'A European War' The Fight for Ukraine's East Gets Bloodier
Fighters from Russia's Caucasus region have joined the separatists in eastern Ukraine, while Kiev has intensified its efforts to win back control of the region. Just 10 days after the presidential election there, the conflict is quickly turning into a war.
The man with the full, black beard looks satisfied, sitting on his wooden chair. He is wearing a white-striped baseball cap and his Kalashnikov sits on the table beside him. Fighters refer to him respectfully as "Komandir." His casual hand signals determine who is allowed into the headquarters of the regional administration of Donetsk and who is not. In response to questions, the Komandir answers in Russian, with a strong Caucasian accent.
Is he the boss here? "Yes, apparently." But he's not from here? "As you can see." Then, his mobile phone rings and he speaks in a Caucasian language. Is it Chechen? "Why do you want to know, my friend?"
After months of obfuscation, Russia's direct involvement in eastern Ukraine is becoming visible. And last week, it became clearer than ever that Russian and Chechen mercenaries are supporting the separatists in Donetsk, fighting side-by-side with Ukrainians against troops sent by Kiev. At first, the presence of Russian fighters was but a rumor, but then, last Thursday, a column of vehicles carrying 34 coffins draped with red cloth left Donetsk heading for the border. Two-thirds of the some 50 rebels who died in heavy fighting 10 days ago were Russian citizens.
Some of the fighters in Donetsk openly told journalists that they came "on the orders of Kadyrov." The Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov would only say on his Instagram page: "If any Chechen has been seen in the conflict zone, that's his personal business."
At the beginning of last week, it seemed as though the troops from Kiev, after weeks of hesitation, might finally be gaining the upper hand. The army was able to quickly regain control of the Donetsk airport, which had been occupied by the separatists. But the eastern flank remained open: On the drive from the Russian border to Donetsk, not a single Ukrainian soldier could be seen; at the edge of the city were fighters from the separatist battalion called Vostok, or East, their Kalashnikovs at the ready.
Serious Territorial Conflict
The battalion is now the leading power in Donetsk. It may only consist of a few hundred fighters, but they are armed with anti-tank guns, machine guns and anti-aircraft weaponry. And what began in April as the occupation of the regional administration building has since become a serious territorial conflict.
This week has seen heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine as Kiev launched an offensive against pro-Russian rebels in the area of Sloviansk, north of Donetsk, on Tuesday morning. The move followed an attack on rebel positions in Luhansk, located near the Russian border, on Monday. There were reports of several casualties on both sides.
"What is happening in the east is a repeat of the October Revolution," Yuri Lutsenko, an advisor to Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko, says in Kiev, 600 kilometers (373 miles) away. "At the beginning, the barricades were manned by adventurers, criminals and people from the lumpenproletariat who had no work. Just like in Petrograd in 1917. At the beginning, Viktor Yanukovych paid every fighter $400 per day, just as the German generals once paid money to Lenin's people. But now, there are mercenaries and Russian weapons."
Lutsenko, 49, was a pioneer of the Orange Revolution. Under Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, he twice headed up the Interior Ministry. But after Yanukovych came to power, Lutsenko was locked up for "abuse of office," only to be freed in April 2013 following European pressure. Now, he is working for Poroshenko, who will enter office at the end of this week. It is thought that Lutsenko will be tapped to head Ukraine's National Security Council and he is to help develop Poroshenko's Solidarity Party, which had played but a minimal role in Ukrainian politics prior to the May 25 election, into a solid power base.
Until then, though, he is working from the offices of the think tank he founded in the Kiev district of Podil. On the wall hangs an oil painting called "Pershy," The First. It shows an exhausted Ukrainian with his eyes closed as though he is trying to gather what remains of his strength. For Lutsenko, it is symbolic of the Maidan demonstrations, which led to the overthrow of Yanukovych in February.
'A European War'
"Keep a close eye on what is now happening in the east," Lutsenko says. "The separatists have long since ceased calling for federalism or for an improved status of the Russian language. They want to divide the wealth of the oligarchs among themselves, in this case, that of billionaire Rinat Akhmetov." He grabs a piece of paper and draws the outlines of Russia and Ukraine. "Putin doesn't want the Donbass region. He has other goals. First, he wants to sow anarchy in the region because it is extremely important for our economy and without it, the Ukrainians will never get back on their feet," Lutsenko says. "And secondly, he wants the separatists to gain so much independence that they will be able to veto any decision coming from Kiev. That would paralyze the state and would mean it was de facto governed from Moscow."
Lutsenko leans back, takes a deep breath, and says: "We have no choice. If we abandon Donetsk, Putin will soon be in Odessa. He is in the process of establishing a cordon sanitaire around Russia. And Ukraine is now, just as Poland once was, a buffer to Europe. It is not a local war, it is a European war."
And yet, despite the use of artillery and air strikes, Kiev's military does not appear to be able to regain control of the separatist regions. According to Lutsenko, some 12,000 pro-Russian militants are now fighting against Kiev government forces in the area of Donetsk with an additional 5,000 in the Luhansk region. And these men are better organized and better armed than the army, secret service and police. Just on Thursday of last week, the rebels managed to shoot down a National Guard transport helicopter, killing at least 12.
The army has no money and no fuel, says Lutsenko, adding that it hardly even exists as a fighting force. They need helicopters for the fight against the separatists, but the generals sold most of them to Africa. The few Russian helicopters that they still possess are poorly armed and can be shot down like balloons, he says. "We don't even have any more stun grenades to move against fighters in the city -- we can't go into Sloviansk with tanks." Poland, he adds, has at least sent over a supply of grenades. The Ukrainian National Guard on Wednesday said that it had abandoned a fight in Luhansk after running out of ammunition following a 10-hour battle with pro-Russian militants.
The May 25 vote did, however, bring some change: Petro Poroshenko was elected to the presidency with a surprisingly strong result of 54.7 percent, a strong mandate. Even his rival Tymoshenko backed down. She had planned to send 50,000 followers onto the streets in order to contest the results, but with a gap of 42 percentage points between her result and his, accusing him of electoral fraud seemed far-fetched.
In addition, the election result also disproved Moscow's claim that the country is hopelessly divided. Even in regions such as Odessa or Zaporizhia, places where residents tend to be pro-Russian, 40 percent of the vote went to Poroshenko.
But the tasks facing the new president are immense. There is no functioning police force, no tax authority, no effective border control and no judiciary to speak of. The natural gas ultimatum issued by Russia has expired, though Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom on Monday allowed Kiev six more days in ongoing negotiations in Berlin. And Maidan is to be cleared and parliament dissolved. On Wednesday, the president-elect met with US President Barack Obama in Warsaw and plans to fly to D-Day commemoration events in Normandy on Friday. His inauguration is scheduled for Saturday. And then he is planning on flying to the Donetsk region, where the military operation is underway.
"Poroshenko wants to lead them more effectively," says his advisor Lutsenko. "He wants to integrate the National Guard, the secret service and the army into a single chain of command." The president is also hoping for weapons, fuel and cheap food from the Americans, calling it a new "lend-lease act" in reference to the aid US President Franklin D. Roosevelt's provided to allies in World War II.
But it will be awhile before any such plan takes shape, which is why Poroshenko is currently leaning on Rinat Akhmetov, who employs some 300,000 people, most of them in eastern Ukraine. The oligarch has already said his workers would establish an unarmed civic defense force, but Akhmetov remains in Kiev and is wary of returning to Donetsk.
There, the power is lying on the street, as a Russian adage would have it, and the "Donetsk People's Republic" is doing what they can to harness that power. The 11-floor headquarters of the regional administration, which had become a shelter for both criminals and the homeless since its occupation, was "cleaned up" by the Vostok militia last Thursday, as self-proclaimed "premier" Alexander Borodai put it. On the same day, bulldozers cleared away the barricades in front of the structure. The time of chaotic revolution has passed, Borodai says. "As of today, this is the official government seat of the Donetsk People's Republic."
Most of the shops in the city center remained closed in the days following the battle for the airport, with much of the population shocked by the violence. The referendum held in May sent a clear message to the "fascist junta in Kiev," at least according to Russian propaganda. But now, a war is being fought in their city.
People who are opposed to their hometown's transformation into an independent people's republic are only willing to speak in private, "just like in Soviet times," says Alexander, a 30-year-old electrician. A few days previous, he saw a truck filled with "bearded Caucasians" driving through his city, he says. "Why is this riffraff here," he wonders? A father of two children, Alexander says he doesn't see a future for his family in the "Donetsk People's Republic."
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley