The Last Stand of the People’s Republic
As Ukrainian troops advance on Donetsk, a hardcore separatist army gears up for war.
DONETSK, Ukraine — Three months after pro-Russian separatists established the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in eastern Ukraine, the city’s central administration building has become the heart of political life in the self-proclaimed republic. Flags of Donbass, the region of eastern Ukraine encompassing Donetsk, hang from the exterior. The slogan "No Fascists" has been painted across the building’s front. Four tattooed militiamen, with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, guard the entrance, checking visitors’ bags for weapons. But defense is the order of the day. Slovyansk, a city some 70 miles north, had just fallen to the Ukrainian army — and the mood in the building was tense.
On the fifth floor, Claudia, a pleasant peroxide blonde in her late 30s with acrylic nails, was processing press accreditations and trying to organize interviews with DNR officials. Claudia has drunk deep from the separatist cup. She showed off videos of masked DNR soldiers posing with a variety of guns and swearing oaths of allegiance on what appears to be a ring binder. Her phone rang every five minutes or so. "Don’t go anywhere," she barked into the receiver. "Just stay inside. It will all be all right."
Earlier that day, July 5, news reached Donetsk that the eastern town that had been the center of separatist military operations for three months, Slovyansk, had been captured by the Ukrainian army. The rebels had hoped the city would be the stronghold of their autonomous, Moscow-aligned territory. It was not to be; the Ukrainian army’s heavy shelling returned it to Kiev’s control. President Petro Poroshenko has vowed that Slovyansk is just the first city of several that will soon be taken back from separatists in his bid to reclaim the restive east.
But the Ukrainian army allowed separatist forces to leave unmolested in convoys from Slovyansk, and thousands of armed pro-Russian rebels were on the move. Inside the administration building, rumors were flying that Igor Strelkov, a veteran of the Russian special forces who commanded the DNR troops in Slovyansk, was on his way to Donetsk. His convoy was originally supposed to head to Kramatorsk, a small city between Slovyansk and Donetsk, but then news filtered through the DNR administration building that the Ukrainian army had taken control of that town, too. Donetsk will be the last redoubt. Divisions of DNR fighters were expected to begin arriving in the city, but still no one knew when or how many are coming.
Discussion in the office turned to worst-case contingencies: what happens when Donetsk comes under attack. Accurate information is almost nonexistent, and speculation dominates conversation among DNR officials, civilians, and journalists alike. One second, people are shouting to evacuate the building, and everyone runs down the stairs. The next, a gaggle of DNR officials regroup outside and relax. An airstrike isn’t coming. A portly man with longish, curly brown hair and sunglasses smokes a cigarette with some soldiers, a Kalashnikov slung languidly across his back. I am told he is the DNR’s minister of communications.
Back inside headquarters, I met Andrei Purgin, one of the founding members of the DNR. He was in a belligerent mood. The fall of Slovyansk, he said, was the Ukrainian army’s attempt to "eliminate the civilian population" there. He claimed that DNR forces have removed the remainder of the population from the line of fire. "The Ukraine army did not use infantry," he said. "It used heavy artillery — over 100 pieces — wiping the town off the face of the Earth. There was no humanitarian corridor. Forty-five thousand people were effectively condemned to death."
Purgin’s casualty figures are wildly inflated, but even in the information black hole of Donetsk, it is clear that several hours of sustained shelling from the Ukrainian army finally forced the insurgents to withdraw from Slovyansk. With much of the city in ruins, rebel positions had become increasingly difficult to defend.
Poroshenko sealed Slovyansk’s fate on June 30, when he called off a 10-day-long unilateral cease-fire and ordered the army to drive the separatists from their strongholds.
"No compromise is possible," said Purgin. Slovyansk had changed nothing. "The chance for compromise disappeared after the [Ukrainian army’s] killing of the first 1,000 people." A confederation with Russia remains, he said, the most likely and desirable outcome. He pauses. "A federation with Russia would be good, but this is far less likely, as the EU would be really against it," he concluded before disappearing quickly back into his office.
As evening fell, rumors were spreading that the Ukrainian army was surrounding the city, ready to storm. Reports of gunshots at Donetsk airport were dismissed with a phone call, but whispers that separatists had stolen tanks from a World War II memorial were gaining credence; several had been spotted rumbling through the darkenedd city.
By the next morning, July 6, the militia presence on Donetsk’s streets had increased dramatically. Fighters from Slovyansk had poured into the city overnight. Armed men ambled through the streets and loitered in cafes. Kalashnikovs — often with the safety catch off — were everywhere. Separatists with anti-personnel grenade launchers manned checkpoints near the university. An uneasy stasis rules. The latest rumors were that the army is preparing to blockade the city, but no one is sure.
With fears that the Ukrainian army could be just miles away, DNR political leaders found a strategy to bring together their beleaguered people: a rally. In the afternoon, some 800 people gathered near a statue of Lenin in the city’s main square. Many clutched Russian, Soviet, and Donbass flags, banners, and placards. "Donbass is against USA aggression," read one. "Save Donbass people from Ukraine army," read another, which also has across it the face of a young girl and a dove clutching flowers in its claws. Speakers blasted Soviet songs and Donbass hits, which now seemed somewhat out of date and wistful: "Donbass, Donbass, Mother Russia is behind you" while referencing the glory of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. The first speaker took the stage and quickly introduced a "fighter fresh from the front" who detailed the DNR forces’ heroism and the Ukrainian army’s brutality with equal gusto.
While all signs point to an impending defeat, eastern Ukraine’s rebels are convinced that they are winning. Pavel Gubarev, the "people’s governor of Donetsk" and one of the leaders of the separatist movement, took the stage to loud cheers. Slovyansk, he declared, was a "tactical retreat to protect the civilian population there." It was a "necessary and brilliant move by General Strelkov."
After the rally, I asked Gubarev what comes next for his anti-Kiev comrades in the new stage of their conflict. "[Slovyansk] is a big defeat for Poroshenko," he said. "Our people were totally surrounded … and they got out virtually unscathed, despite the fact that Ukrainian forces outnumbered us 10 to one. It was a Pyrrhic victory." Gubarev and many other eastern Ukrainian leaders believe that when the battle comes to Donetsk, they will have a strategic advantage. Just a day earlier, Strelkov declared on DNR media that he had the troops to occupy all the city’s commanding heights. "The failure to do this was the mistake that was made in Slovyansk and one that won’t be repeated," Strelkov admitted.
"We are not scared of war," Gubarev said, "because we know war is coming. We have to wait and see what sort of plans our commanders make. But there is a big difference between trying to encircle a city like Donetsk, which has 1 million people, and Slovyansk."
On July 7, separatists started work protecting the city from attack. They blew up three bridges on key roads leading to Donetsk to slow the advances of the Ukrainian army. (This also damaged the railway lines.) Two other bridges on roads from Slovyansk to Donetsk were also destroyed. The rebels are insulating the city as they get ready to hunker down and prepare for an extended battle.
A siege or stalemate looks like the most likely option. Poroshenko is determined to recover the east, but shelling Ukraine’s most important industrial city would be disastrous both for the economy and for any hope of reconciling in the future. Meanwhile, the separatists can defend their positions, but the chances of making gains are now unlikely in the extreme.
The only real chance now for the rebels to fight back would be if their allies in Moscow accepted separatists’ demands for direct military assistance. But this is equally unlikely, and even the otherwise confident rebels know it. "Of course Russian military aid would resolve the problem very quickly," said Gubarev, almost forlornly. "But we understand that it is not possible at the moment. We will respect any decision Russia makes."