After not firing a single shot during the annexation of Crimea and hesitating on Eastern Ukraine for days now, the Ukrainian government has finally decided to get tough. Yesterday acting President Turchynov announced the beginning of an “anti-terrorist operation” to bring the separatist controlled cities in Donetsk oblast back under government control. All day Ukrainian armoured vehicles were on the move, and in the late afternoon the army took back control of an airport that was controlled by armed separatists. There are reports of casualties, but there is no clear information coming out of the area. So what exactly has happened in the last few days? And the million dollar question – what will Russia do?
To quickly look back at the last few days, after a period of relative calm in the East separatists have started taking over buildings and towns throughout Donetsk Oblast (province). This is the hometown of ex-President Yanukovich, and the centre of opposition to the Ukrainian Revolution. Over the weekend the struggle shifted from Donetsk itself to a number of towns throughout the province. These takeovers were very different to the storming of government buildings we saw in Donetsk. In towns like Horlivka (Gorlovka), Kramatorsk and Sloviansk police stations were taken over by violent and heavily armed men. (Click links for video)
- Kramatorsk: A well trained, uniformed group of men armed with assault rifles stormed the police station. Anyone seeing this video can immediately see these are no ordinary ‘protesters’.
- Sloviansk: Armed men in a van broke in windows and took over the building.
- Horlivka: Unlike in other towns, Horlivka’s police station was taken by a large mob of protesters. The police chief (Andrei Krishenko) declared that he wouldn’t hand over his police station to the protesters outside. He and his deputy (German Pristupa) held the building for over an hour before Krishenko was dragged out and beaten by protesters. He was eventually rescued by an ambulance. At the same police station two Western journalists were beaten.
- In other towns such as Mariupol government buildings are being occupied by protesters.
In all these towns barricades have now gone up around the centre, and the Kyiv government has no control. The actions seemed to follow a common pattern. As you can see in the first video above, well trained and equipped men took over important buildings, before handing over visible control of the town to local activists, who now man the barricades. While these activists truly believe in what they’re doing, having the world see old women make Molotov cocktails is essential in convincing people that this is a spontaneous uprising.
Having spent five years of my childhood in Donetsk, the hardest thing to see in this whole situation is how brutal the atmosphere is. At this clash in Kharkiv two wounded pro-government protesters were filmed being kicked and beaten on the ground by their opponents; weeks ago in Donetsk pro-government supporters were surrounded and beaten by a mob, one was stabbed to death two blocks from where I used to live. Western journalists have said that the atmosphere in the towns is very threatening, and journalists have been attacked. People in Eastern Ukraine are at each other’s throats – and Russia is fanning the flames of hatred.
That is the question of course – how involved is Russia? It’s hard to say, but it seems extremely unlikely they are uninvolved. This conflict suddenly flared up again out of nowhere, and looks a lot like what happened in Crimea. Here too armed men are popping up all over the region, taking over buildings, and then fading into the background – though here they are being a lot more subtle about it. However, in Horlivka the man who organised the assault on the police station identified himself to the police as a Lt. Colonel in the Russian army. Whether he is still currently in the Russian army is unclear, but what is certainly clear is that Russia is involved in organising and coordinating these takeovers.
Yesterday though was a crucial day, with the Ukrainian army finally ordered into action. It’s an interesting point that the army refused to help Yanukovich, but they have been willing to aid the new government against the separatists. So far they seem to have retaken an airport in Kramatorsk, but the separatists in the three towns are still waiting for troops to move in. President Turchynov was under immense pressure to act, with anti-separatists back in Kyiv calling for his resignation if he didn’t act. But Ukrainian’s military action is a direct challenge to Russia. Putin has said that Ukraine must not use its army against its own people. The next few days will show how far Putin is prepared to go to secure control over Ukraine’s future.
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