice represented anything other than a fringe concern in Stakhanov. Dremov’s populist, anti-oligarchic rhetoric seemed to electrify the crowd. They chanted his name. They ahh-ed in delight as he pressed local boy Karyakin—appearing as the representative from “over there” in Luhansk—for a firmer promise on pensions. They applauded when he announced that local businessman turned “People’s Mayor” Sergey Zhevlakov had signed a ten-year “contract” pledging his services to the town, and that he would be supervised every step of the way. “People think that it will be the same as before. It won’t! If you have any information on traitors stealing from the people, tell us! There won’t be any thieves here in Stakhanov!”
As soon as Dremov leaves the stage, he is embraced and cuddled by an elderly woman. She clings hard onto his side for several minutes as he continues to field questions. Another middle-aged woman, of rounded, well-worn features and dyed red hair, is the next to approach. “I know this fascist, Banderovist, pro-Ukrainian woman,” she says. “We need to sort her out. I have her address.” Dremov takes a moment, before declaring that there was nothing he could do. “But she pushed an old babushka, I saw it with my own eyes,” protests the woman. The commander is unmoved. “Your acquaintance can’t be punished for her views alone. If she is not actively working against us, she will be left alone.” It was not immediately clear how much the presence of a foreign journalist influenced Dremov’s unexpectedly liberal position.
Back inside Stakhanov military headquarters, Dremov speaks with disarming charm and fluency. He is only ever ruffled by a question about his campaign, which, it was gently suggested, had taken on cultish qualities. He insisted he was not interested in popularity contests, let alone politics: “You say I am Pavel Dremov this, and Pavel Dremov that, but the fact is they are Pavel Dremov. We are all Pavel Dremov.” He had every intention on returning to being a bricklayer when the war was over, he claimed. The same could not be said about those in Luhansk: “Those people forget where they came from. You saw Karyakin squirming earlier on at the rally? It was like watching a politician from Kiev. He couldn’t answer a question straight.”
A day earlier, the press people in Luhansk had been at pains to deny any rift with Stakhanov, claiming talk of a split was the work of pro-Ukrainian propaganda. Dremov made it clear, however, that all was not well. “Do you want to know why I don’t like the Luhansk Republic? It’s because they have got used to doing nothing, to giving nothing,” he said. Greed and “seats of power” were the only reason they had signed the ceasefire deal. Why else would they agree to such a soft deal, he argued—at a time that Ukrainian forces were in panicky retreat?
There are few absolutes in eastern Ukraine today, and it would be wrong to suggest other separatist leaders do not share a desire to expand territories beyond current borders. But the deal on a “ceasefire”—which in reality exists only in areas sufficiently removed from strategic front lines—does seem to have divided the separatists. One camp, supporting the deal, consists of relatively more disciplined and Moscow-dependent forces, and prioritizes rebuilding before any further military moves. The second camp, relatively more belligerent and independent, advocates immediate military advance, complains about the other side being money-obsessed, and freely talks about the Ukrainian conflict being a prelude to World War III.
Without mass Russian military backing—which does not appear to be part of the current script, though that may change—breakaway forces like Dremov’s Cossacks are unlikely to make significant inroads. Ukrainian forces have regrouped and dug in two strong lines of defenses to the North and West. But the resolution of the standoff between the various camps is of vital importance to the broader viability of the new de facto separatist statelets. Economies are already dysfunctional, with significant pressures on cash flow amid few concrete promises from Russia; war damage is serious and debilitating; and winter and the first snows have made their introductions. If the authorities are unable to protect the population from major humanitarian disaster—or at the very least, if they are unable to blame the Ukrainians for it—a currently supportive public may well move against them, and quickly.
If that happens, come spring things may well look very different for Commander Dremov and his Cossack republic dream.
Published 2 November 2014. Original story here
One sunny afternoon at the end of April, a group of youngsters made the short drive north from Kramatorsk, a small, industrial town in east Ukraine, to picnic by Lake Abazovka. For the group, it was a time to escape the violence that was consuming their hometown. There were eight of them: four men, three women, and a boy, ranging from eight years old to early thirties. They got to work setting up a barbecue. They’d just cracked open the first bottle of wine when six sturdy-looking men in sports attire approached looking for a fight.
One of the men, the first to speak, demanded to know whose side they were on, meaning were they for Russia, or Ukraine? Instinctively they knew that there’d be little to gain from expressing their pro-Ukrainian allegiance so Roman, 22, told them simply: "We’re on the side of peace." But pacifism was not an acceptable position in the New Donbass, the men told him, and they pressed the picnicking group again for an answer. When Roman and another of the men, Pavel, 32, reiterated a pacifist’s position, they were invited to "come for a walk," so that they could be "shown what peace really means." And then they led the four young men in the group a short distance away from the lake.
"They started beating us," says Roman, "which perhaps isn’t so unusual in Kramatorsk. It happens." But then, he says, he heard a deafening noise, a "clap — really loud, really sharp." At first he didn’t understand what had happened, but then he saw a hole had been shot clean through his friend’s hand. "Nobody saw the gun," Roman said. Even more frightening was how close his friend had been holding his hand to his body. "A few inches to the left and it would have gone into his stomach." The men left in a hurry, seemingly satisfied with their work. And the group of picnickers rushed their friend to a local hospital, where he was stitched up, bandaged, and given painkillers.
There was no question of reporting the incident to the Kramatorsk police. Ever since the chief of police, Vitaly Kolupai, was escorted out of the police station by armed pro-Russian forces on April 12, law enforcement in Kramatorsk has been on something of an extended holiday.
Calling the emergency number, 102, is an exercise in futility: The line will ring and ring without answer. Calling the non-emergency duty number, 6-99-73, yields similar results. The officers who remain on duty proudly wear their St. George ribbons — the adopted symbol of pro-Russian forces in the region. When asked, they say they wear them out of "patriotic duty." Those that don’t share their taste for such iconography are reported to be out "sick," which could mean anything from staying at home to being held against their will in neighboring Sloviansk. It’s been widely reported in Ukrainian media that Kolupai himself is being held in Sloviansk, the main operational base of the pro-Russian military in the region.
"It’s never been that easy getting through to the [Kramatorsk] police," says Svetlana, a journalist who works for the local newspaper. "But it’s never been this bad — that they don’t pick up the phone at all." She says that she plans on leaving town. Apart from the brewing confrontations and violence of the last few weeks, it’s been a difficult year for the paper. Falling sales and a lack of advertiser confidence has meant that last month’s wages dropped below $100, and there is little hope this month will be any better. One of the reporters says he has planted potatoes and beans just in case things get really bad. "It’s a good plan," says Svetlana. "Beans are meat." She fumbles in her handbag and produces a small, shot-sized bottle of Belarusian vodka, on sale locally for a few hyrvina. "This is where I am," she says. "Sometimes it’s the only way you can calm your nerves."
There was something surreal about the Kramatorsk streets in April. On the surface, people appeared to be going about their business like normal — women pushed prams, 20-somethings sat in cafes drinking Italian coffee, and excited toddlers pedaled around in rent-by-the-hour toy buggies. But just across the square, a dozen or so pro-Russian "little green men" wearing identical boots and fatigues were stationed in front at the occupied executive office building, every so often performing synchronized Kalashnikov drills for the handful of supporters gathered out front. The soldiers had been in place since April 21, when they came into town to take over from the mostly local militia, who had occupied the buildings since they were seized nine days earlier. It’s widely assumed that the new guard includes Russian citizens and trained soldiers; what is less clear is who is paying them, if indeed they are being paid at all.
It takes only a couple of targeted questions to bring the fear of ordinary people to the surface. Around the corner from the occupied police station, an elderly woman is selling newspapers from a small table. With a little coaxing, she opens up. "I’m scared," she said. "Not for myself — I’m just an old bird — but I don’t want the kids to go through what we went through 20 years ago." Indeed, just a few weeks ago, Kramatorsk was a reasonably stable and almost prosperous place, with working factories — a rarity in this part of the world. But during the 1990s, it was better known for its gangsters, who operated with impunity out of the 17th district in the old part of town. For those trying to lead honest lives here, the feeling of lawlessness on the streets has reignited fears that those wild years are returning.
The signs are worrying. Beginning April 27, groups of armed men began to walk coolly and confidently around town. There have now been reports of attacks on a showroom at a car dealership, and on a bank (specifically an armored truck). A week ago, leaflets were also distributed at the market in the old section of town, purportedly from the "Donetsk People’s Republic," claiming that traders would be required to pay "taxes" to the new authorities. Representatives of the Donetsk People’s Republic were quick to deny their involvement; indeed, why would anyone want to put these demands down on paper? But the pro-Russia militia’s response — visiting local newspaper offices in balaclavas and demanding that the paper print their denial (and that they be allowed to check all final proofs henceforth) — spoke volumes about their democratic intentions.
Some locals suggest Kramatorsk’s organized criminals may be supporting the pro-Russian militia. It was noted, for example, that "Sktrok" and "Komar," two recently-released gangsters from the 17th district, were in the supporting mob when the Kramatorsk police building was seized on April 12. Yet hard evidence beyond this is understandably vague. No local journalist dares to investigate the possible links. "You can pay with your head for such inquisitiveness," one said.
For any Ukrainian, the perils of investigative journalism are automatically associated with the name of Georgy Gongadze. Gongadze was a fearless, muckraking political journalist, abducted and brutally murdered in Kiev 14 years ago (some say on the orders of then-President Leonid Kuchma, though this has never been conclusively proven). Kramatorsk had its own "Gongadze" — a TV journalist by the name of Igor Aleksandrov. Prior to his untimely death in 2001, Aleksandrov was producing a series of programs that exposed the links between politicians, law enforcement, and organized crime in the town. The third episode of that series never went on air. According to witnesses, he was assaulted by three thugs carrying baseball bats as he entered his office in neighboring Sloviansk on July 3, leaving him with a cracked skull. He died in the hospital from the injuries
four days later.
Overseeing the investigation into his murder was regional prosecutor Viktor Pshonka, a major figure in the local Party of Regions hierarchy, and who would later become Ukraine’s prosecutor general under Yanukovych. A problem, however, was that Pshonka was one of two men Aleksandrov had identified as godfathering the Kramatorsk underworld. The initial investigation ended in a predictable whitewash, pinning blame for the journalist’s murder on a homeless man in December 2001. The innocent man was later acquitted in a local court of appeal six months later, but he was unable to enjoy freedom for long, dying under mysterious circumstances soon after; the same fate that befell the two witnesses and investigating police officer. When the case was re- opened by the general prosecutor in 2006, Aleksandrov’s likely killers were identified as members of the Rybaki gang — an organized criminal group working from the 17th district. They each received prison sentences of varying lengths.
If you want to understand police inaction, you need to first understand the pervasive intermingling of politics, business, and law enforcement in the region, says Oleksandr Kudinov, a former police inspector. Kudinov worked in the local force until 2003, and now heads a Donetsk-based NGO that fights wrongful imprisonment. He decided to leave, he says, when a system of winks and informal "understandings" had taken hold; when executive positions began to be routinely exchanged for cash or political favor; and when much of the system had become subordinate to the Party of Regions, the dominant political organization in the region, and its associated business clans. Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, the two militarized pro-Russian strongholds where government "anti-terrorist" operations are currently being undertaken, are notable for having particularly strong Party of Regions influence (in Kramatorsk via Pshonka and the former regional governor Anatoly Blizniuk; in Slavyansk via Mayor Nelya Shtepa and Oleksiy Azarov, the son of ex-Prime Minister Mykola Azarov). It is assumed that these administrative links had some say on the choice to for separatists to take over the towns, and the ease with which it happened.
Kudinov maintains good links with his former colleagues, and says that average official salaries of patrol officers in the region is just 2,500 hyrivna per month ($210). Unsurprisingly, much of the Donbass police rely on additional income from bribes and selling bureaucratic permissions to do business. For this reason, the force has never attracted the region’s most principled individuals, and shady deals with business are commonplace. As one local joke goes, the only way to tell a policeman from a criminal is the uniform. More charitably, one might say that economic factors keep police low on the regional power hierarchy, and often below political and criminal networks.
This is something I saw for myself two weeks ago, when a late night drink at a hotel bar in Donetsk was interrupted by six drunk and disgruntled men wearing wrestler masks and wielding metal rods. I recognized two of the men immediately, as they had been drinking at the bar 10 minutes earlier. The leader of the group, a short man who spent much time adjusting an ill-fitting mask, took the trouble of informing the waitress that there was a bounty of a $100 dollars for attacking journalists. It is impossible to know who might have been paying, or whether this was simply drunken bravado. Fortunately for me, the emergency number in the regional capital was still working, and our waitress had the courage to dial it. The police, who arrived within a few minutes, were able disperse the men. But they remained remarkably unconcerned throughout, and made no attempt to confiscate their weapons or make arrests.
I asked the officers why they took such a casual attitude toward the men who threatened us, and they gave a surprisingly honest answer: "If we arrest them, hundreds will come back, and we’d have a conversation of an entirely different nature."
When I asked if they knew who the assailants were, my question was initially met with silence, before one officer gave a slow nod of his head. "Don’t get too upset, my friend. You’re going to live," said he told me. "We’ve sorted things out without blood. Now, if we were to humiliate them with an arrest, that’s when you would really see them go crazy. Much better like this than any other way."
Over the weekend in Kramatorsk, government "anti-terrorist" divisions were reporting relative success in retaking part of the town — not an insignificant development in their battle to regain control of the region. This may, however, be a minor operation compared to the much larger process of undoing the networks that have provided cover for pro-Russian military operations to flourish.
For Sergei Furmanyuk, an investigative journalist, vice-chair of the Donetsk Public Council, and supporter of Yulia Tymoshenko (presidential candidate and arch-enemy of former President Yanukovych), recent events may, paradoxically, offer an opportunity for the region: the chance to identify who is honest and who is not. "It is a process that will have to start with appointments at the top," he says, though he quickly qualifies his statement: "Judging by the most recent rotation of regional police, however, it has yet to start."
That rotation saw critical positions (the regional head of police, the head of criminal investigations, and the head of criminal police) awarded to men working for Rinat Akhmetov, the controversial regional baron, whose ambiguous positions on the pro-Russian protests have raised many questions. Given the obvious failures in the jobs, Furmanyuk expects a fresh wave of appointments direct from Kiev, and, perhaps, a chance of a cleaner system in the region.
Some names have been changed for safety reasons.
Published 7 May 2014. Original story here
A road sign marks the turning into the village of Pobeda, in Ukrainian-controlled North Luhansk. The sign is missing the first two letters, turning pobeda (victory) into beda (woe). It’s an appropriate enough symbol for the reversal of Ukrainian military ambitions in the area. Up until the night of September 2nd, the village served as the base for the northern command of Ukraine’s “anti-terror” operation. All that changed when the camp was razed to the ground by a high-precision Smerch rocket attack, believed to have come from territories near or beyond the Russian border.
Today, the landscape in Pobeda is apocalyptic: empty, scorched fields, interrupted only by the scattered remains of munitions, abandoned artillery positions, tyres and missile shells. Tanks, armoured personnel carriers and transport lorries have been reduced to oxidised carcasses and white ash. Plastic bottles and blackened military instructions scuttle with the wind along the naked black soil.
Galina Akhmedova, 59, casts a lone figure among the rubble. She is searching for something – food, she says. Given what is left of the camp, scrap metal seems more likely. Akhmedova is a poor woman even by local standards. None of her family has regular work, so her 500 hyrivna monthly pension (€30) has to go a very long way. Three generations and five grandchildren are to some extent dependent on it.
Ukraine’s unexpected war has not made life easy for Akhmedova. Last month’s rocket attack blew away some of her windows and torched part of her roof; she still doesn’t know where she might be able to find money to repair them. A week before, soldiers took away her 23-year-old son, Sergey, after accusing him of assisting the separatists (she insists unfairly). Sergey’s body was black and blue when he returned home, and his right eye still twitches from the nerve damage.
It comes as somewhat of a surprise, therefore, to hear how defensive Akhmedova is of the Ukrainian military presence. The majority of the soldiers are good boys, she says. She’d been particularly fond of the ones from western Ukraine, “What with their how-do-you-dos and good evenings – no one says that around here. The only thing to remember was to say the right thing when they walked past. They would say Slava Ukrayini! (glory to Ukraine). “And you have to say, what is it now? Slava . . . Ukrayini slava.”
“No Galya, Heroyam slava (glory to the heroes), you’re meant to say Heroyam slava.” The woman correcting Akhmedova is her neighbour Nina Kalipa, who is also the librarian in Pobeda.
“Oh, yes, that’s right. Heroyam slava. They like it when you say that.”
It is unclear whether Akhmedova’s support of the Ukrainian soldiers is entirely genuine or an understandable calculation. In the land of the “ceasefire” – currently holding only where military control isn’t in the balance, and perhaps not for long even there – ordinary citizens are hedging their futures between east and west. On the one hand, locals are careful to say the right things to the military, and do not make overt pro-Russian or pro-separatist statements. On another, it is hard not to notice the sharp reduction in the number of Ukrainian flags flying in the border regions of Luhansk; just a month ago, blue and yellow were flying everywhere.
The situation today is somewhat reminiscent of a scene from the Soviet comedy film Wedding in Malinovka, which was set in a Ukrainian village during the time of the Russian Civil War. With power alternating almost daily between red and Ukrainian nationalist forces, the villagers of Malinovka are never sure who is in charge, so they modify their behaviour and dress accordingly. The movie’s catchphrase is “the authorities are changing again”, and the characters’ habit of either donning or removing a budenovka partisan hat, could well be applied to any of the towns on the frontlines today.
Rubezh, a commander in Aidar volunteer battalion, a controversial anarchic pro-Ukrainian military formation based nearby in Starobilsk, says it is only a matter of time before all of the flags disappeared: “The current boundaries don’t suit the other side, and they are waiting the other side of the Donets river, just waiting to take their chance and claim the entire Luhansk region. I think it would suit many of the locals if they did, no doubt. Not a majority, but if it came down to guerrilla warfare, the split might not be far off 50-50”. Everyone in Starobilsk is waiting for the Russians to arrive, he adds. “They all want their rouble pensions.”
Starobilsk pensioners are not doing so badly when compared to others in the region. In the battle-scarred town of Schastya (Happiness), pensioners have not received a kopeck since June, and have been forced to survive on their savings and ad-hoc handouts from a group of soldiers from Aidar batallion. The formal rationale for the mess is that as a satellite of war-savaged Luhansk – on the other side of the frontline – Schastya cannot administer social payments on its own. In other words, Kiev authorities must first transfer the register to another administrative centre. Despite the many promises, Kiev has thus far dragged its heels; a humanitarian catastrophe beckons.
“No wage or pension has been paid for over three months, and the population is on the edge of a hunger riot,” said Oleksandr Boginya, Schastya’s newly-appointed interim mayor. The previous mayor resigned, so hopeless was the predicament in Happiness.
Isolated from the rest of Ukraine, the sense of abandonment has been compounded by the levels of distrust between the civilian population and Ukrainian forces. Understandable fear prevails on both sides. Locals talk of their unease at drunk soldiers walking around town with guns. Ukrainian volunteer fighters complain about locals acting as spotters for pro-Russian forces. “We hear the chatter over the radio frequencies, and it’s often women doing the talking,” says Slava, a commander of the 12th volunteer battalion from Kiev. “They’d be saying 50 metres to the right, 50 metres to the left.” For all the efforts to maintain good relations, it was difficult to fully trust the local civilian population, he says – “especially when lives were being lost”.
The soldiers feel the rest of the country has forgotten about them. Ever since arriving on the frontline regions of Luhansk, they have had no one to rely upon but themselves and a busy cohort of activists who provide them with basic essentials, body armour and other military aids. They are naturally distrustful of the ceasefire agreement. But the apparent acceptance of all of the Russian gains, and the creation of new de-facto separatist state south of the Donetsk river, raised many questions for them: what was the meaning of the last four months? For what did their comrades die? Why were they abandoning part of Ukraine to fate and a “criminal mob”? Some seemed despondent, some expressed a desire to return home.
As one of the medics of Aidar battalion, the ironically-titled “Hannibal Lecter”, put it: “Many of our soldiers have died many times. They’ve lost it: they don’t live in your world, or my world, or Kiev’s world. They aren’t foolish enough to believe the ceasefire talk. They just want to finish the job, and they will do it regardless.”
Ukraine, Russia and the world would be foolish to ignore the dangers posed by this group of fighters. The “ceasefire” and peace agenda appear in large part a personal project of the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and under considerable pressure from the West.
Poroshenko goes against government colleagues, most notably in the Interior Ministry, and much of the population in taking this route. It is a gamble that depends on the acceptance of the ceasefire by Russia and Russian-backed forces. With mounting casualties, especially in Donetsk and surrounding towns, the evidence thus far is not convincing.
Should the ceasefire fail even more spectacularly, should Russian-backed forces make further advances across Luhansk or towards Crimea in the South, Poroshenko’s position will surely come under question. Given Russia’s military superiority, the question ultimately boils down to a simple conundrum: whether Russia wants to support this particular Ukrainian president, and whether this president can extract such support without being branded a traitor and triggering Maidan 3.0. It seems an impossible tightrope, and is why today’s “ceasefire” looks like being far from the end of the story.
Published 17 October 2014. Link to story here