Ukraine and Its Separatists Have Passed the Point of No Return

All Ukrainians are unified in their revulsion against corruption, but the depth of hostility and suspicion, fuelled by nationalists on either side and by Russia, makes bridging the divide impossible.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Pro-Russian fighters of Vostok battalion rip apart an Ukrainian flag outside a regional state building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on May 29, 2014.
Pro-Russian fighters of Vostok battalion rip apart an Ukrainian flag outside a regional state building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on May 29, 2014.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

KIEV — On Monday morning, dozens of shoppers filled the shop near the Roshen chocolate factory by Moskovska Square in south Kiev. The night before, billionaire Petro Poroshenko, owner of the eponymous company, had been elected Ukraine’s new president with a 55 percent of the vote. Ukrainians and Russians are well-known for their sweet-tooth and Roshen, founded in 1996, is one of the strongest brands in the former Soviet Union.

“I love shopping in the Roshen shop” says Liana Orasho, a student from Polatov, who has come to buy gifts for her family before she travels home. “They have traditional sweets here but also always something new,” she says. And yes, she admits the chocolate played a part in her decision to vote Poroshenko. “I felt that he’s like his chocolate — Ukrainian tradition along with innovation.” Other shoppers also said that at least on a subconscious level, “the chocolate convinced us to vote for him.”

In addition to chocolate, Roshen also makes the Kievskiy Tort cakes, one of the city’s symbols and a must at every festive meal. Early this year, when it was reported that Poroshenko was financing the Maidan protestors who eventually toppled President Viktor Yanukovych, the cake became one of the symbols of the revolution. Today, the souvenir-sellers who throng Maidan will sell you a little fridge-magnet in the shape of the iconic round box of the city’s cake.

Petro Poroshenko (Reuters)

On the other side of the Ukrainian conflict as well, Roshen has become a symbol — only there it symbolizes the dark connection between money and power. Late last year, the Russian government found various reasons to shut down a Roshen factory in its territory and to forbid the import of the company’s products, which were very popular across the border as well. Another Roshen factory in the pro-Russian stronghold of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine was also shut down.

The candy brand is only one of a long list of symbols that have split Ukraine into two nations. The government in Kiev becomes the “Kiev junta” once you go east; “heroes of the Maidan” are “fascists” and “neo-Nazis,” and while the government calls the pro-Russians “separatists” and “terrorists” — on the streets of Donetsk and Luhansk you can get assaulted for using those words. There they are always “self-defense fighters.” Not to mention the entire glossary of slurs from the ever-present history, which accuse rivals of collaboration with the Nazis or with Stalinist genocide.

In one divided state of two nations, these symbols mean everything. One of the first actions of the temporary government in late February was to table in parliament a motion to cancel the law from 2012 that allowed regions to recognize Russian as an official language. It was seen by the Russian-speakers as existential persecution and spurred the movement to disconnect from Ukraine. Last week, two eastern regions announced the establishment of a new federal state — Novorossiya (new Russia), the name of the area in the Tsarist period in the 19th Century.

“[Temporary President] Turchynov was a fool to give into the ultra-nationalists who were drunk from victory in Maidan and to table the motion,” says Mikhail, an engineer in Donetsk who does not support the separatists. “He could have used the kicking-out of Yanukovych as a lever for national reunification, instead he tried to delegitimize Russian and widened the rift. The Yanukovych family should have sent him a bunch of flowers.”

From dozens of conversations with Ukrainian citizens — from east and west, both Russian and Ukrainian-speakers — it’s clear that what unifies them is the desire to break free from the corruption that has tainted every government since the country became independent in 1991. But the depth of hostility and suspicion, fuelled by nationalists on either side and by Russia, makes bridging the divide impossible. Poroshenko is seen in the east, and by not a few in the west as well, as just another oligarch who always knew how to mix business and politics for his own benefit. The result is a growing split into two states, at the very least two nations, which is swiftly becoming irreversible.

Leaving Mariupol, a city about forty kilometers from the Russian border and currently controlled by separatists, a young soldier, his head almost disappearing inside his helmet, stands at the first roadblock set up by the Ukrainian military. “You heard that kid’s accent?” mutters the driver. “West Ukraine. Poor child, so far from home.”

In the shadow of the Kremlin

Alexander Borodai is the first prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic. He was appointed only last week. On Wednesday he came to brief international media at the Ramada Hotel in central Donetsk, accompanied by carloads of fighters of the “Vostok Battalion,” armed to their teeth with Russian weapons. They are named for a unit that fought in Chechnya and Georgia until being disbanded in 2008. It’s unclear whether the two units are actually connected, but Chechen fighters have been seen in Donetsk wearing the black “Vostok” armband.

Denis Pushilin, Chairman of self-declared Supreme Council of Donetsk People's Republic, left, and Alexander Borodai, Republic's Prime Minister in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Thursday, May 29, 2014.(AP)

No one knows how Borodai, a native of Moscow, became the DPR’s first prime minister. He explains to the reporters that he’s a “conflict management expert” and came to Donetsk because he’s “a friend of Strelkov.” Strelkov is the nom de guerre of Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer who is now in command of the separatist forces in the region. Like Strelkov, Borodai has lived for years in the twilight zone where Russian spies, ultra-nationalists and propagandists operate in the shadow of the Kremlin.

Sitting in the hotel’s smoking room, he sits in a light-blue shirt with very short sleeves, lights cigarette after cigarette, drinking endless cups of black coffee. His eyelids are heavy and he seems to be finding it difficult to keep his cool under the relentless questioning of the western journalists. But he manages. He won’t confirm or deny he is acting on anyone’s behalf and will only say his men “are Russians, who came to protect Russian people on Russian soil.” But it doesn’t matter whether or not he’s an official representative of Moscow. For now he controls the fate of a million people in Donetsk.

Two years ago, Donetsk was at the center of international attention when the city’s shiny new Donbass Arena hosted the soccer teams of England and France and the semi-final between Spain and Portugal of the Euro tournament. For the occasion Donetsk received a face-lift costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Parks, shopping malls, and wide avenues were either newly built or renovated. The investment was to transform Donetsk into the display window of eastern Ukraine and bring it closer to Kiev. On Monday morning, the new terminal at Prokofiev Airport was destroyed when the Ukrainian air force bombed a group of separatists who were barricaded there.

On Tuesday, the fighting died down and the army stayed outside the city. Now, barricades across the avenues are being bolstered with concrete blocks and broken-down vehicles. Until the army attacks, if it ever does, the separatists spend their time fighting amongst themselves. “There are people here who have unearthed old rifles and really believe they are defending their homes,” says Andrei Marashavin who works at local bank. “And then there are those who have come who knows from where. Meanwhile, all the businesses in the city are closed and people are going bankrupt. The government in Kiev really doesn’t care about us. If they did, they could reach a federalization agreement that would allow us some self-rule. Instead, whoever wants just comes in and takes control.”

It would be wrong to ascribe everything happening now in eastern Ukraine to external Russian influence. The Kremlin’s propaganda channels fanned the flames of separatism but they were there already. Whoever thinks that all it takes if for Russia to stop interfering and Ukraine will reunify should visit the burnt-out police station in the old town of Mariupol. The industrial city whose chimneys spout smog over the heads of bathers on the beaches of the Sea of Azov are in deep trauma.

The heroes of May 9

A huge rift has opened up between the city’s inhabitants and the Ukrainian military. During the May 9 march celebrating victory over Nazi Germany, a sacred day to all Russians, an armored convoy entered Mariupol. Each side has its own very different narrative of what happened. Kiev claims that separatists tried to take the police building by force. In Mariupol, they say that the police was on the separatists’ side anyway. The result was that in the fighting the police building burned to the ground and at least twenty people were killed. In Mariupol, they insist the number was much higher.

The burned-down station has become a shrine, adorned by hundreds of bouquets of flowers and memorial candles, photographs of the dead and pictures drawn by school-children. Slogans curse at the “Kiev junta” and at Interior Minister Arseny “murderer” Avakov. Lydia Prushova who lives on the next street says that “we will never forgive Kiev for coming here and shooting people on the ninth of May.” She points at a separatist roadblock two blocks away. “Those are our protectors. The Kiev media call them ‘terrorists’ but they and Russia are here for us.”

“They never liked Kiev here,” says a Mariupol businessman who asked to remain anonymous. “But they weren’t that crazy for the separatists either until May 9. They go into shops and take whatever they want. But after the army came here in such a stupid way, everyone here is on their side.” The street signs — “Giorgievskaya” have been covered up with posters with the DPR flag and a new name “Street of the Heroes of May 9.”

It is difficult to see how the Ukrainian army can reinstate Kiev’s control over the rebellious eastern cities at this stage. After killing dozens of separatists in the battles around the airport at Donetsk’s northern entrance, the army was expected to advance into the city and storm the government buildings occupied by the separatists. But for two days the army refrained from shooting and resumed the “anti-terror operation” only on Thursday, this time around the smaller cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.

It is not clear whether the hesitation stems from the army’s weakness or Russian pressure on Kiev. There is also the fear of wounding the many civilians who have stood by the separatists in recent days and operated the checkpoints at the entrance to the eastern cities and in the streets leading to the pro-Russian outposts.

Pro-Russian fighters of Vostok battalion take their positions before storming the regional state building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on May 29, 2014, with inside activists of the so-called People's Republic of Donetsk. (AFP)

A hungry, demoralized army

In the last few months the army has undergone a number of upheavals. Generals and admirals have been dismissed, replaced or they’ve deserted to the Russian side. A considerable amount of equipment and bases were lost when Russia annexed Crimea. Soldiers from the east are not eager to fight and the western ones are very far from home and dealing with outdated equipment and lack of even basic rations.

“The Ukrainian army doesn’t give the simple soldiers even enough food,” says Alexei Meroshenko, a former officer living in Donetsk. “In many cases soldiers get food from home or from kind residents of nearby villages, but when they’re here as an occupying army, who’s going to help them?”

Pro-Russian separatists shot down a Ukrainian military helicopter on Thursday using a shoulder-launched heat-seeking missile, killing 14 soldiers including a Ukrainian general. This is the sixth helicopter shot down in the past two months. Despite the attack helicopters’ importance for the operation, the army keeps a large part of its helicopters well away from the battle area, both due to low maintenance levels and the fear of having them intercepted.

In addition to the forces fighting the separatists, the Ukrainian army also deploys large forces along the borders with Russia, for fear of invasion.

Russia also continues to deploy some of its forces on the border, but an open military invasion now seems less likely. Not that the Russians need it. An embittered semi-autonomous body of Russian speakers is being established in Ukraine’s southeast, with the Kremlin’s quiet support, which will continue to act to undermine the Kiev government for years to come. A similar move is taking place in Transnistria, the breakaway state in Moldova, and in the Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia.

Euro 2012 will remain a far off memory in Donetsk, which will not be hosting international games in the foreseeable future.

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