Donetsk’s pro-Russians ‘defending our people from fascists and the West’

Industrial region of Ukraine on edge as Kiev pledges to retake official buildings

“They won’t get a nice welcome in Donetsk, let’s just say that,” said Volodya, waving a baton of rolled-up leaflets towards Ukrainian troops he imagined approaching from Kiev.

“Those who come with good intentions are treated well here. But woe betide anyone who thinks they can push Donetsk around. We’re tough – miners, metalworkers, builders – we know how to work, and how to fight.”

At 71, Volodya said he was too old to man the barricades outside this city’s looming local government building, which is now plastered with posters denouncing the European Union, the United States and the new government in Kiev.

Russian flags
It also bristles with Russian flags and the tricolour of the Donetsk People's Republic, whose creation was announced by pro-Moscow activists who seized the building last week.


The barricades of old metal and tyres are guarded by men who wear balaclavas and orange-and-black ribbons that are traditional Russian emblems of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany, and now symbolise resistance toKiev.

“We are defending our people. Defending our rights,” says one young man, who declined to give his name and occasionally clanged a heavy iron rod on the ground.

“From what?” he laughed mirthlessly, incredulous at the question. “From the fascists. And from the West, who paid for all the chaos in Kiev.”

Donetsk, a million-strong city surrounded by Soviet-era coalmines and heavy industry, is the hub of resistance to the uprising that ousted President Viktor Yanukovich and ushered in a pro-western government backed by nationalists whom critics call Russian-hating neo-Nazis.

'Slaves to the EU'
People across this region are sceptical or openly hostile to what they call a cabal of corrupt politicians from western and central Ukraine, who came to power on the back of a bloody coup sponsored by Washington and Brussels.

“The government doesn’t listen to us, it doesn’t care about us. They want to ban the Russian language and make us slaves to the EU and Nato. What good are they to us? Russia is here, next to us, our brotherly nation, and they want to cut us off from each other,” said Olya Mironenko, a retired teacher in Donetsk.

Like many people here, she associates the West above all with the misery of the 1990s, when the promise of market democracy delivered poverty, violence and corruption to the former Soviet Union, and its republics were forced to go cap-in-hand to their cold war adversaries for aid. They have not forgotten that humiliation, and expect something similar from the prospect of integration with the EU.

“The bandits in Kiev don’t want to talk to us and now they are sending in tanks and God knows what else to bomb us. We have to defend ourselves – and we have to ask Russia for help,” Ms Mironenko said.

Kiev and the West say Russia is already here, in the shape of the men in camouflage, carrying modern Russian weapons, who have seized official buildings in about 10 towns in Donetsk region in recent days.

Ukraine’s security services claim to have arrested more than a dozen Russian operatives and intercepted phone calls that reveal the unrest is co-ordinated by Russian intelligence agents and “political technologists” close to the Kremlin.

In the case of several towns around Donetsk, the buildings were stormed by small, well-armed and apparently well-drilled units, before being handed over to local activists who are unhappy with the new government.

Moscow may be exploiting and intensifying instability in the east, but local people are angry with the new government, and unnerved by the prospect of being ruled by people from regions that had little influence under Donetsk-born Yanukovich.

He is denounced by many people in Donetsk and surrounding towns, but less for the corruption and brutality of his regime than for fleeing protests in Kiev and hiding in Russia – leaving his people in the lurch to face the new order without him.

“We supported him through that mess in 2004 – the Orange Revolution thing,” said Viktor Shevchuk, a Donetsk electrician, looking ready to spit at the memory of Ukraine’s previous, ill-fated turn to the West.

“And we made him president, and supported him right to the end, against the fascists — and he ran away. He’s a coward. The boys inside there are a better bunch.”

He gestured towards the Donetsk administration, as Soviet martial music blasted from loudspeakers at the end of another speech that compared Kiev’s new rulers to 1940s’ Ukrainian guerrillas who sometimes allied with the Nazis against the Red Army.

The protesters around Donetsk region vow to hold the besieged buildings until the government grants them a referendum on greater autonomy or, according to some, on whether to split from Ukraine and join Russia.

Kiev sees Moscow behind a plan for “federalisation” that would weaken the pro-EU government, strengthen more Russia-friendly regions and, as premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk puts it, potentially create a host of “mini-Yanukovichs” across the east.

Mr Yatsenyuk and his colleagues say they are ready to boost the powers of local government, but not to allow the Kremlin to continue a process of dismembering Ukraine that began with the annexation of Crimea – under the guns of other “self-defence volunteers” who were clearly Russian servicemen.

Cabinet under pressure
Having lost Crimea without a fight, the cabinet is under huge pressure from the protesters who brought it to power to crack down hard on "separatists" in the east, whom they regard as puppets of a Russia that will not accept a pro-western Ukraine.

Last night, a skirmish near an airfield at Kramatorsk and the sight of Ukrainian army vehicles near Slovyansk – both places about 100km from Donetsk – were taken as signs that Kiev’s promised “anti-terrorist” operation could be swinging into action.

If it is, Donetsk’s defiant protesters expect trouble to come their way very soon. “We expect to be stormed at any moment,” said Denis Pushilin, a local businessman who now claims to lead the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.

“No one here is scared,” he added. “That’s why we’re here.”

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe