DONETSK, Ukraine — Talking with pro-Russian separatist gunmen is like living a Ukrainian version of the Western movie Appaloosa, where the judge sits listening to the testimony of hired hands providing alibis for the ranch owner who’s murdered the sheriff. The testimonies here are word for word the same, providing an alibi, it would seem, for Russian President Vladimir Putin: “I am not a separatist,” say the hired hands. “I want a federation; the ouster of [Russian-friendly] President Viktor Yanukovych was a crime; I am here to protect ethnic Russians from fascists and to protect our language.” If they varied their lines, they would be more believable.
But then what is happening in eastern Ukraine is more about theater, albeit with deadly consequences, than anything else. And the audience—the international media—sits watching the play and filming and tweeting the performance. And whoever is behind this understands the appetite.
That became clear at the weekend when the media meekly colluded in the play trotted out for their consumption that day: the parade by pro-Russian separatists in Slovyansk of the kidnapped members of a military mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE). In a statement today Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said that displaying the captives was an affront that is “revolting and blatantly hurts the dignity of the victims.”
Worryingly, no Western reporter covering the press conference sought to discover before the event whether the OSCE team members were participating voluntarily or were being coerced, which is standard media practice before interviewing captives or prisoners of war.
Old-guard journalists, with an eye to the Geneva Conventions, used to be more careful and would ask prisoners if they are willing to talk with the press before interviewing them or taking part in a conference featuring them. There is a judgment call that needs to be made here. Even if prisoners indicate they are willing, they might fear saying they don’t want to because of their captors’ later displeasure.
The Geneva Conventions state: “Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. … Prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” While journalists can’t be prosecuted for a breach of this rule, it has been used as a yardstick in the past.
Apparently, it isn’t now. And it wasn’t observed on the same day by a group of journalists who were invited to video three pro-Kiev SBU members who were displayed stripped to their underpants, bloodied, shackled, and blindfolded.
So, now we see another day of more abductions, shootings and murder in troubled eastern Ukraine. Over the last 24 hours a pattern has started to take shape: one of redoubled boldness by Moscow-backed separatists in their weeks-long campaign of destabilization and intimidation.
The Kiev government’s campaign to clear separatist checkpoints and contain pro-Russian masked gunmen to a couple of towns apparently has stalled again. Insurgent activity has surged with the gunning down of the mayor of Kharkiv—someone bravely shot him in the back while he was jogging—a bomb explosion in a metals factory in Donetsk and a grenade attack on Kiev’s anti-terrorist units holed up in Kramatorsk’s small airport.
The airport was meant to have been a forward-leaning base for Kiev’s forces in the heart of the militant-infested area, but it has increasingly become a jail, reminiscent of the islands of soldiery NATO forces clung to for months in Afghanistan while mayhem erupted around them, or the concrete forts the British threw up in surly rain-sodden towns in overcast Northern Ireland at the height of the so-called Troubles.
“Aren’t you afraid to be driving around here?” one pro-Kiev soldier asked me as he nervously handled his gun on guard duty at the entrance to Kramatorsk airport.
Hours after this question, the town of Konstantinovka, a 20-minute drive south of Kramatorsk on the road to Donetsk, saw anti-Kiev militiamen seize the municipal building and police station and erect barricades, putting another notch on their belt of captured towns.
It’s not that the latest occupation was greeted by crowds of celebrating residents. As we’ve seen everywhere else in the depressed Donbas region, the locals might not like Kiev and they may feel that western Ukrainians are out to cheat them, but they are not rushing with open arms to the men who like to portray themselves as their liberators. Probably they are looking to see who shows strength, and so far that hasn’t been Kiev.
Why the Ukrainian government has halted what it calls an anti-terror campaign isn’t clear. “We keep having to wait for political decisions,” says a colonel with an anti-terrorist unit drawn from the Ukrainian intelligence service, the SBU. Her men think the on-and-off campaign can be put down to how brave Kiev feels or how spooked it is about Russian threats to roll across the border with conventional forces.
Ukrainian officials deny they are doing anything but pressing their anti-separatist efforts, yet checkpoints that Ukrainian troops cleared on Friday, accompanied by brave rhetoric from Kiev politicians, are now back in insurgent hands. And now they are not only manned by casually-dressed club-wielding young men, but by more professional-looking masked gunmen toting the ubiquitous Kalashnikovs.
There was no operation over the weekend to push back separatists who were stopping and checking traffic on the small lane leading to Kramatorsk airport. As a result, armed men got through to attack the anti-terror units with grenades, leaving one soldier wounded there this morning. In a separate attack at Donetsk, another soldier was killed.
The gunmen at the checkpoints always deny they are Russians—or if they admit they are Russians, they follow up saying they are retired Russian military and in Ukraine purely as volunteers. Slovyansk’s separatist boss, the former Soviet soldier-turned soap factory owner Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, insists this is the case, arguing he appealed to former comrades to come and help. Apparently he has a lot of friends.
But whether they are Russian, or former or defected Ukrainian military, is in some ways beside the point. Few here believe the shots are being called by the thuggish Ponomaryov or Denis Pushilin, the 32-year-old former casino croupier and one-time Ponzi scheme salesman who is now the head of the self-styled Donetsk Republic. Ukrainian officials insist that behind them stand the same Russian intelligence operatives who pulled the strings in Crimea last month before Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea Peninsula.
Ponomayov and Pushilin, they’re just providing alibis.