Crisis in Ukraine

04.18.14

Putin’s Men in Ukraine: We’re Not Giving In

Diplomats reached an agreement in Geneva to defuse the Ukraine crisis, but the people at the heart of it aren’t listening.

DONETSK, Ukraine—A dozen men in motley apparel gathered in a quiet office on the fifth floor of what used to be a state administration building in eastern Ukraine, but is now called the headquarters of the “Independent Donetsk People’s Republic.” Some of the men wore uniforms, others wore track suits, some wore balaclava masks. Their apparent leader, sitting behind the desk, was a round-faced 33-year-old Muscovite who called himself  Mikhail Verin, or Misha, holding forth to the small crowd about how he found his Russian nationalist inspiration and why, no matter what deals diplomats might hammer out in Geneva, he would not be giving up or giving in.

But as he spoke beneath the Russian flag, Verin’s rhetoric began to suggest bitter schisms within the pro-Moscow movement as different factions try to claim leadership—divisions that could further complicate any effort to defuse the Ukraine crisis.

It was Russian President Vladimir Putin himself who inspired Verin, he said. (The men in uniform seemed to hang on his every word.) Putin’s speeches convinced him of greatness to come. And Putin’s New Russia ideology motivated him to travel to this part of Ukraine more than three weeks ago to lead the operation seizing the Donetsk regional administration building. The pseudonym he used in Ukraine, Verin, came from the word “believer.”

“I believe that Putin will back us up and support us until the day we succeed with the referendum,” said Verin—the core demand that eastern Ukraine be allowed to hold a regional vote for independence and then, of course, for annexation by Russia, just as Crimea did.

Thursday’s Geneva talks between the Kiev government, the United States, the European Union, and Russia ended with a statement saying “all illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.” But Verin said the declarations from Geneva were “useless without Donetsk Republic presence there.”

Verin said he was sure Putin would never betray the pro-Russian movement in the east of Ukraine. “He is our leader,” said Verin, laying out what he considered to be Putin’s vision as well as his own.

Each Russian has many ideological tasks today, he said: “To consolidate our national identity, strengthen our roots, clean up our spirits, put together our best ideas, embrace the lands populated with Russians and move forward.”

Who is Verin and what is his group?  A few years ago he had worked at the giant Cherkizovsky outdoor market in Moscow, he said. Then in 2007 he had joined the pro-Kremlin, pro “Eurasian” youth group, Nashi, to hone his militancy. If he trained as a soldier or served as one, he did not say. But he decided to come to Donetsk three and a half weeks ago, or about 10 days before the assault on the administration building.

“We are separatists, terrorists, ‘moskali,’” Verin told his listeners with a broad smile as he rattled off the pejorative terms used against him and his people. His group, he said, is known as Sarmatia, and is intent on reconstructing the historical land of Greater Scythia by uniting modern Ukraine, southern Russia, and the northeastern Balkans around Moldova.

These Sarmatia activists see themselves as the hard core of the uprising at a time when some in the Donetsk Republic have shown weakness and many “unfaithful” have slipped away in fear of coming repression, according to Verin’s followers. “Kiev is offering a $10,000 award for each of our heads,” said Dmitry Sinegorsky, the “security supervisor” for the Sarmatia movement. He laughed at rumors that Moscow is sponsoring the group with so much cash it could fly around in private helicopters. “Somebody must be stealing all of Russia’s money,” said Sinegorsky. “All I have is this.” He held up a club, the weapon of choice of the Sarmatia activists.

To give a more vivid picture of the Donetsk population as he understood it, Verin drew a circle and divided it in two halves. According to Verin’s analysis, 50 percent of the 4.3 million people living in Donetsk were pro-Ukrainian, and 50 percent were pro-Russian. Of those, a small segment, about 10 percent, were activists “ready to fight” for their New Russia or Sarmatia. But the problem was that among that active part there were a small number of  “power thirsty commercially interested” activists.

Unlike Verin, who in February was already “preparing for the war and even missed the Olympics,” the political leaders of the [Donetsk] Republic “took advantage of our heroes, coming to power on our shoulders.”

Some of those others were giving their own press conference on Friday on the 11th floor of the same building, responding in more detail to the the agreement reached in Geneva. Were Donetsk separatists now going to give up their weapons and vacate the occupied buildings? “The People’s Donbas Army will go home when [Interim President Oleksandr] Turchinov and [Interim Prime Minister Arseniy] Yatsenyuk vacate the occupied offices in Kiev and disarm their bandit Right Sector troops,” one of the leaders, Denis Pushilin, told The Daily Beast. He said their movement “had suffered a number of discrediting attacks and a flow of immature provocations”; their plan was to keep the uprising going until they were given a chance to hold a “transparent referendum,” with as many observers as possible, even from the OSCE. In several respects, his demands mirrored the vaguely worded official statement from Geneva.

Back at Verin’s office, his supporters said they didn’t trust the “bandit junta” in Kiev to take the Geneva peace agreements seriously.

Overnight Wednesday, more than 60 people were arrested, at least three people killed, and more than a dozen injured in shootings during an attempt by pro-Russian protesters to seize a Ukraine National Guard base in the nearby town of Mariupol. An escalation of seems inevitable as the ideological competition on all sides intensifies and grows ever more emotional.

Even poetry has been called into play to heighten the passions of the actors in this dangerous drama. On the Donetsk Republic’s website, a Ukrainian bard claims that his country can never be brothers with Russia, a “historical slave.” A Russian poet responds, alluding the iconography of the United States, that Ukraine is really Russia’s sister, but is “lost in the sharp claws of a striped eagle.”