DONETSK, Ukraine — Leaders of the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine today rejected a surprise public appeal from Russian President Vladimir Putin to postpone a referendum on whether to secede and declare an independent republic. Some here see this as the separatist tail wagging the Russian dog, others, to mix a metaphor, think this is Putin, like a spider, continuing to weave his web of intrigue.
In a chaotic, packed press conference in the regional administration building in Donetsk, which the separatists have occupied for weeks and turned into a fortress, rebel leader Denis Pushilin told reporters, “We have just voted in the People’s Council.… The date of the referendum was endorsed by 100 percent. The referendum will take place on May 11.”
His fellow leaders applauded loudly. They said if they delayed the vote, they feared it would never go ahead. And they insisted the choice they faced was between war or holding a referendum. But in Kiev there was dismay and there were claims the Moscow-backed rebels had in fact decided to take a path that would lead to a full-fledged civil war.
Ahead of the insurgents’ announcement, some in the interim government in Kiev had expressed interest in opening a dialogue with the separatists from the east, although they insisted they wouldn’t talk with “terrorists,” meaning anyone involved in the rebels’ armed operations to take control of several cities in the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“A dialogue with terrorists is impossible and inconceivable,” the Ukrainian foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday. And top Ukrainian security officials rejected Moscow’s demands that the government end its military offensive against separatist militias.
But it isn’t clear what Kiev can do now to restore order in the east, where the uprising continues to gain ground. The re-launched operation by Kiev’s forces trying to take back the key towns of the pro-Russian insurgency, Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, has fared badly despite the bravado claims of the man directing it, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. As The Daily Beast found this week, Kramatorsk remains controlled by the separatists and Slovyansk’s encirclement is porous, with militant leaders and fighters able to move in and out freely.
Away from those towns Kiev’s writ is just not in evidence. On the 156-kilometer road from Donetsk to Luhansk yesterday there were two government-controlled checkpoints near Donetsk, but after about 20 kilometers every town and village sported makeshift separatist-controlled barricades and many were being reinforced.
Masked gunmen guarded some of the checkpoints; others were protected by club-wielding youths or pot-bellied veterans wearing their old, frayed and ill-fitting Soviet army and navy uniforms. For two hours of the drive down the meandering pot-holed highway there was no regular police presence and once outside Donetsk there were no signs at all of Ukrainian security or army units.
The Kiev-appointed regional governor in Donetsk, businessman Serhiy Taruta, expressed disbelief when told by The Daily Beast about the absence of government forces on the road between Donetsk and Luhansk. Turning to my translator, he said, “That isn’t possible. Is it true?” She confirmed it was. He then argued that police had checkpoints along the road at each town. Again, I demurred, saying we saw only rebel-controlled checkpoints.
In Luhansk, just hours before Putin’s apparently conciliatory comments yesterday, 20 gunmen stormed the regional prosecutors’ office, adding that building to the assortment of key offices controlled by the separatists in the depressed and desperately poor coal-mining town.
The Luhansk gunmen are led by Valery Bolotov, a former paratrooper. They hold sway over the city hall, the regional government building and the security services complex. Bolotov followed the line of his comrades in Donetsk and said the referendum in Luhansk would go ahead. “The referendum will be secure,” he told The Daily Beast. “All people will come to vote and we have almost prepared everything and we are ready for it.”
Despite Ukrainian security forces having managed to claw back ownership of the local army recruitment center in Luhansk earlier this week, the separatist gunmen clearly feel they have total impunity to act any way they see fit—as I discovered in an altercation with the gunmen outside the regional prosecutors’ office as it was being seized. The gunmen claimed I was “breaking rules” by interviewing the staff after they were ordered out of the building. With a threatening wave of AK47s the gunmen grabbed my audio recorder, accused me of being an American spy and then ordered me to leave the region.
Later, when I interviewed Bolotov, a tall, self-possessed man, no apology for the confrontation was offered. “They thought you had secret information,” he said. Asked why he had decided to occupy the prosecutors’ office, Bolotov said it was done to protect the separatists. Earlier in the morning, Kiev had announced it was opening three major criminal investigations into Bolotov. “The Kiev government can act through the prosecutors,” he said. “By taking this building we want to show our demands to Kiev and to say that we are serious.”
One of the prosecutors, 40-year-old Dmitry, said he and his colleagues were told “not to take any documents or memory sticks or computers with us.” Just before the gunmen intervened he told me, “I think they are looking for something.”
Bolotov, like all the separatist leaders in the east, insists Moscow doesn’t pull the strings when it comes to the uprising. “There is no Moscow,” he says. “It is the peoples’ will here that is behind the rebellion. People don’t agree with Kiev. But some individual Russians are here because they want to help us and some businessmen from Russia give us money, too,” he says.
The rejection of Putin’s appeal for a delay in the vote may well be pointed to as evidence that Moscow does not pull the strings of this uprising. Or perhaps that some deal was in the works. Putin’s conciliatory advice, including an apparent endorsement of the presidential elections to be held in Ukraine on May 25, coincided with Kiev’s decision to free Pavel Gubarev, who was detained five days after he declared himself the people’s governor of Donetsk region at a rally held on March 1. Gubarev’s liberation had been a key separatist demand for weeks.
But pro-unity activists argued here that Putin’s intervention was a sly ploy designed to benefit Moscow. They suspect the Russian president was spinning more webs to entangle Kiev and the Western powers, exhausting them and making them ever more vulnerable for the final injection of venom—namely the acceptance of a Ukraine divided into semi-autonomous parts that Moscow can more easily manipulate and dominate, especially the southeast.
Most Ukrainians don’t want that to happen. A poll released today by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center found that a majority of Ukrainians want the country to remain a single, unified state with 93 percent in the pro-Europe west wanting the current borders of the country to be retained and 70 percent of those polled in the troubled east supporting that view as well.
But the Pew poll showed also that there is a large amount of discontent with the new government in Kiev, with nearly half of all Ukrainians polled saying the interim authorities have influenced the country negatively.
It is unlikely that Sunday’s pseudo referendum will bear out the Pew poll. On the ballot paper there is just one question: Do you support the independence of Donetsk? Discontent with Kiev combined with many boycotting a one-question ballot is likely to produce the result the separatist’s desire, even if the referendum is conducted fairly. But, of course, few here think that the referendum will be fair—especially as it will be held at the point of a gun in much the same way that the secession vote was conducted in the Black Sea Peninsula of Crimea.