Soccer Hooligans Prep Ukraine for Putin

Gangs of Russian sympathizers in Ukraine are manning checkpoints, disrupting trains, and maybe even shipping weapons around the region. Are they prepping for Putin’s next war?


DONETSK, Ukraine—He reaches into his pocket to pull out a Ukrainian passport and opens it to prove he is no Russian provocateur. He swears he hasn’t been infiltrated across the border by Russia’s Vladimir Putin to foment agitation and destabilize the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. Thirty-one-year-old Myroslav Rudenko insists the pro-Russian unrest in the east is homegrown and is a mirror image of the Maidan uprising in Kyiv that ousted last month Putin ally Ukraine’s toppled President Viktor Yanukovych.

And there are parallels to be drawn between Maidan and the pro-Russian agitation that has erupted in eastern Ukraine—at least when it comes to operational opportunism and the grassroots nature of many of the actions. Just like at Maidan, it is difficult to find a center with anti-Maidan groups, who insist they are self-organized, have little hierarchy and communicate and decide on actions via social media sites—in the case of pro-Russian activists in Donetsk, VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook.

And what about the gangs of Russian sympathizers who have set up checkpoints, stopped trains, and even (reportedly) started shipping weapons around the region? Just “simple folk … [who] came to us for support,” Rudenko claims. “We are going to target more main roads and rail links. They will be peaceful protests and we won’t be armed.” What happens if there is conflict between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian troops—which side will he be on? “We won’t support Kyiv and their leaders who are nationalists and causing all the trouble.”

A history teacher and father of a small boy, Rudenko fires off the reasons for ethnic Russian anger towards the country’s new leaders in Kyiv. They include familiar Russia Today-style claims that Yanukovych’s ouster was the work of neo-Nazis. “People don’t feel safe because of the fascists,” he says. There are the accusations that the new leaders pulled off a coup and “came to power in an illegal way.”

And finally there is the sense of resentment. “People are agitating for their rights and for their language,” Rudenko argues, adding “only Russia can defend Russian people in the eastern region and protect us from Kyiv.”

He provides no concrete examples of how Ukrainians have repressed ethnic Russians—except to say ethnic Russians feel cut-off and lost. He points to a law passed by parliament after Yanukovych fled abolishing the right of regions and towns to elect to use Russian as an official second language—a law that was immediately vetoed by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov.

We are sitting in a small coffee shop yards from Lenin Square in the downtown of the city of Donetsk where a weeks-long pro-Russian protest has been mounted. Despite the frigid weather, there are about a hundred activists out tonight, many sporting, as in Crimea this week, the orange and black ribbons of the military order of St. George commemorating victory over Nazi Germany.

They are a mixed crowd. Half are members of a veritable babushka battalion, elderly women who revere “Uncle Joe” Stalin, hunger for the glory days when the Soviet Union was great and invoke the memories of their long-dead husbands who fought the enemies of Communism.

The other half are mainly muscular, black-clothed men in their twenties and thirties, sporting crew cuts and armed with cell phones and a menacing manner. Some say they are Ultras, hardcore fans of local football team Shakhtar Donetsk. “One day Shakhtar will play (St. Petersburg’s) Zenit in the Russian league,” 26-year-old Sasha, a cell-phone salesman, confidently predicts.

Rudenko says they have two immediate demands. The first is the freeing of thirty-year-old Pavel Gubarev, a onetime advertising executive who spearheaded the secessionist campaign in Donetsk. Then he proclaimed himself the “people’s governor” after occupying city hall and is now in jail in Kyiv charged with “infringing the territorial integrity and independence of the state.” And the second demand is for a referendum so that the people of Donetsk can choose whether to stay in Ukraine with greater local autonomy or follow Crimea into the Russian Federation.

Protests have escalated in eastern Ukraine since Gubarev lost control of city hall in a pre-dawn raid and was subsequently arrested at home. Last weekend, violence flared in Donetsk when more than 5,000 pro-Russian protesters roamed the downtown, smashing doors and windows and forcing entry to government buildings, including the regional headquarters of the intelligence service, the SBU.

Three have died in the recent protests in eastern Ukraine. One, a pro-Ukrainian activist in Lenin Square, was killed just days ago. A small circular floral tribute marks the spot where he died.

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Ukraine’s leaders worry that violence may return and be used as an excuse by Moscow to mount a military mission across the border to “protect” ethnic Russians in much the same way that Russia seized control of Crimea. But there are significant differences between here and Crimea. Russia doesn’t have major military installations here, for starters. And ethnic Russians are only just the largest ethnic group in Donetsk. According to a 2011 census, 48 percent are ethnic Russians and 46 percent are ethnic Ukrainian.

On Tuesday, speaking before the upper house of Russia’s parliament to welcome Crimea into the Russian Federation, Putin indicated that he did not intend to cross the eastern Ukraine border and seize the east. But Moscow has made clear that it has a right to rush the defense of ethnic Russians, if they are victims of violence, and Russian forces are massed on the border.

Rudenko is not downcast by Putin’s words—he speaks fast and with bulging eyes—and says he is “not worried about what Putin said because all Slavs will eventually be united and the only way the ethnic Russians can be protected and their language and culture safeguarded is by joining Russia.”

He is one of the top organizers of the agitation here in Donetsk, which lies at the heart of the Donbass coalfield, and is one of Ukraine’s major industrial cities. But he rejects the description of being a leader. “People just decide to organize themselves. There is no general system or centralized system. There is no one boss.”

But for all the talk of no one boss, he does see Gubarev as a principal, saying it was the now imprisoned “people’s governor” who set up the biggest pro-Russian group, Narodnoe opolchenie Donbasa, and set up a VKontakte page that has 22,000 followers. “We write and chat with each other there and decide when to meet and what to do. The elderly don’t use the site and everything for them is passed by word of mouth,” he says.

With Gubarev in jail, his 28-year-old wife Ekaterina has taken over managing the VKontakte page, doing so from exile in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where Yanukovych is also now based. Ekaterina, a mother of three and a graduate of Donetsk National Technical University, is a vivacious blond, who worked on several public advocacy campaigns, including one urging an increase in the price of alcohol to combat the soaring rates of alcoholism and binge drinking among the young, says Yuri, a pro-Ukrainian activist who knows her. (He wouldn’t give he last name.) “Someone threatened her and she fled to Russia,” says Rudenko.

But as with Maidan there seems more than meets the eye when it comes to who decides what actions to mount and when. And while there isn’t one leader, there is coordination between groups, notably over the strategic checkpoints that have started to spring across the eastern region tasked with blocking Ukrainian military armor and troop movements.

On March 16, north of Donetsk two to three hundred men at the Olkhovaya railway station near Lugansk blocked a train carrying military hardware to the Ukrainian-Russian border. They made a barricade of metal junk and acted as human shields to stop the train proceeding. Similar actions have been mounted on main roads throughout the region, turning back tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Thirty minutes from Donetsk there is a pro-Russian checkpoint on the highway to Lugansk right by a squat police station in the median strip. “We always keep 20 to 30 people here,” says pro-Russian activist Yuri. “But if we need in an emergency, we can get within ten to fifteen minutes another 200 or more people.” On average about 20 percent of the cars that pass sound their horns to show their support.

Yuri says since Sunday they have stopped three small convoys of rocket-launchers advancing to Lugansk. The traffic police insist this isn’t true and that they have had to do nothing to stop the agitators, as they have not trespassed on the road. “They are peaceful,” one of half-a-dozen policemen notes. “They clean up after themselves,” he adds brightly. Yuri claims, “The police are with us.”

None of the men at the checkpoint are wearing camouflage. But further out in more remote rural areas there have been reports that militarized pro-Russian irregulars, members of a group that calls itself the National Militia of Donetsk, are mounting some checkpoints. Rudenko denies any knowledge of the group or ties between them and Gubarev’s followers. But he says there is some coordination with agitators in other eastern region towns trying to stop or hinder Ukrainian military movements and says there will be more checkpoints mounted in the coming days.

Again, Rudenko insists all these actions are homegrown and not being encouraged by Russian outsiders or provocateurs. But a former top Putin economic adviser, Andrei Illarionov, warned this week in an interview with Ukrainian television that Russian Spetsnaz (special operations) forces and intelligence agents were almost certainly operating on Ukrainian territory already with orders to subvert and sow discord.

A pro-Ukrainian movement is also emerging in Donetsk and has about 5,000 followers on its VKontakte page. “We decided we couldn’t sit back and watch what is going on and had to do something,” says Ekaterina Kastrova, a 24-year-old English student, who until a year ago was studying in Moscow. She is an ethnic Russian. Another one of the group’s leaders, Diana Berg, a 34-year-old graphic designer, says,” we have noticed there are more bosses around on the other side, standing back but giving orders.”

The pro-Ukrainian leaders have organized three rallies since March 4, attracting 2,000 at the first and then 10,000 the next day. But their “harshest” was on March 14, when pro-Russian agitators attacked armed with clubs, baseball bats and knives. The pro-Ukrainian killed was a final-year history student, called Dima. Both women are in tears when recalling his death—he was stabbed and died in the ambulance. “His mother hadn’t wanted him to go to the rally but he answered, ‘I wouldn’t be the son you raised, if I didn’t go,’” says Kate.

She says: “All our movement is about is Donetsk staying in Ukraine. Many in the group don’t even agree with Ukraine becoming closer to Europe at the expense of Russia. We want to be good neighbors with both. But I don’t want to live in Putin’s Russia.”