As Ukrainians go to the polls to elect a new president, something strange is happening in the east of the country. Its rebels, who a few weeks ago were triumphantly wrenching the region away from Kiev, now seem to have stalled; but without much sign that the post-revolutionary government of Ukraine is recapturing its lost authority. While most of the country will vote normally on Sunday, much of the east cannot. Rebel control is partial, but few are ready to risk being beaten, kidnapped, or worse to help run polling stations. Much of the week before the election has been a weird standoff between the Ukrainian authorities, who obviously want the vote to take place, and the rebels who don’t.
In Donetsk, daily life continues to unfold around the regional administration building where the rebels are based and from where, for the past six weeks, they have run the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Rebels in neighboring Luhansk have also proclaimed their own people’s republic. Together, these regions account for some 6.5 million people, or 15 percent of Ukraine’s population.
Inspired by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and most likely with some help and prodding from Russia, the rebels moved to seize the two regions in early April. They must have thought that there would be wide sympathy for their cause. Many out east don’t care much about Ukraine as a state—they are here because this is the way Soviet borders were drawn—and mostly did not support the revolution against “their” man Viktor Yanukovych, who hailed from the region and who fled on February 21. But these facts have not translated into an easy takeover for the rebels. They seem stymied—divided among themselves, without much apparent help coming from Russia to consolidate their gains.
If you look at a map you will see that, from a strategic point of view, it would have made, and still makes, sense for the Russians to encourage rebellion, not just in these regions but also in Kharkiv to the north and in a broad swath of territory along the Black Sea coast to the south extending all the way to Odessa, in the southwest corner of the country. In this way a territorial link could have been made with Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova that has subsisted as a Russian dependency for more than two decades. If this had happened then Russia would control, either directly or indirectly, all of the north shore of the Black Sea, and would have acquired a land bridge to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in March. Today, apart for crossing through Ukraine, Russians can only get to Crimea by ferry or plane.
If this was the plan, however, thus far it has gone wrong. Kharkiv did not rise in support of the rebels and neither did many of the other places. In Odessa, pro-Ukrainian groups fought pro-Russian ones on May 2. A week later, in clashes in Mariupol, another Black Sea port, Ukrainian security forces, some of whom may have been recent and not properly trained recruits, opened fire and killed a number of people supporting the separatists.
Odessa may have been the turning point though. Exactly what happened is unclear, but it is known that Ukrainians government supporters chased rebels into a building that then caught fire, killing some forty of them. Before this the separatists more or less had it their own way. After Odessa, things looked rather different. While some government supporters actually tried to save their enemies from the fire, afterward other Ukrainians began gloating on social media, circulating repulsive photo memes about Russian grilled meat. In Donetsk, the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk, and other rebel-controlled towns or buildings in the east, signs have gone up about the events in Odessa: “Never forget, never forgive.” But this does not mean more have come forward to fight the Ukrainians.
In Kharkiv I met Gleb, a pro-Ukrainian eighteen-year-old, at a street-fighting training session. I asked him if his friends, who supported the rebels, were training as well. No, he laughed, they were just “sofa-fighters.” He said they preferred to wage propaganda war on their computers. I suspect that the prospect of being turned into a grilled meat meme, while fuelling outrage, helped keep a lot of them firmly on their sofas.
Certainly Igor Girkin, aka Strelok or “shooter,” the commander of the Donetsk rebel militamen, thinks too many men in the east are spending too much time lounging around on their backsides rather than rallying to the new flag of independence. On May 14, in the little village of Oktyabryskoe, near Sloviansk, I saw the smoldering remains of a Ukrainian armored car and the charred wreckage of a mobile mortar truck. The Ukrainian ministry of defense said that seven Ukrainian soldiers had died in this ambush. In the bushes by the side of the road we could see the candy wrappers left by the rebels while they had been lying in wait, along with the empty plastic sheaths in which their rocket propelled grenades had been wrapped. It had been a successful hit-and-run operation and later appeared to be repeated on May 22 at Blahodatne, south-east of Donetsk, when some sixteen were reported to have died. (However, as videos began to circulate showing helicopters flying over the soldiers, there were suggestions, until now unconfirmed, that, apart from the rebel attack, there may have been a catastrophic friendly-fire incident.)
Still, an ability by the rebels to kill Ukrainian soldiers like this is not enough to win a war, and Strelok is conceding as much. In a video posted on YouTube on May 17, he said he had less than a thousand under arms and demanded to know where were the “crowds of volunteers” he had expected. Hundreds of thousands of able-bodied men, he moaned, “are calmly watching TV drinking beer.”
Out in the field, Ukrainian and rebel forces have formed a patchwork of checkpoints around Sloviansk. In the Luhansk region it is different. The rebels hold much of the heavily populated and industrial south, while the army controls more of the agricultural north. But, as in the Donetsk region, Ukrainian forces seem unable to retake rebel-held areas, possibly because they do not know how to do this without causing heavy civilian casualties. In the meantime, much of the local economy is collapsing and more and more people are just getting fed up.
One of the few exceptions, business-wise, is a cigarette kiosk a few hundred meters away from the rebel HQ in Donetsk. I asked the lady inside how things were going. Well, she said, as everyone is stressed, they are smoking more, so it was pretty good in fact. But then, angrily, she added, “I am so tired. I just want peace and quiet.” While we talked a stream of people came and went, buying cigarettes. Everyone agreed with her. When we talked about the elections she said that she supported Ukrainian unity but not the current government in Kiev—“which took power by force.” Here in the east, because it is too dangerous, there is no election campaign, but there are posters for two candidates, and very few others. One of the two is the new leader of Yanukovych’s old party, which used to have overwhelming support in the east. About them both, one woman, picking up her cigarettes, snapped that they were “werewolves.” I asked a disheveled old lady what she thought of Denis Pushilin, the separatist leader, and she said shrilly: “What did he do? My pension has not increased!”
Two girls came by, along with a middle-aged lady Jehovah’s Witness, who opined that everything that was happening was God’s will. The girls, who were both seventeen, said their parents wanted to vote but did not know whom for. The Jehovah’s Witness gave them some leaflets, the only ones being handed out in this election in the east, and then wandered off. Then one of the girls said that her parents had voted in Donetsk’s “referendum” on independence on May 11. (The rebels announced it had been won by an overwhelming majority, but no one knows how many really voted.) Whatever happened, said Nastia, they just wanted there to be “no war.” The lady in the kiosk then excused herself and slammed shut the tiny kiosk window, because she had air conditioning inside and was getting hot.
My impression was that I could have interviewed as many analysts and political scientists as I wanted but would never have gotten as concise a snapshot of what people in the east are thinking than that. Not only do they not feel represented by any of the current crop of politicians but, when it comes to what the Donetsk Republic is about, they are deeply confused. Some thought they were voting for independence in the referendum, but others for autonomy within Ukraine, meaning that they could still vote for the country’s president.
In fact, few will probably be able to vote in Donetsk and Luhansk. The stories of election officials and party activists delegated to sit on polling stations are terrifying. In several cases armed men wearing ski masks have disrupted their work and taken election equipment, threatened them, or even abducted them. The credibility of the next president, who is likely to be Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire who made his money in confectionary, is likely to be damaged in the east if few have voted for him, but then that presumably is the strategy of the rebels. Still, I met no one who said they liked him—but they did not like any of the candidates on offer.
On May 17, in the little town of Bilovodsk, twenty kilometers from the Russian frontier, I met Vladimir Nesmiyanov, who is the head of the regional election commission. Soldiers had been deployed to protect him, his team, and the election materials. But, he told me, he had been unable to deliver election materials to 86 out of 197 polling stations. A friend had warned him not to, telling him that they, meaning the rebels, “are waiting for you”: he could be kidnapped, beaten, or worse. In nearby Luhansk city, Vyacheslav Bondarenko, a pro-Ukrainian journalist and activist, told me that many of his colleagues had been beaten up or threatened and many had left.
Until now one of the big questions in the east has been about Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, who is based in Donetsk and is said to employ up to 300,000 people. He owns coalmines, steel plants, and power stations. Until recently he made mild statements about Ukrainian unity but also kept channels open to the separatists, whom many actually thought he was financing. On May 19, however, Akhmetov came off the fence. He called his workers to rallies the next day, in which they watched a video of him saying the rebels were leading “a fight against the citizens of our region” or listened to speeches by their bosses saying that continued instability could lead to the end of their businesses and jobs.
I went to one these rallies in the fabulous, modern 52,500-seat stadium of Shaktar Donetsk, the local football team owned by Akmetov. Only about three hundred people had shown up, mostly employees of the team or boys from the team’s football academy who had been bussed in. It was evident that what Akmetov had meant as a show of force had been badly planned and was a flop. Nevertheless, the next day his company issued a statement saying that a million people had come out in support. It was science fiction, but I wonder if Akhmetov is surrounded by yes-men and believed it.
When I asked Vladimir Kipen, a Donetsk political scientist, about employees being forced to attend such rallies, he just chortled, “That is Donetsk, c’est la vie!” Donetsk, he said, was characterized by “feudal relationships” and in those terms “Akhmetov is lord.” Still, he said, “I see you are surprised that he has such power but can’t do anything. All Ukraine is surprised!” But, he added, Akhmetov had one card up his sleeve that he has not yet played. He has an armed security force that guards his plants, and if and when he chose to deploy that against the rebels, many thought he would easily defeat them. Meanwhile the rebels are trying to force Akhmetov to pay taxes to the Donetsk republic and, since he is resisting, they are talking of nationalizing his assets.
More than a month ago I met Olena Yemchenko, an artist, and her husband Artyom. I met her at a pro-Ukrainian rally. A couple of nights ago I went back to see them and their two boys. Artyom runs a company whose shops sell household goods and whose name translates as “Cozy Home.” When I first met Yemchenko she had a little Ukrainian flag on the dashboard of her car, which surprised me, in view of the current political climate. A few days later she told me that someone had smashed the back window of her car. I asked Artyom what he had been doing for the last month. The answer was that he had been exploring the possibility of moving to Kiev or the west or emigrating. “If I come back in year,” I asked, “what do you reckon the chances of you still being here are?” Without hesitation he answered: “Fifty-fifty.” That may be a fair assessment of whether there is still a chance of a peaceful settlement of the Ukrainian conflict.