Slavyansk hopes for peace, but is readying for war

Just a few minutes ago a report came through that a checkpoint near Donetsk is being attacked. As recently as last fall few in the world knew where Donetsk was. Today our eyes are focused on that region of Ukraine in tense anticipation. I personally feel somewhat nauseated every morning before checking my Twitter feed, waiting for the report on that ultimate shoot out which is bound to eventually drag my country into this retarded “war”.

Now, reports to that effect appear almost daily – but with the amount of misinformation and outright lies floating about, it is essential that you hold back until details are confirmed by reputable sources. Today I would like to share translation of a phone interview conducted by Vladimir Soloviev – possibly the most respected journalist and TV presenter in Russia today – on air in his radio program. His call-in guest is Evgeny Poddubny – a war correspondent with VGTRK central Russian broadcasting company – who is currently on the ground in Slavyansk with his crew. As peculiar as Soloviev is – with his aggressive polemics – I never knew him to be a liar. Much of the factual information offered by Evgeny can be verified through other sources as well.

I offer this piece as a tiny window into Slavyansk where we all hope the worst does NOT begin. If it does, this is what Slavyansk was like on the eve of war (broadcast on April 22, 2014)…

VS: Evgeny, before I let you speak, I’d like to share the results of the questionnaire we just conducted among our listeners. The question was: “In your opinion, can the situation in Ukraine be resolved through peaceful measures, or at this point only through war?” Here is the result: 36% of listeners believe in peaceful resolution, 62% think war is inevitable. This is the rather sad mood in Russia. Evgeny, what’s the latest from your end and what are people seeing these days?

EP: Well, here people continue to ready for war, all the while hoping for peace. For two days now people in Slavyansk have been in this peculiar situation, even as compared to early last week. Just the other night state of emergency was announced and curfew introduced between midnight and 6 a.m. People continue preparations for an attack. Self-defense forces are certain that Kiev won’t go back on their intention to storm the city. Information continues to emerge that paratroopers are being massed nearby. Remember the 25th Brigade from Dnepropetrovsk that Kiev wanted to dismantle after part of it sided with the protesters? It’s not being dismantled now, because they understood it might effectively destroy the entire army, as 25th Brigade is known to be a showcase – famous and better prepared than the rest. We have here those very soldiers from 25th; we have the people’s guard – around 600 fighters. They are capable of blocking both Slavyansk and Kramatorsk in no time.

VS: Evgeny, when we speak of Slavyansk – how many people are we talking about?

EP: 120,000 people.

VS: So not such a small town.

EP: Yes, not like 10,000. We are talking 120,000 – a rather sizable city.

VS: Is it an important city? What’s key about it? Location wise – is it meaningful?

EP: Not so much – it’s not on any kind of crossing. I would say it just so happened that they have the most decisive self-defense forces. People here in a tough manner, very quickly captured the buildings and set up to defend themselves.

VS: Would you say the city has become a fortified region?

EP: Yes, you could say that. The matter is that it’s not just administrative buildings that self-defense has under control. They also control all entrances into the city – they’ve equipped checkpoints. The same is currently happening in neighboring Kramatorsk – a city similar in size, and there not just administrative buildings have been captured, but checkpoints equipped in the streets as well – sort of like fighting positions. In addition, they’ve blocked a military airport there – inside which Kiev continues to accumulate troops – regular, as well as Special Forces. The airport is being blocked by unarmed locals – that’s an important detail. People don’t want clashes and fighting to erupt, and they continue to demand that the troops inside refuse to participate in the operation saying that the army must not wage war against its own people.

VS: Unexpected war tactics. I think OSCE observers must be impressed. What are they seeing and doing right now?

EP: OSCE hasn’t yet published its final report. They continue to come and visit, hold meetings with Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the people’s mayor, they inspect checkpoints and observe how the entry/exit routine works. But really it’s anyone’s guess how they are going to transform their impressions into the conclusive report.

VS: And who are these people? How many of them are there, what countries are they from?

EP: I can only speak of the people I’ve met personally. I’ve seen OSCE staff from Moldova and Poland. I’ve seen some who speak Russian, but rather poorly – I think they were from another Eastern European country, but I don’t recall now with certainty which one. They move around in their standard bulletproof SUVs, they are stationed in Donetsk. This is the standard workflow for OSCE in all countries they are dispatched to.

VS: But the choice of countries who sent their experts is rather strange, in that their political evaluation of this whole crisis is widely known to be one sided.

EP: That’s true, and this is why I’m saying it’s impossible to say right now which observations will be reflected in the report. OSCE often closes its eyes, and opens them only when it’s convenient. I remember it well from my personal experience – around 3 hours before Georgia’s first attack on Tskhinvali OSCE observers just picked up and left the city.

VS: Must’ve been the moment when their eyes opened up and they decided not to risk their skin.

EP: Must be so.

VS: Now, this tragic Easter shoot out – Ukrainian press is screaming it’s all made up. Alfred Kokh, the well know Ukrainian patriot these days, writes that a preserved corpse was thrown in, and then the so called evidence of Right Sector connection was planted near the burnt car. The whole of Ukraine is convinced this has been made up and falsified. What really happened? What did you see?

EP: It’s strange to even talk about this. Especially considering that several Ukrainian TV crews are working here in Slavyansk – channel ‘Inter’ for instance. For journalists who are here it is impossible to deny the shooting. Let’s trace the events. Indeed, a northern checkpoint was attacked by unknown men from 4 cars. The drivers had been manipulated, as became evident, they had no idea who they were driving and where, and realized what was happening only when the attackers took out their weapons to fire. They just opened fire at the checkpoint. Some checkpoints are manned by unarmed activists because there simply isn’t enough armed self-defense forces to cover all of them, so people are willingly taking such risk. They opened fire from the cars, and killed 3 people on the spot. It’s not one corpse as you mention some claim. Rapid reaction force was dispatched right away, a well-trained group, former military men – and I mean not regular, but former Special Services. They took on the attackers and killed several. Now, how did they figure out it was the Right Sector? The thing is, self-defence set up intelligence units here as well – built up a whole military structure of their own. And this information – that Right Sector was working in Slavyansk area – such leaks have come through quite some time ago. They captured fighters from so called sabotage crews moving around Slavyansk, who confirmed Right Sector fighters were in the area.

VS: What is this story with Yarosh business card?

EP: Yes, Yarosh business card, as well as a Right Sector Security Services token, were found on the attackers.

VS: These tokens – are they actually confirmed to be a thing, or there is only this one found in Slavyansk?

EP: You see, according to intelligence here, it is a thing and Right Sector never denied it. More than that, some information they have suggests they seriously wounded someone very high up in Right Sector, who is now in a hospital 60 kilometers away from Slavyansk. And that he couldn’t even be transported to Kharkov because his wound is too serious. He is being protected by some serious people from the National Guard and they don’t let anyone see him.

VS: What happened with the burning cars? The attackers who were killed – were they inside the cars that burnt down, or the fire was set later?

EP: No, they were outside.

VS: They got out of the cars?

EP: Yes, they were using vehicles as cover so that’s why the cars were shot at.

VS: I see. That’s why the business cards and such were intact.

EP: Precisely, as well as their weapons.

VS: What about their weapons? I know you mentioned it in your TV reports, but in case some of our listeners missed that info.

EP: First of all, it’s not so much about their weapons – although it does have significance – first and foremost, the attackers had night vision scopes on them, foreign made, not the type you can just buy at a store. They are really good quality and quite expensive. This kind of equipment has not been used in clashes before, not at least in this area. They had an MG43 machine gun – considered the best machine gun of WWII – German made, but of Yugoslav modification. It was in very good condition, and came with expanding ammo – the kind that opens up as a flower and rips the tissue upon entering the human body. This type of ammo is banned from use in warfare. I think it can only be used for hunting.

VS: The machine gun – does it look like it was “dug up” or is it “fresh”?

EP: The machine gun is in prime condition, unlikely to have been “dug up” – at least to me it looks to have come from storage. The buttstock looked just fine. There was no trace of corrosion and it functions perfectly. There was also a Walther gun with ammo, first aid kit from the intelligence division of Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs – containing full range of various medications, narcotic painkillers, anti-shock substances – everything that a Special Forces operative would require in a battle.

VS: Hmm, sounds like they were well equipped and not just with the standard items known to be at the disposal of Ukrainian army.

EP: This is true. Another curious detail here is that they also had an AK-47 on them – so it looks like weapons were being collected from all over, and all in all it’s a decent collection. They had $3,000 on them too – whether this is a lot of money or just a little…

VS: For Ukraine at this moment it’s quite a lot.

EP: Exactly.

VS: How old were these people?

EP: Right now I can’t confirm how old these ones were, but in general Right Sector fighters are usually 23 to 25 years old – at least the ones that were detained here in Slavyansk – we interviewed one of them at length, he was part of a sabotage group detained at one of the block posts. Overall, these are young people – and not all of them are that well trained. Many first encountered Right Sector activists on Maidan during February events, and in the aftermath became activists themselves and showed up here.

VS: What, did they assume this was going to be a breezy kill trip?

EP: Oh well, I can’t really judge how sincere our “hero” was…

VS: Tell us a bit more about him – what are your impressions?

EP: He is a young guy from Vinnytsia region. At first, when he was detained, he claimed to have come down here out of curiosity – that he doesn’t trust the media and decided to see for himself what was happening on the ground. This is sort of a funny version, or a strange one at the very least – for a person who has a life and a job to just take off for another city out of curiosity. He was one of 5 people forming a sabotage crew. They all met in Independence Square – he was helping with Molotov cocktails arrangements at the time, some medication and other items. They went to Kharkov first, and then down here. Now, according to him, they got the weapons here in Slavyansk suburbs and prepared to enter the city. He doesn’t know what their objective was – and this can easily be true, it’s possible only one of them knew what was required of the group here. He did provide some interesting insights into how they communicate internally – for instance they didn’t share last names, personal circumstances or addresses – meaning it was somewhat like a conspiracy to prevent any potential leaks. The reason they got caught was simply that they underestimated the adversary; they had no detailed information about how serious the control at these checkpoints was. Having now experienced it personally they seem to have been impressed because they were detained so quickly.

VS: Were all of them detained?

EP: All of them, yes.

VS: And all of a sudden they are shocked. Didn’t you also detain the leader of Maidan “Female Hundred” who now claims to be a journalist?

EP: Correct. She has also been captured and is now being detained in self-defense HQ. What’s more, she is sharing lots of interesting facts with OSCE staff – not about Slavyansk, but about the events that took place in Kiev’s Independence Square: how Berkut was being provoked into using excessive force, so that Maidan self-defense members, also armed, would have an excuse to respond. Right now she seems to be playing into the hands of pro-Russian activists.

VS: How come? Has she been drugged, tortured or threatened?

EP: No, not at all. She is fine, she met with OSCE staff. Some sort of transformation perhaps – hard to tell.

VS: Do you get the feeling that they really believe that upon arrival they’ll encounter Russian sabotage units and military, who they need to go to war against to defend Ukraine’s independence? And then they see something entirely different.

EP: To a certain extent, yes. Many who come here from Kiev – journalists for example – had for weeks been watching reports on TV about evil terrorists, who take locals hostage and disrupt everyone’s lives, fighting to separate Eastern provinces from Ukraine at all costs. Upon arrival such people, first of all, see how far that is from the truth, and second, how many locals are participating – not just from Lugansk or other cities in the area, but Slavyansk self-defense is made up mainly of people from Slavyansk, or in Gorlovka it is mainly Gorlovka residents – which is important. And all these people are asking not to be called terrorists. Many completely change their opinion. Now, I don’t know if that’s what happened to head of Maidan “Female Hundred”, but she is now talking about being disappointed in the revolution, she says had she only known what the consequences of Maidan would be – she would not have been part of it. This could be true, by the way. Many revolutionary romantics, who were active on Independence Square, now have a hard time understanding what is happening in Verkhovna Rada, inside the government, inside law enforcement. I think in February they imagined something entirely different. Well, that’s what happens after every coup, it’s nothing new really.

VS: Evgeny, many of our listeners link the shoot out in Slavyansk with Hitler’s birthday rather than Easter. But anyway, there is this constant talk of referendum. Could you please tell us what is implied? What do people want to put up for discussion there? What is the ultimate goal being pursued?

EP: Well, here referendum is seen as the best means of expression of people’s will – locals definitely envision it happening. Not so long ago, for instance, an autonomous Moldova region named Gagauzia held its own referendum organized by the local authorities. The Crimean referendum was recently held as well. These examples encourage locals to believe “Impossible is nothing”. Now, as for the questions that should be posed for the referendum – that’s slightly more complex. Part of the protesters – those in favor of federalization – they genuinely want wider powers for the region. And this applies, first and foremost, to finances because the regions where you see protests right now are mostly donors – they supply less industrialized regions with money. So, when reforms begin and once the process of Ukraine’s federalization has started, it will be essential to keep the finances in mind and not just grant more powers to the regions but also let them keep more of the money that they make.

VS: So, they aren’t speaking of splitting from Ukraine and urgently joining Russia?

EP: That’s just part of the activists, the majority of protesters are in favor of federalization. There are some who defiantly demand joining Russia. It’s difficult to tell how many they are, or how few, whether they are a significant majority or minority – there hasn’t been a public opinion poll of any kind. But you have to understand that the events of the past couple of weeks are important. Two weeks ago not that many people were in favor of joining Russia, but recent actions of the interim government provoked mass scale anti-Kiev sentiment. Locals couldn’t believe that the army would be sent to suppress them. Honestly, two weeks ago nobody believed this was possible.

VS: I see, so basically the government pushes these territories away all on its own, and it’s not so much that they want to be part of Russia, but they simply want nothing to do with Kiev.

EP: Exactly, under no circumstances do they want to live with this kind of Kiev. What’s more, and this is just my opinion, I’ll allow myself to state that in Kiev they have close to no understanding of what is taking place here on the ground.

VS: Looks like our Ukrainian colleagues have given up on the truth entirely.

EP: It’s difficult for me to speak of all journalists, as I am not capable of following all the broadcasting of different channels, but some reports are just shocking. For instance, just recently I read that Slavyansk has been “cleaned up”, all terrorists captured, and right now things are getting back to normal…

VS: But that’s true!

EP: …It was a report from about 3 days ago.

VS: But it’s absolute truth! 5 terrorists from Right Sector were indeed captured…

EP: (laughs)

VS: …the city was thus “cleaned up”, and life is back to normal!

EP: Right! No, they didn’t mention Right Sector at all in that article. You see, journalists have become accomplices in these events. In Kiev many of them made a choice to side with one perspective only.

VS: Turning into wheels and screws of Maidan mission, regardless of the truth.

EP: Yes, journalists of the revolution – enamored by its ideas. They are all different people, of course. I am planning to meet one of my Ukrainian colleagues today for a talk – he just arrived – his name is Ruslan Nemalyuk, I’ve known him for a while. He is a reporter for ‘Inter’ channel. One interesting detail about him is that back in 2008, on August 8, 9 and 10, he was the only foreign TV correspondent in Tskhinvali, when Georgian army was bombing the city. I’m looking forward to speaking with him, seeing what he can share with me.

VS: We’ve spoken about Slavyansk and Kramatorsk at length, but how many people are involved in the protests in southeastern Ukraine overall? An hour ago I spoke with Nikolai Zlobin, he says in America everybody thinks these are small towns with 2,000 to 3,000 people and that’s it. And you can’t speak of a people’s uprising.

EP: In order to understand whether this is a people’s uprising – all you need to do is look at Ukrainian APCs trying to make their way through public streets. I personally think it’s telling enough. When APCs from 25th Brigade show up far away from city checkpoints and occupied administrative buildings, 30 minutes later they cannot make a move because they are blocked – and not by self-defense forces, but by residents of small suburban settlements which in America wouldn’t even be considered towns. Here you can’t say this is a marginal group of people, because even traffic police on the road between Donetsk and Slavyansk (they stop our car sometimes) – in private conversation even they express their support for the protesters blocking APCs. They don’t understand why APCs are here either. I am convinced we are not talking about a minority – we are talking about people who were observing for a long time what was taking place in Maidan, they were very calm, thinking perhaps somebody will ask their opinion as well, but when…

VS: When nobody asked them, then it all started, correct.

EP: Yeah, when they realized nobody was going to ask them, they turned to civil disobedience, of course – many people attend protests every day, so that they are able to block the buildings in case of attack.

VS: What cities are currently controlled by protesters – places where Kiev has no power at all?

EP: It’s, naturally, Slavyansk. It’s Kramatorsk – as of yesterday all buildings previously controlled by law enforcement have been captured. There is currently a very serious situation in Gorlovka as well – the main Police Department has been captured, but there are still forces there loyal to Kiev, they block the city, put up cordons from time to time. There are towns where self-defense presence is less evident, Druzhkovka for instance.

VS: What about large cities, like Donetsk?

EP: Well, in Donetsk right now protesters control Regional Administration building, and so far negotiations have not produced any result. Newly appointed administration had nothing to offer the protesters to enable them to leave the building. In Lugansk the situation is incredibly tense as well – Ukraine Security Bureau building has been captured along with a few others. And Lugansk protesters proved to be the most decisive ones – they were the first armed self-defense forces who weren’t afraid to address Kiev directly via the Internet warning that they will go to war if Kiev continues to ignore southeastern provinces.

VS: Speaking of this war – has the southeastern army been formed yet? Is there an HQ for the armed forces of the southeast? Is it possible that they will march not on just Kiev, but will stop only at the border?

EP: I hesitate to make such far-reaching conclusions. There are several control centers for the armed forces of the southeast, and they definitely coordinate their actions, but there is no single HQ. And actually, the most powerful self-defense group is now concentrated in Slavyansk and its suburbs. They managed to fortify their positions here in such a way that kicking them out will be extremely difficult. I personally still don’t understand how Kiev is planning to act in this regard – people have not been evacuated, the area is completely under control of self-defense, what’s more, locals support self-defense forces. In such conditions…

VS: All you can do is destroy 120,000 people it seems… Or you can choose to talk… Evgeny, who is the man currently in charge in Slavyansk? What kind of person is he, what’s your impression of him?

EP: Do you mean the people’s mayor?

VS: The people’s mayor, yes.

EP: Well, he is a very simple guy really. If you were to draw comparisons, he is closer to the mayor of Sevastopol. He has positioned himself as someone very close to the locals, and thus understanding of the needs of Slavyansk. And he is determined to defend that stance.

VS: So, he is local?

EP: Yes, he is local and he says he is prepared to stand his ground here with weapons.

VS: How do people in the city know him? Is he an entrepreneur or what?

EP: I hesitate to say right now, because I haven’t gotten to know him all that well or how people in the city know him, but he has support, that’s indisputable.

VS: Is he young?

EP: No, not a young guy – I’d say he looks around 50.

VS: Charming?

EP: Charismatic. He definitely has charisma. He seems direct and decisive.

VS: Just the kind of person you need.

EP: In this situation, yes.

VS: Do you feel affected by Kolomoisky’s money, his fighters or Tymoshenko’s fighters who try to restore order through their own means?

EP: Let me tell you a story that has to do with this financial reimbursement and you’ll understand how it affects the situation. In Gorlovka city local self-defense forces, who coordinate their actions with Slavyansk, captured a Police Department. And a whole battalion of traffic police as well as their commander sided with the ‘captors’ and joined them. A lot of former Berkut officers were also in that Police Department. They went ahead and barricaded themselves, and did it so professionally that storming them is very challenging, based on their location. They have grenade launchers at their disposal and even snipers in certain positions. Even approaching them is highly problematic. Now, some policemen refused to side with the protesters and they were promised a reward if they agreed to storm the building. A sizable reward too – 10,000 hryvnia per each protester’s head, and 200,000 for the whole building if it is vacated.

VS: Not US dollars?

EP: No, hryvnia. For a small town like Gorlovka this is serious money. So these people started preparing to storm the building, looking to make some money perhaps. All the while, self-defense representatives tried to persuade them to give up this idea, saying: “Look, you have to understand you are going to die, we don’t want to shoot you, but if you try to move in, we will. You won’t be able to take the building without a full scale military operation, the city needs to be sealed off and you’ll need APCs and aviation.” So for two days those preparations continued, but ultimately nobody risked making the move – perhaps having evaluated their positions they realized they might not be around to collect the reward. Money is a stimulating factor, no doubt. And Kolomoisky along with other oligarchs sent here by Kiev to suppress the protests – of course they use their financial resources to purchase support, to buy loyalty.

VS: But so far no luck with the purchase. Anyway, Kolomoisky seems to be in control of Dnepropetrovsk, right?

EP: Yes, you know, in Dnepropetrovsk the mood among locals is entirely different. A lot of cars drive around with Ukrainian flags, you can see Ukrainian flags on the windows. Checkpoints there are manned by activists who support the new government in Kiev – they do it together with fighters from the National Guard, this newly created structure that is absolutely loyal to Kiev as well. It was formed in part from Maidan self-defense forces that stood against Berkut and took part in street clashes on Grushevskaya Street.

VS: That’s a real split of the country.

EP: Yes, that’s what it looks like. But I repeat again, in Kiev many of our colleagues, as well as many politicians, whether purposefully or not, refuse to see the split. They believe it’s a handful of marginal lunatics here that ratchet up tensions.

VS: Evgeny, how long do you feel this fragile balance can hold?

EP: There are 2 issues with this. Number one: Kiev won’t be able to hold legitimate elections if Donetsk and Lugansk regions refuse to participate.

VS: Kiev couldn’t care less; they’ll recognize the result as legitimate anyway.

EP: Maybe, but it will only make the split worse – choosing a President without Donetsk region. And at this time holding an objective vote in Donetsk – I believe it’s impossible. They demand that a referendum is held on May 11th and until that demand is met, not a single self-defense commander is going to pack up and go home. They are going to remain in their positions, keeping control of key residential areas. In this respect balance won’t shift one bit. The question is how Kiev plans to act. Are they going to go ahead with a full-scale military operation? Because up until this point there hasn’t been a full-scale attack. There have been some exploratory moves – like here there’s been an attempt by Special Forces to infiltrate the city, self-defense pushed back and that side lost one officer and retreated. So they tried to assess the situation, but there hasn’t been a real attempt to storm the city. Will the forces that take orders from Kiev decide to take the risk? There is no way to tell…

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