Dispatch

The Siege of Sloviansk

The Siege of Sloviansk

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.