A tale of ugliness: four months of separatism in Eastern Ukraine

Argemino Barro

“There will not be a war, that’s for sure,” a source from the French consulate in Donetsk told me. April dawned and Ukraine had left behind a turbulent month. Putin answered the overthrow of his ally Yanukovych by conquering Crimea. The egos, somewhat, were balanced. War seemed impossible. Only a few pro-Russians were demonstrating every weekend in front of the statue of Lenin, showing two types of person: the outraged pensioner, and masked youth.

The latter was disturbing; the young men wore caps and smoked in their rowdy way, pushing away the medical masks they wore to have a puff. Why were their faces covered? Where did they get those almost hundred years-old independence flags from? Many questions hung in the air, along with the breathable violence that had claimed fatalities in previous marches. I was impressed, especially, by the ugliness of their display, their aggressiveness, their hatred.

The separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine is particularly ugly, because it feeds off despair. It is not a “war of liberation” as other conflicts might be perceived as, where a significant population mass revolts for, let’s say, more tangible reasons: religion, ethnicity, economic exploitation. Such would be the case, very roughly, of the Armenians of Azerbaijan or the Abkhazians of Georgia; of Palestinians, the Kurds or the Kosovar-Albanians.

But Ukraine is different. Six months ago there was no sign of secession in the East, where the vast majority of people mix Russian and Ukrainian blood without the slightest friction, master both languages and have family on the other side of the border. It seems like an “artificial” war, cultivated by Russian propaganda—exploiting economic hardship and the inferiority complex of Donbas before Kyiv—and executed by inscrutable networks.

From the beginning there were masks, walkie-talkies, uniforms, skinheads. Details that would reveal an increasingly violent script: storming government buildings and local media, chasing pro-Ukrainians, declaring independence, and assembling under one leadership. It is now evident, Russian and “imperialist,” as the self-proclaimed former Prime Minister Aleksandr Borodai defined himself.

This is not an attempt to deny pro-Russian sentiment, which undoubtedly exists, let alone to justify everything Kyiv does. Since the Maidan, the capital has turned its back on the East, choosing tanks over negotiators and still denying attacks on the civilian population. It was heartbreaking to see the face of a failed state; how the Donbas and Kyiv have been falling into a spiral of resentment that fanaticizes those who approach.

On my first day in Donetsk I visited Izolyatsia, a cultural foundation owned by a local entrepreneur resident in Canada, and run by a Spaniard with vast experience in the Cervantes Institute of several countries. The aim of Izolyatsia (which stands in an old factory of insulation materials, hence its name) was to heal the socio-economic depression of Eastern Ukraine, listen to its youth and promote it with investment and technological and artistic workshops.

Manager Paco de Blas was fascinated by the local mentality, which he wanted to change. He directed operations across seven acres and 56 buildings of the “territory.” Izolatsya stood out as a modern, hip, attractive project. But how long would the movie programmes, conferences, and expositions last? How fast would they be devoured by the ugliness? They have already had a visit of thugs smashing windows as the police watched idly.

Separatism encircled Izolyatsia. Its workers had to suffer the checkpoints on the outskirts on a daily basis; they almost canceled the literature festival, which was held on the periphery, and soon began to emigrate. Izolyatsia was stormed on June 9 by separatists. Nobody was there except for its security team, which could do nothing in a city left to fear. When I went there two weeks ago, I saw concrete barricades, cars with tinted windows coming in and out, and a broken family waiting at the door. Rumors say that this is where the DNR hostages are held.

Ugliness swallowed everything. Right now, in Donetsk there is only one bar open until late: the Banana, where obese individuals with a gun on their belt move around in a cloud of Kalashnikovs. Are they leaders of the republic? Gangsters On good terms with separatists?

Perhaps they should look around: according to the UN, the conflict cost almost 1,200 civilian lives and displaced over 230,000 people (although this is impossible to quantify, since most of the people are not reported; more may have escaped from Donetsk in particular). The Ukrainian parliament approved an additional one billion dollars to fund the war. Only the rebuilding of Slaviansk might cost over 100 million dollars for one of the poorest economies in Europe.

If we look at those affected by war in a sociological “bell curve,” we would find politicians and heads of state at the peak, untouchable in their offices. Further down, on the slopes, we would see the oligarchs: strong, but mired in uncertainty. Then there would be the middle class, who are refugees elsewhere in Ukraine or abroad. And almost at the ground level, the lower classes, sentenced to the rains of artillery because they have no money nor a place to go.

The last part of the graphic, touching the horizontal axis, would be formed by the pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian fighters. This is where the greatest sadness lies, on the militias dependent on charity for food and official help for weapons; the former from the Ukrainian government, the latter from Russia – although the Kremlin denies it constantly.

I had the chance to visit both the separatist base of the Vostok Battalion and the base of the pro-Kyiv Battalion Donbas. Despite ideological differences, militants on both sides faithfully reflect each other: ragged, poor, some of them teenagers, others in their fifties and unshaven. The Vostok guys waved to us shyly from their overcrowded truck. I wonder how many of them are still alive?

This article was originally published in Spanish in the newspaper El Confidencial.

Argemino Barro is a Spanish journalist focused on the former Soviet Union. His work on the Ukraine crisis has been featured in El Confidencial, El Mundo, La Vanguardia and Radio Francia Internacional among other media.

Featured image: Baz Ratner / Reuters



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

One comment

  1. Ronald Wempen

    A possible final solution, with the intransigent Kiev government, is for Russia to offer paying for any Russian who wants to leave Ukraine, over the next 3-6 months. This would include family, pets, valuables, bank accounts, basic furnishings and tools such as farm implements, and leave everything else to the Ukrainian government, including all weapons. Yes, even the rebel militias. That would peacefully accomplish the “ehnic cleansing” of Ukraine from all Russian influence.

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