Ballots, Bombs, and a Rising Body Count

As a new president takes office, a deadly firefight rages in Ukraine’s volatile east.

Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images
Alexander KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images

DONETSK, Ukraine — There were no polling booths in Donetsk, the biggest city in Ukraine’s increasingly volatile east, on Sunday. There were no banners for candidates, no get-out-the vote fliers, no stump speeches, and no national flags. There was, instead, a mix of fear, terror, and uncertainty, some measure of defiance, plenty of gunmen, and — within hours of the election results being announced — just as much gunfire.

Armed pro-Russian separatists who took control of local government buildings and proclaimed an independent Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in April — after Moscow annexed Crimea — had long pledged to prevent the vote from taking place in the region. The revolution that toppled Ukraine’s disgraced former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in February was a coup, they claim, and any election that came on its heels was illegitimate.

On Sunday, May 25, after a week of harassing and intimidating election officials, seizing ballot boxes, and vowing to go after anyone who attempted to vote, the rebels lived up to their word. Voter turnout nationwide was about 60 percent, but in the Donetsk region, it was just 15 percent. In neighboring Lugansk, another rebel stronghold, it was 39 percent.

All of the polling stations throughout the city of Donetsk were closed. Outside the hulking regional administration building where the separatists had set up their headquarters, six confiscated ballot boxes stood side by side, like suspects at a Stalinist show trial, transformed by the rebels into trash bins. A photo widely circulated online showed a woman smashing the remnants of several other ballot boxes with the butt of a garden rake.

Many locals did not seem to mind. "What’s there to vote for?" asked Yekaterina Subtela, a pensioner. "We’ve voted already," she said, referring to a May 11 referendum on secession from Ukraine that was organized by the rebels and which most countries denounced as a farce.

Subtela recited a litany of wrongs by what she called the "junta" in Kiev, which included deploying soldiers, including her grandson, a conscript, against the pro-Russian insurgents. "The root of all evil," she concluded, "was the end of the USSR."

Not everyone in Donetsk agreed. Timur, a young engineer, felt he had been robbed of his vote, which he tried to cast at a local school, only to find it closed. (He declined to give his last name, fearing retribution from the rebels who control his hometown.) Timur didn’t trust the authorities in Kiev, he said, rocking a stroller carrying his baby boy, but he was also fed up with the insurgents in Donetsk. "I hate separatism. I don’t like the people with weapons here, and I don’t like the people with weapons in the Maidan," he said, referring to the center of the Kiev-based protests that forced Yanukovych, the ex-president, to flee Ukraine.

The only solution for Ukraine, he opined, was a federal system, where regions like Donetsk, dominated by Russian speakers, could enjoy a certain degree of cultural autonomy. Ukraine needed to remain whole, he said. "We want to be normal people," he said, "to be part of the world market, to communicate freely, to travel abroad."

Yuri Shamrin, a middle-aged electrician pacing down a large avenue in the city center, said he "resented [the separatists] for having denied me the right to vote" and for running "a sham government."

A visibly drunk man who identified himself as a member of the DPR’s local militia and demanded that I accompany him to the insurgents’ base cut him off, but not before Shamrin managed to make two points. First, he said, he wanted Petro Poroshenko, the chocolate tycoon and longtime front-runner, to win. He was "the best of the worst," he said. Second, he expected the new president to order what he called "more decisive measures" against the insurgents.

Within 24 hours, both of Shamrin’s wishes were to come true.

On Sunday night, Poroshenko was elected with 54 percent of the vote. Soon after the preliminary results were announced, the insurgents declared martial law and seized control of Donetsk’s international airport. On Monday, Ukrainian forces responded with airstrikes on rebel positions near the terminal, strafing attacks by helicopter gunships, and a paratrooper landing.

The same day, Poroshenko vowed to take the fight to the insurgents, and to do so swiftly. "The anti-terrorist operation cannot last two or three months," he said. "It must take hours." 

In the early afternoon, as the sky near Donetsk’s airport grew thick with smoke and the sound of gunfire and explosions rang out across the area, the separatists sent in reinforcements. Dozens of armed militants packed onto trucks disembarked by the side of the road to the airport, taking positions in a wooded area opposite a Peugeot dealership. Minutes later, sniper fire began to whip the leaves off the trees, sending locals and journalists running for cover.

As the fighting crept towards the city center, yet more cars carrying dozens of heavily armed rebels, some with rocket-propelled grenades slung over their shoulders, rushed towards the airport. Cars carrying panicked civilians zipped in the opposite direction.

"I can’t come home, they’ve blocked the roads," one woman, eyeing a large group of militants who had taken cover on the other side of Kievskiy Prospekt, the street connecting the airport to downtown, said into her cellphone. "I can’t believe it’s come to this."

Over the course of the day and well into the night, the battles in and around the airport continued. Fighter jets ripped through the sky. The rebels reported that 35 of their men had been killed when a grenade hit one of their trucks. Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko later put the death toll at 40. In clashes near the train station, about two miles south of the airport, stray bullets killed at least one civilian.

By Tuesday morning, according to Ukrainian officials, the army had regained control of the airport. On Tuesday afternoon, however, the insurgents formally asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for military assistance. The Kremlin hasn’t responded, but most Western officials believe the Russians have been providing the rebels with supplies, intelligence, and manpower from day one.

Ukraine’s newly elected president may end up winning the battle of Donetsk, but his task of winning hearts and minds in the region, and reconciling the locals to Kiev’s rule, may prove harder. Most Donetsk residents might not share the rebels’ agenda, but resentment towards the Kiev government is widespread. While one poll revealed that only about 30 percent supported secession or union with Russia, another showed that 60 percent had not planned to vote, or had no one to vote for, in the presidential elections.

"We didn’t invite the troops here," said Yuri Zhenev, walking hurriedly away from the flying bullets on Kievskiy Prospekt, his wife beside him. "And we want them out."

Poroshenko has said repeatedly that his first trip outside Kiev as president would not be to Brussels, Washington, or Moscow, but to Donetsk. It may turn out to be the visit that defines his presidency, as well as Ukraine’s future.

Piotr Zalewski is an Istanbul-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @p_zalewski.