Residents of the port city of Mariupol were awakened before dawn to the sounds of artillery fire from the area under the control of pro-Russian separatists, known as “the people’s republic of Donetsk,” some 20 kilometers northeast of their city in southeastern Ukraine. The shooting came after about a year of relative quiet in Mariupol, situated on the northern shore of the Sea of Azov, but playgrounds and amusement parks there were jammed with people – young families, mainly mothers, grandmothers and little children.
“We’re calm, but anxious,” one resident, a grandmother named Svetlana, said. “We are used to this situation [from before]. Now there’s more anxiety than before,” she added.
Did she ever think about leaving – considering the recent shooting, the concentration of Russian troops along the border, reports of the evacuation of residents from areas under pro-Russian control, and predictions of an impending invasion?
“Absolutely not,” Svetlana asserted. “This is the only place, apparently, that needs us,” she added, tears welling up in her eyes. “In 2014, my daughter was planning to travel to Berdyansk for a dance festival. In the morning she woke up because a plane had flown low over us. I saw the fear in my daughter's eyes and I felt so bad for her – it was so frightening. And now she feels the same thing about her own daughter.”
Probably no one in Mariupol has not compared the current tensions to the dramatic events of 2014. At that time, for about three weeks, the city was under the control of the pro-Russians separatists, led by the brothers Denis and Dmitry Kuzmenko, who are described in the local media as criminals. Among the forces that defeated the separatists was the Azov Battalion – a volunteers whose force, in the interim, has morphed into a mercenary unit the size of a brigade and has been incorporated into the Ukraine National Guard.
One of the volunteer soldiers' bases is in Mariupol, and there are two others in nearby towns. “We aren’t yet at the front, there are other targets ahead of us,” said a spokesman for the brigade, who used his military nickname “Everest” in a phone conversation. “Among other things, there's the need to fight off an assault from marine forces at sea. But Mariupol is our home base, the source of our strength, and we will protect it in every way possible, not only from the sea.”
The Azov Brigade had been identified in the past with the extreme right wing and was even accused of war crimes, among them looting, torture and rape – by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Anton Trebukhov is a veteran of the unit and fought in its ranks between November 2014 and 2016. He took part in 2015 in the battles over the village of Shyrokyne, about 30 kilometers east of Mariupol, which went on for a few months. Trebukhov vehemently denied accusations of looting, and said he never heard about any torture or rape.
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I arrived at the Azov base in Mariupol to photograph its gate, which bears the symbol of the brigade. Visitors may notice the similarity between it and the symbol of one of the units of the Waffen SS, but members of the brigade, including Trebukhov, say that the text is an abbreviation of the words “idea of the nation” in Ukrainian. While I was photographing, a few young fighters came out and demanded that I delete the pictures because it's forbidden to take pictures at a military facility. When I refused, they detained me. The young soldiers snickered and seemed embarrassed by the situation. “Are you Israeli? Cool,” one of them said, when I told him that in Israel they also try to prevent the photographing of similar installations. A few minutes later they received an order to release me and did so.
Trebukhov ended up in the brigade relatively late. He was one of the hard-core leaders, the “ultras,” of the fans of Mariupol’s soccer team. According to him, beginning in February 2014, he was “one of the people who enlisted their friends to protect pro-Ukrainian demonstrations” in the city. His name was thus high up on the pro-Russian separatists' blacklist, he said, and he had to “take precautions” – hiding out in various apartments. The supporters of the separatists had “a significant numerical advantage, and so we had to do whatever we could. What does that mean? I haven’t given details so far and I don’t think I will now,” he added.
Some sympathy for Russians
Trebukhov does not deny that even today there are many people in Mariupol who are on the Russian side in the conflict. This manifests itself, among other ways, in significant support among residents for the pro-Russian/Eurosceptic Opposition Platform – For Life, the second-largest party in the city council. He notes that people who voted for that party were not only those paid to take part in protests and other actions against the Western revolution – but simple people “who have been offended by their life and by their country.”
Trebukhov: “These are people who at age 25 let their country slip between their fingers. They were unable to protect their country, the Soviet Union. So now they’re trying to take our country. Only it turns out that we’re a little more responsible and are trying to protect it.”
He explained that he joined the Azov force after a friend was executed by pro-Russian separatists. At the same time, “many of my friends volunteered. It turned out that we all came to the brigade together. Azov liberated our city, our friends were there. I didn’t really have a choice.” Trebukhov’s family didn’t know at the time that he was fighting at the front and he hides that fact from his grandmother to this day.
Two months ago his daughter was born, and he says that if the situation becomes dangerous, the first thing he will do is evacuate her, his wife and his parents. “I can’t say that I’m attracted to weapons or that I have extraordinary fighting capabilities,” he admitted. “When I served, there were certain challenges that faced me and it seemed like I needed to serve. I even advanced to the rank of officer. But I don’t feel like a military man. If there is a need, I’ll see where I can be most useful – in the army or as a volunteer who helps the army.”
Trebukhov reserves his contempt for one group in particular: the “ultras,” the Russian ultra-nationalists. “In 2014, they were paid to come to Donetsk, to Mariupol, to Khakriv and to Luhansk, to take part in protests. Before the war they would come here from Rostov and tell us that the Kremlin is our common enemy. But after the mess started here, they became different people and no longer exist today. The Russian government simply scattered them and crushed them like cockroaches. They sit in their holes and are afraid to come out; they’ve even been thrown off the sports fields."
Mariupol is an industrial city dominated by two large companies: the Azovstal and the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works companies. The latter was originally named for Lenin, but was renamed as part of the de-communization of Ukraine. People decided it had been named after a different Ilyich. Today the city a patchwork of well-kept sidewalks, bicycle trails that don’t see much use right now and restored historic buildings – alongside neglected and crumbling Soviet-era housing, even in the center of town. When the wind blows from the direction of the metal factories – both owned by the richest man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov – it’s hard to breathe.
Still, the investment in Mariupol is due in part to Akhmetov’s need to move a good deal of his money there, which in the past he had invested in the now-occupied Donetsk. The inhabitants are happy, more than they were before 2014.
“The city has developed a great deal and a lot has been done so that we’ll feel safe and comfortable. In that respect, this is a great honor for our authorities,” said Svetlana, the grandmother from the playground. “Kindergartens and schools are being built. Here in the downtown area everything was in the style of the 1960s and '70s. Now it’s in a modern style – what my children need. Even this playground is new, of course."
In a playground in a new park in a different part of town, opposite the Azov base, I met Valentina Gaydar, strolling with her grandson.
“We lucked out. Now we are like the capital of [the region], Donbass. Although Akhmetov came here, he speaks with longing about Donetsk. We understand him. Let him go and invest in this Donetsk of his,” Gaydar said.
When asked if she was afraid in the current circumstances, she said: “I think that the situation will be solved by diplomatic means, because the world will still pressure Russia. I personally am waiting for Russia to fall to pieces."