DONETSK, Ukraine—A few dozen exhausted looking Ukrainian paratroopers, mostly young draftees, had been sitting on top of their armored vehicles for several hours and, yeah, they confessed their butts hurt like hell. A week ago, after a couple of months of field exercises in southeastern Ukraine, their 25th Paratrooper Brigade was sent to the Donetsk region for “an anti-terrorist operation” against what they’d heard were Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms. Now they were stuck in a crowd of a couple of hundred civilian protesters blocking their way to Donetsk outside the Pchelkino Railway Station. The pro-Russian protesters said they hated the new Ukrainian authorities in Kiev and demanded that the soldiers surrender.
The front lines in this crucial geopolitical standoff are a strange place to be right now. For all the talk about military operations, and the undoubted presence of well-armed, well-trained Russian-speaking gunmen in seized government buildings, the offensive to oust them announced by the government in Kiev is at best half-hearted, at worst a sad farce.
Nobody was pointing a gun at the Ukrainian grunts at the Pchelkino Station, but all the food they had with them were a few cans of pork stew, called tushonka. The crowd of ordinary local people coming from Sotsgorod, Yasnogoki, Belenky, and other surrounding villages brought the trapped soldiers ice cream, water, and cookies, begging the military to turn around and drive away, back to their hometown of Dnepropetrovsk in the center of the country. The soldiers smiled back at the friendly locals—they all felt homesick and could not wait to see their families. “Would you shoot at us?” a woman in a bright red jacket asked one of the soldiers. “Never,” he answered. “Paratroopers never shoot at peaceful people.” He admitted rather glumly that so far he had not seen any terrorists around, but added, “I would kill terrorists.”
A Ukrainian military helicopter circled above the scene. “Our army commanders wish they could solve the conflict peacefully too,” said one of the soldiers. A local man in a leather jacket shared his cigarettes with two young paratroopers sitting on top of a broken-down armored personnel carrier that had been dragged along behind the unit on a towrope. The soldiers asked their new friend to buy motor oil for them and offered him money.
People in the crowd discussed the chaos in the country and complained about increasing unemployment. Somebody mentioned a couple of cases of brutal robberies in the towns of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, where more men were drinking after 6 p.m. than usual. “I could stay and guard your shops,” one of the Ukrainian paratroopers suggested with a smile. “And I would rather work as a security guard for a sauna full of beautiful girls!” his friend shouted and laughed. The soldiers allowed a curious 10-year-old boy to climb up onto their armored vehicle and explore inside.
Meantime, pro-Russian deputies from the Party of Regions released a resolution in Donetsk urging the separatists to give up their weapons, an apparently conciliatory gesture from the organization of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. But the resolution demanded official status for the Russian language and a referendum on federalism.
“The Kiev authorities are making a huge mistake by sending the army here; instead, they should just treat Russians populating our cities with respect and tension would immediately disappear,” said Yelena Skvortsova in the town of Sloviansk. She said she worried about “unidentified separatist forces” occupying the central Lenin Square, right where she lives in an apartment building with her husband and their baby. It’s not just the fear of open fighting, it’s the creeping lawlessness that bothers her. “One more month of this military conflict and our local criminals will begin looting every store and café in our town,” Skvortsova said.
But for now the Ukrainian military units ordered to put an end to the separatist movement in Donesk Oblast have refused to fight the protesters. Earlier on Wednesday outside Sloviansk, a crowd of pro-Russian demonstrators managed to convince a few dozen Ukrainian paratroopers from the same 25th Brigade to surrender. Ukrainian flags were taken off their four armored vehicles and locals presented with the flags of Russia and of the People’s Army of Donbas, the separatist militia. After switching sides, the soldiers drove to Lenin Square, where pro-Russian operatives have occupied the administration building since last week. Most of these militiamen claimed they were from Crimea; none of them spoke a word of Ukrainian. Still, they treated the surrendered Ukrainian paratroopers with courtesy and served them a nice meal inside the administration building.
The Ukrainian solders at Pchelkino Station were shocked when they heard that their colleagues had given up their weapons and their armored vehicles to pro-Russian protesters. But eventually they were convinced to do the same. By 6 p.m., a few soldiers had agreed to take their machine guns apart and pass them to the rebels. By 8 p.m., the entire unit crewing nine armored vehicles felt ready to make friends with the protesters. The soldiers took their machine guns apart and loaded them onto their radio truck, so the demonstrators knew that none of them could shoot, even if they wanted to. “They are not traitors,” said Alexander Ivanov, a pro-Russian activist in Kramatorsk, putting a generous spin on the surrender. “They were sworn to serve our people, and that’s what they are doing,” he told The Daily Beast. “The army should be with the people.”