The Siege of Sloviansk

Inside a brewing insurgency as Ukraine sends in the tanks to quell unrest in its chaotic East.

KIEV, Ukraine — Large contingents of Ukrainian forces are now on the move near Sloviansk and the nearby town of Kramatorsk, where separatists have also seized a government building. But the mood of those in the town and the other occupied areas of eastern Ukraine remains defiant, and greater conflict seems almost a certainty.

Over the past few days, Sloviansk -- a small, once-insignificant industrial town of just under 130,000 in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border -- has become what many there have said will be the first battleground of a larger war.

As late afternoon fell on Tuesday in Sloviansk, the sound of machine-gun fire grew more regular. The armed men around the police station have become emboldened. These are the men the Ukrainian army will face when it tries to break the siege here, and they have no intention of leaving without a fight.

On April 12, armed pro-Russia activists demanding a referendum on joining the Russian Federation stormed and occupied a police station in Sloviansk and vowed to fight any Ukrainian forces dispatched to remove them. The center of the town, an unappealing grid of drab streets and gloomy concrete buildings, was deserted except for a few groups of masked and armed men who wandered aimlessly, staring into passing cars. On the ground the atmosphere was intense.

The occupied police station sits just off the main road and is little more than a small concrete hut. Inside, there was chaos: masked men wandered in and out, jostling one another in the cramped space. The floor was covered in muddy footprints and strewn with rubble. In a parody of officialdom, masked men stood behind what was once the reception desk. Only a select few were allowed behind it. Outside, a blue "police" light shone, a seeming rebuke to the lawlessness around it.

Barricades -- mounds of tires and sandbags topped with barbed wire -- stretched around the building, sealing it off from the surrounding streets. Access was only possible with the permission of an armed protester holding a huge riot shield, which was used as a makeshift "door" to allow people in and out. These makeshift walls in Sloviansk looked nothing like the barricades built in Donetsk and Luhansk, where the mounds of tires and sandbags had a haphazard feel about them -- placed prominently in front of the occupied buildings but offering little in the way of any real protection.

The heavily-armed masked men who patrolled the Sloviansk streets, gripping automatic weapons and occasionally speaking into their hand-held radios, stood in stark contrast to the protesters in Donetsk and Luhansk, who wielded bats and metal bars. The degree of precision and economy of purpose among the protesters in Sloviansk -- from the way these men walked to the way they gathered in groups at strategic points around the city, clearly taking orders from the senior members among them -- suggested with near certainty that if they were not soldiers, they had at least had military training. They were reluctant to speak or have their photo taken -- grunting at journalists and outsiders to go away.

The Ukrainian government has accused Russia of being behind this takeover, a charge Russian President Vladimir Putin denies. Reports are that many of these men are Russians, mysterious "Cossacks" who had arrived from elsewhere -- just like those who appeared in Crimea during Russia's seizure of the peninsula in February. Some of the armed men inside the barricades were clearly carrying specialized Russian weapons and had identical uniforms without insignia, again, similar to those Russian troops wore in Crimea. The palpable degree of coordination behind events here suggested that this suspicion may well be correct.

The majority of Ukraine's Russian-speaking citizens have said they want to remain a part of Ukraine and, more significantly, consider Russia's actions in Crimea to be an invasion. But this majority does not rule the streets of Sloviansk.

Further up the street from the police station was another barricade. On the other side, a crowd of several hundred mostly middle-aged men and women chanted for Russia and for an independence referendum, while a speaker stood on a mound of tires and punched his fist in the air, shouting slogans and leading the chanting. 

"The government ignores us," said one young girl. "Putin is a great leader," said another. "He is strong!" And it is not just Russia that is admired here: it is the USSR and the Russian Empire -- and flags representing both flew inside the barricades. "The Soviet Union was glorious," said one elderly man. "Everything has gone downhill since it ended."

The crowd began to thin in the early hours of April 13, as a cold rain got heavier. Gangs of masked, armed men wandered the streets around the occupied building and moved to a 24-hour café just off the main road, eating soggy pizza and drinking bad coffee while they mingled with locals who were terrified of what would be coming to their town.

The following morning, the talk was of an impending attack by the Ukrainian Special Forces to take back the police station. Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Avakov once again accused Russia of orchestrating the violence here and vowed to the end the siege. On hearing the news, some protesters linked arms in front of the barricades to create a human shield, in case an attempt was made to break up the occupation, while others carried oil drums on their shoulders to further fortify the barricades. Armed men gathered in urgent conference and ran in and out of the occupied area coordinating the defense they are going to mount.

In just two days, the separatists had completely overrun Sloviansk. On a street just off the town's main thoroughfare, two large, blue trucks were parked across the road, forcing cars to drive onto the pavement to pass around them. Several militia checkpoints were set up on the roads leading to the police station, while on the outskirts of the city more checkpoints manned by heavily armed men and, in some cases, armed teenagers, controlled access in and out of town. The whole area was in total lockdown.

As Tuesday wore on, machine-gun fire could be heard as separatists clashed with arriving Ukrainian forces, leaving one officer dead. A few armored vehicles were said to be on the outskirts of Sloviansk -- and the mood inside the city became even more intense. Rumors flew as people in the crowd discussed the news they had seen on Russian TV; the armed contingent of the protesters grew even more hostile and suspicious.

As the situation has worsened, U.S. President Barack Obama has expressed "grave concern" about Moscow's perceived support for the actions of the separatists, which he says threatens to undermine and destabilize the government of Ukraine. "The president emphasized that all irregular forces in the country need to lay down their arms, and he urged President Putin to use his influence with these armed, pro-Russian groups to convince them to depart the buildings they have seized," read a statement released by the White House late on April 14 in Washington.

But these words are unlikely to have any traction in Sloviansk, where the United States is both hated and feared. Paranoia about the presence of U.S. spies in the region is widespread across eastern Ukraine and journalists are repeatedly accosted and accused of being American, with protesters demanding that outsider produce passports and other identifying documents. Banners fly urging Washington to keep its hands off the country; defaced U.S. flags hang from barricades. For the majority of protesters, many of whom are middle-aged, the Cold War lives on.

The deadline issued by Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov for all pro-Russia separatists to leave occupied buildings passed on the morning of April 14. On Tuesday morning the president announced the start of an "anti-terrorist operation" in the north of Donetsk Region to "protect Ukrainian citizens, to stop the terror, to stop the crime, to stop the attempts to tear our country apart." It would, he said, be conducted "stage by stage, in a responsible and weighed manner."

Meanwhile, in the capital city Kiev, a stronghold of nationalist sentiment, militant protesters gathered outside Parliament to demand decisive action against the separatists in the East. Armed militia that fought during the Euromaidan revolution to help overthrow Yanukovych are reportedly making their way to the border areas to fight the separatists and, if it comes to it, the Russians. Both sides are now mobilizing, and the possibility of further bloodshed in Ukraine is getting higher by the hour.



On the Barricades of Luhansk

The armed Russian protesters in Eastern Ukraine aren’t leaving any time soon -- and that could lead to war.

LUHANSK, Ukraine — For the past few nights, I have been on the barricades outside the occupied city hall in Donetsk with angry and hostile pro-Russia protesters who believe they are being targeted by the forces of globalization. Here, among the protesters, Kiev governance and cosmopolitanism are hated in equal measure. On April 6, several hundred pro-Russia protesters stormed the building and declared the Donbass region a people's republic, independent from the central government in Kiev. And, they assure me, they have no intentions of leaving.

But in Luhansk, an industrial city roughly 90 miles east of Donetsk (and just 30 miles from the Russian border), another group of pro-Russia protesters have seized a building. And the rumors swirling in Donetsk are that these protesters are more heavily armed and have military training. I decide to travel east to find out how far the people here are willing to go.  

The mood in Eastern Ukraine, where separatist protests have erupted in key cities across the region over the past week, is worsening. Tensions in the region have been high since Ukraine's president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country on Feb. 22 after months of protests in Kiev erupted into violence, leaving more than 70 people dead and hundreds injured. Russia's invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in February has further stoked emotions by encouraging separatist sentiments that threaten to further destabilize Ukraine.

On April 10, I set out from Donetsk in the early afternoon. Under a falling spring rain, the Ukrainian countryside is a grey monochrome of endless space broken up by hulking Soviet ruins: Former factories and deserted administrative buildings encrusted with moss and dirt dot the landscape. The rapidly deteriorating roads make what should be a quick two-hour drive to cover the 90-some odd miles between the two cities take twice as long. Craters (in this case, pothole is a wholly insufficient term) several feet wide have to be negotiated at a crawling pace.

It's the shadow of the USSR, not the EU, that dominates the imagination -- and the geography -- here.Heading out of Donetsk, one passes a town called "Red Partisans";  20 minutes later, just outside a bleak industrial village, the "Karl Marx" mine can be seen in the distance. On the approach to Luhansk, the heavy Russian influence, from the street signs to the architecture, is everywhere. A huge iron statue of a triumphant worker welcomes newcomers into the center of the city.

The protesters in Luhansk have been occupying the former state security services (SBU) building on Sovetskaya, the city's main street, since April 6. A barricade of mounds of tires piled several feet high forms a wall at the end of the street. It's festooned with barbed wire and banners that read: "The USA and EU: Hands off from Ukraine." On another banner, someone has painted a U.S. flag with a black "X" drawn through it, along with the word "Stop."

About 2,000 people have braved the sub-zero temperatures; they congregate under tents flying Russian and Soviet flags, talking and drinking tea. Young and old -- though most of these people are older -- have come out in force. Chants of "Ru-Si-Ya! Ru-Si-Ya!" and its inevitable accompaniment "Re-fer-en-dum!" fill the street. Ancient babushkas serve biscuits and tea while speakers on a stage just in front of the building's entrance broadcast endless speeches about Russia and the "fascist junta" in Kiev. Rubble litters the ground. Masked men dressed in camouflage, wielding bats, warm themselves by fires stoked in metal barrels and spit out their disgust at "Nazi" politicians, the International Monetary Fund, and the West in general. Hostility for journalists and outsiders of any description is intense. I am asked repeatedly where I am from and on occasion asked to show my passport. I am also accused of being American -- not a good thing. The people gathered here believe they are victims and view pretty much everyone, apart from Moscow, as the oppressor.

They are initially reluctant to speak, but after some cajoling, they start to talk about their desire to join Russia or, at the very least, for greater autonomy from the central government in Kiev. "Ukraine and Russia are one blood," says Oleg, a middle-aged manual labourer. "The government wants to kill us; we are surrounded by snipers sent from Kiev. Russia must come and save us." Another man in the crowd is more spirited: "If snipers attack us, Russia will be here in two hours!" he bellows.

Alexisiy, in his mid-twenties, works as an accountant and has not been paid for months. Neither his mother nor his sister has been able to find work. "I can't afford to heat my house. I can't afford to buy food. Why are we being punished like this? What have we done?" he asks. "Our grandfathers were heroes," he says. "They are buried between Donetsk and Luhansk. And the people that killed them -- the Nazis -- are now running the country."

"Russian is my first language. Why can't I speak my own language here?" was a refrain uttered again and again (the country has long grappled with the politics of language). Everyone declared that they were just "ordinary people" -- refuting the Ukrainian government's accusation that many of these people are Russian stooges bussed in to fill out the protests, an insult that stings. The discontent is mostly over ethnic and linguistic issues, but beneath the rhetoric, much of the underlying grievances are economic. The belief that "things were better" under Yanukovych -- who was deposed during the Euromaidan revolution and escaped to Russia -- is almost universal.

The masked, armed men who form the "self defense" units common to all pro-Russia protest groups here in Ukraine patrol the area suspiciously. Overall, the militia presence is less here than in Donetsk, but the occupied building has its own barricade that is manned by several of their most professional-looking members. Two guards with riot shields control access to the building. Eventually, I made my way to the makeshift barrier to meet a contact in the militia who had promised he can get us inside, but nothing is forthcoming. Vasillies, a mustached man in his mid-40s, is the man in charge, and he is adamant that we aren't getting in and tells us to return tomorrow.

As we leave the street to return to our hotel, some militia accost us, demanding to know what we're doing here. One of them is especially aggressive and looks drunk. He calls us "provocateurs" -- the ultimate insult here -- and becomes so agitated that he has to be pulled away by some of his friends.

On the morning of April 11, things are quiet in front of the SBU building. The weather is brutally cold. Small groups of people huddle by fires and the chanting is more subdued. But there is a sense of urgency in the air: There are rumors that forces from Kiev are going to storm the building imminently; the masked militia starts building barricades.

I approach the barricade in front of the SBU building -- my second attempt. Vasillies is in a more forthcoming mood and, as promised, allows me into the occupied building. As I pass through the barricade I see that the man guarding the door is dressed in full military uniform and holding a machine gun. Inside five militiamen in uniform -- each with a machine gun -- line the hallway. Knives and ammunition clips hang from their uniforms. Most are wearing masks. We are led through winding corridors filled with silent, armed men posted at strategic points -- some stand by walls while others sit on furniture that has been dragged out of offices.

We enter what must once have been a conference auditorium located deep in the heart of the building. Long tables with microphones are lined up across a large stage that covers the back end of the room. Six of the protest leaders, who we are told make up the security branch of the newly formed "People's Council of Luhansk" sit ready to take questions. Posted by the doors are more armed men. About a dozen protest leaders are there as well as some 25 journalists brandishing cameras and notebooks.

They begin the press conference by asserting their peaceful nature: "We are hardworking, decent mining people but we have had enough," they say. "We are being trampled on by the 'Junta' in Kiev." They want a referendum to give people the option to join Russia. If they are attacked by Kiev, they are adamant that they will fight but they call on Russia to protect them.

I ask if it's true that members of the Berkut (the riot police who fought protesters during the Euromaidan revolution and are accused of brutality toward them) are inside the building. "There are people with military training here," concedes Oleksiy Karakin, the head of the security branch, "but we don't make distinctions. We are all one people here."

The deadline set by the government for all protesters to leave occupied buildings across East Ukraine passed at 12 p.m. on Friday, April 11. Karakin reiterates that they are staying put. "We have the means to fight Kiev and we will if we have to," he says. In fact, it appears that military plans have developed beyond the need for immediate self-defense: Karakin announces that, along with militia from other cities in the region, a People's Army of South East Ukraine is being formed. It will, he says, give the people of the region the ability to hold and defend the referendums they promise are imminent. 

Their determination is palpable. Karakin tells the gathered journalists that Ukrainian Special Forces have arrived in the city to storm the building, but assures us that he and his men are ready for anything that might happen. There is no question of a negotiated surrender.

As I make my way out of the building two protesters accost me, grabbing my arm, though more for emphasis than out of any hostile intent, and urge me to make sure I report "the truth."

"The people in Kiev think we are nothing," they say. "But we will show them."

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images