“Passports! Translation!” yelled the Russian soldier after bursting into the hotel room. He was carrying a bottle of vodka — it was, after all, a Friday afternoon.
He announced he was military intelligence. Often, this is a bad sign. Especially here in Europe’s only conflict zone: Donetsk, the capital of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), the main breakaway territory in Ukraine’s war-torn Donbass region. The region’s most violent week in months was nearing its end, but not over yet. With little choice, we handed over the passports.
“France!” he yelled to the photographer I was bunking with.
Turning to me: “America! Hello!”
Then came the big hug and the handshakes. Turns out, the soldier just wanted drinking buddies. Thanks to an online translation program, our man came from St. Petersburg to fight against “the Europeans and Americans.” Yet here he was pouring drinks for a Frenchman and a Yankee.
Donbass is not a rational place. It is a middle ground between light and shadow, an area we call the Twilight War Zone. Ukraine, the largest country in Europe, about the size of Texas, has lost a New Jersey-sized sliver of its eastern border with Russia. Donbass is now cut in two by a few hundred miles of frontline. Even seasoned war junkies find themselves confused upon entering the rebel-held alternate dimension of sound, sight and mind.
Within minutes of demanding our passports, we were all comrades. The soldier wouldn’t admit his name (“call me Oleg!”) but pledged loyalty to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Army. Take note: Russian soldiers are not officially supposed to be here. They are merely volunteers fighting alongside locals, called “Russian-backed separatists” in newspeak.
Each time we toasted, he handed us a sliced sausage as a chaser. He yanked out the DPR rebel flag, which is a replica of the Confederate flag: a red X with white borders on navy blue. Showing deep emotion, he explained how his sniper girlfriend had been counter-sniped last month and died. Now he wanted to snag a hooker down at the rebel disco, but told us we had to pay. Twelve toasts and twelve sausages later, we were toasted. It was disco nap time.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is the peoples’ version of the CIA drone war. Neither officially exist, yet both are existentially undeniable. This Cold War throwback involves the same two powers, Washington and Moscow, using the same tools from wars in Latin America, Africa, Afghanistan. The US Army has 300 troops based in western Ukraine, with plans to expand its training program this fall. Total “non-lethal” American aid has reached $300 million. Russia, meanwhile, has spent billions. Much of it on lethal aid, like weapons and human capital, but Putin has launched an incredible propaganda offensive.
Casualty estimates vary wildly between 6,000 (UN) to 50,000 (German intelligence officials). From a pre-war population of 4.5 million, around 2 million have been displaced. Donbass has not only been split in two and stopped functioning—it has stopped making sense.
Consider the date of the above hotel drinking session, July 17, 2015. One year ago saw the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17, which killed 298 people. To mark the anniversary, the DPR held memorial at the crash site: the full package of flag waving, sad speeches, serious men in uniforms and a media scrum. Earlier in the day, new video was released showing these same rebels, standing in the wreckage, admitting they shot down the plane. The Potemkin memorial was a bit like Al Qaeda holding Friday prayers at Ground Zero.
The day before MH-17’s anniversary, the propagandists held a practice run at the crash site, in a small village about a dozen miles east of Donetsk. They busted out “New Russia” flags, trucked in some sad old women with flowers, grabbed a few local boys and gave them hand-carved wooden guns. A fleet of treaded vehicles with cannons practiced drifting, flinging their vehicles to the side so fast they slide. Tires leave marks, but tanks rip up perfectly good road.
“We are fighting for a Russian world,” said a volunteer. The boy sparkled in new battle dress and old sneakers under a cloudless sky, sitting on the edge of a field next to an armored vehicle.
“Scary thought,” remarked a cynical Brit freelancer**.
Not all the DPR soldiers I met were Russian, but the many who were had all apparently wandered over the border for a cause known as New Russia, or Novorossiya. This 18th century imperial concept claims east and southern Ukraine are Mother Russia’s underbelly.
Planet Russia certainly helped push the Ukrainians out of Donbass’s major cities this past winter. Kremlin officials continually deny any involvement. But Russian Army bases are mushrooming along the border. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have counted 20,000 Russians crossing the border between September 2014 and June of this year.
How did things get this tragically bizarre, so fast?
As recently as 2013, Ukraine was a peaceful—if outlandishly corrupt—country, known for leadership swivels from East to West. In November 2013, a small group of activists gathered in Kiev’s Maidan Square to protest the rule of President Victor Yanukovych, a Putin-pal oligarch. The protesters wanted closer ties to Europe.
Maidan became a months-long standoff. Nationalists took the militant lead. But the pro-democracy left were on the streets, too. Things culminated in late winter. Tens of thousands of people clashed with police and state security. Tear gas, projectiles, rubber bullets, Molotov cocktails, fires, barricades. On February 20th, the state opened fire with live rounds, killing at least 100 civilians. But the protesters did not leave.
Days later, Yanukovych was shipped off to Moscow. Maidan served as pretext for Russia’s army to Anschluss Ukraine’s southern peninsula of Crimea. Further Russian land-grabs followed. Quasi-populist revolts spun off eastern Ukraine’s aforementioned Donetsk and its northern neighboring province Luhansk, where another People’s Republic was quickly established. Together the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, known as Oblasts, make up Donbass, the industrial hub of Ukraine.
Ukraine now knew its 150,000 man army was incapable of defending its borders. Right-wing nationalists (with, incidentally, a sizable Neo-Nazi element, who made up Maiden’s fiercest street fighters) merged with the Ukrainian National Guard.
By April, war was raging in the East. Elections were held. Petro Poroshenko, a Western-friendly oligarch, won the presidency. In late June 2014 the Ukrainian irregulars had pushed back the separatists and looked set to retake the breakaways.
Putin did not approve. “Humanitarian aid” convoys buzzed across the Russian border. Armor, big guns, rockets, advanced missile systems and ever-more Russian “volunteers” appeared on the front. Battles turned nastier. In July, Ukrainian planes and choppers were being shot out of the sky. Then MH-17 was blasted from the flight corridor by a surface-to-air missile.
There is no clear rebel command structure. But Western intelligence officials say that Russian commanders run the show, like Iran does with the Shia militias in Iraq. After MH-17, it took about six months for the Russian-backed separistas to take back control of Donbass. Insane battles for the Donetsk airport turned the war for the rebels. On February 12th, the Minsk II ceasefire was signed. It has since been violated several thousand times.
Pre-war Donetsk was a mining boomtown home to over a million people. Shiny glass malls and towers sprout on every major block. There’s a new soccer stadium and beautifully sculpted parkland. Now, the city is reminiscent of downtown New Orleans a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina. Curfew is 11 pm. One July evening on the city’s riverfront, I watched a few sweaty speed walkers zip past the odd couple holding hands on benches. Mothers and their children at playground seemed casual, inured to the thuds of distant guns.
Unlike many wartime capitals, there are no armored vehicles or checkpoints at major crossroads. One of the few hints of militarization are the rebel soldiers bouncing about in cars, many of them stolen. At least two-thirds of all businesses have closed, and there is no banking system. The main signs of war are literally signs: CCCP-style billboards, tarps, posters. Uncle Joe Stalin, who starved 10 million Ukrainians to death, has his own advert, along with the T-72 tank and a new DPR film about a rebel hero marrying Dolly Parton-looking lady.
The DPR’s administrative building, your typical Bolshevik monolith, is as schizophrenic as the regime. One day, there’s virtually no sign anyone even works there; the next, it’s blocked off by dozens of gunmen.
A Ramada hotel serves as the ubiquitous war correspondent headquarters. At night, the expansive third floor terrace restaurant becomes a post-curfew Gulag. Your typical grab bag of profiteers, organized criminals, hookers, soldiers, aid workers and fixers lurk amongst the foreign press. Usually this type of crowd under the strain of war would create a carnival of carousing. But when I was there, most factions stayed to themselves. Maybe they’ve become so the West and East have become so mutually suspicious that neither side wants to talk to the other. Or maybe they were just busy posting to the Internet.
Reading some reporters’ alarmist Twitter feeds, you’d think this was Baghdad 2007. Every day you hear of the coming Russian invasion. Yet Donbass is not in a Syrian-style all out war. Instead it’s an all-out competition for the most serious war correspondent social media war profile.
Ukraine is the D-List freelancer war, the refuge you go to when your Syrian refugee story gets killed. The online profile photos some of these freelancers have—pondering the sunset wearing shades, in full armor by a smoldering tank, languishing lakefront in autumnal glory—make Putin’s shirtless-on-a-horse style seem humble. At the Ramada, I saw multitudes of sexy haircuts and too-tight dungarees paired with non-combat boots. It makes one yearn for last decade, when war reporters just dressed like they were on safari.
A young British toff said he had a scoop that could get us killed if he told us. He immediately proceeded to tell us. “I have a dossier that says the separatists are building a ‘dirty bomb,’” he whispered, a stamped dossier being the Ukrainian version of a blood oath. “It’s from a reliable source at the SBU.” That’s Ukraine’s intelligence agency, arguably the least reliable source outside the Kremlin.
This one-sourced scoop on a potential nuke ran as an “exclusive” in two print outlets, Newsweek and The Times of London. The story was neither exclusive nor true. The rebels banished the lad from Donbass**. His serious Twitter profile photograph has not, however, been affected.
Westerners like this made us miss our Russian vodka-toting Comrade. At least he had good stories.
[Top image by Jim Cooke. Second image via author.]
**Clarification: This line originally read “a cynical Brit freelancer standing by with full body armor and helmet, twenty-odd miles from the front.” The freelancer was not wearing the body armor and helmet at the time, so we have clarified the sentence. Also, the freelancer disputes the story’s characterization that he was “banished” from Donbass, saying he left of his own volition, and can freely return. The freelancer’s fixer says that he advised him to leave for safety reasons.