Ukrainian sleep walk: blundering into a people’s war

Monday, 5 January 2015

On my way to Georgia in the summer of 2014, I made a stopover in Kyiv. It was only a few weeks after the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, MH17, and coincided with the dismantling of the protest camp in the capital’s famous central square, the Maidan. During that brief overnight stay I became friends with the young couple in whose flat I was staying, thanks to airbnb. Ukraine’s situation was so devastating that I couldn’t ignore it. In any case Ukraine was a crucial part of my shepherding research. It wasn’t the best, or brightest, time to pursue that quest, but when my friends invited me to return to Kyiv in December to help make a film about Ukraine’s struggle against Russian invasion, it was too good a chance to miss. But it was also devastating. What follows is from the notes I made at the time. At times, they became virtually incoherent because I couldn’t deal with my own fear.

Night had fallen by the time we flew over Ukraine. A few pinpricks of orange light showed that life still went on, but the vast landscape that spread out under the Boeing was almost entirely black. Actually it was a relief from the relentless illumination you get over Britain. But the reasons for it were unhappy: local authorities were not only saving money by switching off the lights, they were afraid of making themselves into targets. Our flight on this early December weekday was only a quarter full but I had a companion to talk to. She was a woman from Kyiv, on her way home after four days in Malta, where she’d been trying to get over a broken relationship and escape the winter freeze. Behind her personal story, which was touching but ordinary enough in its way, rose another one, and it stood between us like a wall of darkness to match the stygian panorama below. It consisted of all the questions we were avoiding: how long would her country be able to hold out against the Russian-backed rebels in the east? How long would Europe pretend to believe the lie that no Russian soldiers were involved? How many more people would have to die or flee their homes? And what on earth was I, a British visitor, doing here at all? It was hardly a holiday destination. Not totally sure myself, I was vague, telling her I had come to write about people. Whether she swallowed that or not, I do not know. She did try to explain that the word Russia came not from the Tsarist empire which grew out of Moscow, but from the Carpathian Mountains, where the Rus’yn people lived long before Moscow was founded. Kiev – or Kyiv as I have learned to spell it – cradled a culture far more dignified, just and worthy of admiration than anything seen in Moscow, she said; in fact she told me that ‘modern’ (ie Tsarist) Russia’s leaders had been jealous of Kyiv’s standing in the world and had wanted to grab it for themselves. I had listened to a lot of people from different countries talk proudly about their ways being the best. But what this woman said hit home. What are European values after all? What kind of civilisation do we want? Ironically it seemed that I had been following a path that led away from traditional notions of civilisation; following shepherds to the east was in a sense rejecting Jakob Bronowski’s theories of the ascent of man. To what end, I was not sure; it was tangled up with a loathing for capitalist rapaciousness, for any bullying by the strong of the weak. As we got up to leave the plane, my companion, who had already shared some of her food with me, pulled out a little shoulder bag. It was decorated with a Carpathian village scene. She presented it to me with a smile of great friendliness. ‘For not being indifferent’, she said.

So I landed in Ukraine, where only weeks after risking their lives to fight corruption at home, the citizens of this beleaguered country have switched to a different campaign, still death defying, still largely alone. This time the threat comes from an external aggressor, whom, despite the complications of the so-called hybrid war, the international community knows full well is Russia. A power game is being played out on Ukrainian sovereign territory, but because the stakes are so high (the threat of a third world war), Western leaders will likely do nothing to intervene. Ukrainians are perfectly aware of the West’s reluctance to get involved. Not for the first time in their history, they have squared their shoulders to face the threat alone. For them this is a fight for survival. Our soundings showed that about half of Ukraine’s 50 million people is involved in their own defense. These are people who are refusing to be bullied, and considering the threat, and the lack of external help for their cause, their morale is astonishingly high. That’s because the consequences of losing are too awful to contemplate. But the winter is harsh this year, and a humanitarian crisis is making matters even more complicated: people are starving in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk while aid meant to help them is being stolen.

I had been to Kyiv once before, on a stopover to Georgia. My hosts on that early August evening were a young couple who were earning a bit of extra money by letting a room through airbnb. Both were professionals – Tanya, the wife, was a marketing expert who had set up her own firm making traditional, hand-crafted dolls. Alex, the husband, was an MBA who had run his own business development consultancy. Tanya had also been a teacher and Alex had finished medical school but did not want to practice professionally because health service salaries were so low. Since the Maidan demonstrations began in November last year, both Tanya and Alex had given up their day jobs to concentrate on supporting Ukrainian fighters on the frontline.

Ukraine’s army was in a terrible state. Since gaining independence in 1991, the government ran it down, thinking its borders were safe. Caught unawares when Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, the armed forces lacked training and decent equipment. Word was that the soldiers had been employed doing odd jobs for oligarchs. In October, Ukraine went to the polls again. The faces in Parliament have at last changed – several of the deputies are youngsters who have run their own businesses and worked abroad – and there are signs that the new government is prepared to reform. (For more on this, here’s an article in the New York Times.)

In the emergency, men and women who wanted to defend their country preferred to join one of the new militias, Azov, Donbas or Dnipro, which sprang up as a direct response to the Crimean annexation. Since then, the numbers of irregular battalions had exploded: in December, there were about 40 of them. Alex estimated that the regular army employed about 140,000 soldiers, and that there were at least that number in the battalions. But it was hard to come by official figures: no state institution wanted to admit that it was failing in its job. But everybody knew how bad the situation was: Alex and Tanya were among thousands who had been collecting money and aid for fighters on the frontline.

On that first, flying visit, I knew only a fraction of all this. But the youngsters impressed me so much with their hopes for Ukraine, their quiet, intelligent patriotism, their compassion and dedication, that I wanted to keep in touch.

So in early December, there I was again. Only this time, I went to help Alex make a film about what he called ‘the people’s war’. Joining us was a French journalist, called Laetitia Gaudin. Laetitia had spent eight days in Kyiv during the EuroMaidan protests; she was there when things turned really nasty at the end of February – after secret police shooters were let loose on the streets, hundreds of previously peaceful demonstrators died or went missing. Inspired by a passion for fairness and an instinct for news, Laetitia had gone to see what was happening. She and I hadn’t met before and have very different backgrounds. But we were united by a sense of outrage and alarm at Putin’s creeping influence in the west (by Russia’s funding of right-wing parties in the EU), by respect for Ukraine’s brave attempts at independence, by sympathy for ‘ordinary’ Ukrainians who long to disentangle themselves from the external tyranny coming from the Kremlin and the internal tyranny of corrupt oligarchs. We also wanted to see if there was any truth in the tales that neo-Nazism was rife in Ukraine’s population at large and in the armed forces in particular.

During the following week we spent two days hurtling around the Donbas in temperatures that were well below zero. In Mariupol, we spoke to soldiers of the Azov Battalion (notorious for its swastika-like, wolfsangel symbol and frequently accused of brutalities). We also visited regular soldiers on the frontline, about 20 kms from Donetsk airport. Altogether we spoke to about 20 fighters. At the Azov Battalion’s headquarters near Urzuf, we looked for signs of goose-stepping gauleiters and saw only normal human beings in combat gear rather distractedly going about their unremarkable business: mending an old ambulance, practising hand to hand fighting in a desultory fashion. We heard from youngsters who had interrupted their university studies to help protect their country from attack. We talked to an older volunteer fighter who was furious about the Russian invasion, and had left his job to join his two sons who were already in the militias. We heard about the camaraderie, the respect the soldiers felt for their commanders, how the militias were now officially recognised as part of Ukraine’s security forces, how they got the army’s basic pay equivalent to around 150 US dollars a month, no matter how high their rank. We listened to stories of how ordinary people bring food parcels to the battalion’s gates, and how the fighters feel they get on well with the people of Mariupol. Nowhere did we see any hint of extremism. Perhaps the fascists were hiding round a corner laughing at us. Perhaps they had sent stooges to talk to us. It didn’t feel like a set up, and the rumours and press reports about the Azov battalion’s neo-Nazist tendencies painted a completely different picture to the one we saw.

To get some kind of objectivity, we turned to independent observers. In September Amnesty International published a report about atrocities committed by the Aidar Battalion in Lugansk province: it highlighted abductions, beatings and theft of property from people suspected of collaborating with the pro-Russian faction. Quoting from the report: “Some of the abuses committed by members of the Aidar battalion amount to war crimes, for which both the perpetrators and, possibly, the commanders would bear responsibility under national and international law.” But another Amnesty report states that the numbers of executions committed by Ukrainian militias have been deliberately exaggerated. Indeed the Russian media campaign is one of the most insidious parts of this conflict. For a brilliant analysis of how it works, have a look at Tim Snyder’s YouTube lecture, From Propaganda to Reality.

In the soldiers’ bunker, we were told that villagers invite Ukrainian fighters to have baths in their homes, how they bring them parcels of food. We asked the battalion members if they were fascists. From what they said and how they looked – educated, intelligent, compassionate – it seemed extremely unlikely. They did admit to liking the sense of fellowship they found in the battalion. We had heard of an ultra-right wing Swedish man and some French volunteers who were thirsting for blood, using war as an excuse for violence. In a situation like this, where nobody is checking volunteers’ credentials or credos, there will always be bad apples. A 21 year old medical student from Crimea summed up what we learned: ‘We don’t want to invade Russia. We only want to protect our land. We didn’t want to shoot on our Russian brothers, but they started shooting at us.’ Another young soldier said ‘I’m a patriot, not a fascist. The fascists are on the other side’.

We asked them what they wanted from Europe. Most replied that it would be very nice if the EU would help, with training if not better quality weapons. Europe’s involvement is not the lynch pin: those we spoke to are determined to defend Ukraine and whoever its main allies turn out to be, they want their country to be a fair-minded as well as a prosperous nation.

After returning to Kyiv, we went to one of the main collection points for donated aid. Alex guessed that at least 80% of the soldiers’ supplies were sourced that way. On a trip to a supermarket we had seen a basket set aside for people to give what they could. Students had abandoned their courses to work full-time at the centre. They were not fanatics, just youngsters who wanted to help change Ukraine from a basket case into a prosperous country in which social justice could thrive. Some of the students had been there for months, ever since the EuroMaidan morphed into the unofficial war in the east. We met Hrystina whose parents and grannie were still in Lugansk, a rebel held area. ‘They’re OK’, she said confidently. But she had not seen them for a long time. Using whiteboards and charts to send it where it was needed most, Hrystina and her colleagues were collecting, organising and distributing boxes of food – we noticed tubs of homemade soup with their own funny labels announcing it had been made specially for Ukraine’s brave servicemen and women – but also mountains of camouflaged clothing, medicines, sleeping bags, bullet proof vests, toiletries – anything and everything that they could find. Alex had told me one of his own shopping trips had included buying parts to mend a broken tank. The shelves were packed with beautifully wrapped boxes containing Christmas presents.

We heard how government supplies constantly went missing on their way to the war, and how the volunteers are much more careful to make sure their aid gets where its meant. We watched a vanload leaving Kyiv with two trusted volunteer drivers.

But there was still this lurking doubt: were Ukraine’s militias hotbeds of racist hatred and uncontrollable violence? Amnesty International’s reports suggest that there were isolated cases but they were not typical. Still, it seemed wise to ask about it ourselves. We consulted two human rights’ activists, one working in Kyiv who was called Alexandra and the other in the rebel-held regions whose name was Mariana. Alexandra said it was complicated: like us, she thought that there were a few loose cannons but that the majority of fighters were there because they wanted to protect their country from aggressive invasion. She was more worried about the refugees – she thought there were half a million eastern Ukrainians in the central and western areas. ‘It’s ironic’, she said, ‘the pro-Russian rebels in the east say horrible things about the Ukrainians but western Ukrainians, I’m thinking particularly of people in the Carpathian Mountains, have opened their doors to the refugees without missing a beat.’

There was another angle we thought of: if Ukraine was such a Nazistic, anti-semitic place, surely its Jewish population would know. Officially there are 80,000 Jews in Ukraine, but that figure is probably far too low because it doesn not take account of people who do not call themselves Jewish. In the Central Choral Synagogue in Kyiv, we met the assistant chief rabbi of Ukraine. He told us the synagogue was helping to house refugees (often known as IDPs, short for ‘internally displaced persons’ – what a clinical term that is!). The rabbi also said he knew several Jewish men who were fighting in the Azov Battalion and that the synagogue sent regular parcels of aid to the front. He said, ‘If Ukraine is a fascist country, then I’m a fascist’.

A week wasn’t nearly long enough to carry out full-scale, in-depth research. Of course our soundings were partial. But going to look was a lot better than sitting at home wringing our hands. If our fears that western Europe is wrong to sit back while Putin gets stronger and bolder were confirmed, we were buoyed up by the positive, brave spirits we encountered. Ukrainians are afraid that western Europe is appeasing Putin at its peril. Sanctions may hamper the Russian leader for a while, they say, but it won’t stop him pushing even further into Ukraine. He reacts badly to personal slights, and he needs war to mask his inadequacies at home. That may all be very well: Ukraine may be expendable in western eyes but it is a sovereign state which Britain and the USA guaranteed to protect. Ukrainians are not wasting time whining about Europe’s faithlessness: they can’t afford to. And actually, they have a history of taking matters into their own hands. The tradition goes back to the medieval yeomen farmers who had to be ready to defend their people’s land at a moment’s notice.

This conflict has brought Ukrainians together. What sticks in my mind are the soldiers’ courageous declarations: ‘I love my country. I love freedom. I must do something to stop this invasion taking place.’ We heard that time and again from the soldiers in the Azov Battalion.

They also want peace, but how can it be achieved? ‘This is a hybrid war: you don’t know who you’re fighting, or where, or when’, said a soldier we met at the frontline. There is real suffering in the east. The estimated numbers of deaths caused directly by the conflict is likely to be more than 8000, twice the official number. One recently highlighted problem concerned the hijacking of supplies. One of Ukraine’s richest men, Renat Akhmetov, has been sending convoys of food and other kinds of aid. In December, Ukrainian soldiers at checkpoints began blocking their entry. The reason is that the supplies have been found on sale in Donetsk and Lugansk shops instead of going where it should have, to people in isolated villages who have had their pensions stopped, and have run out of food. But the blocked supplies are also affecting urban pensioners: people in both situations are starving. Government officials in Kyiv stopped paying pensions to citizens in the rebel areas because they do not want inadvertently to support their enemies. Winter came early to Ukraine this year, so food and heating are desperately needed. Hanging over this is the spectre of the state-induced famines which blighted Ukraine three times from the 1920s to the 1940s.

During my last few days in Kyiv, Alex gave me another guided tour: this time we went to the tower commemorating Ukraine’s devastating, deliberately induced famines. We went to the Pechersk Lavra and saw the wall plate dedicated to the Ukrainian who founded Moscow. We looked at the display of miniature art – so fine that you had to peer at each object through a strong lens – and the documentation collected by the artist about the famines. We lit candles in the cave churches. I spent an amazed half hour gazing at Scythian and Sarmatian gold ornaments. We said hello to the giant bronze statues of Saints Cyril and Methodius. And we went through the looking glass in the Bulgakov Museum (and once again, a well-known cultural figure, this time one of my favourite writers, turned out to be Ukrainian not Russian).

Laetitia and I visited Sta Sophia, an 11th century church with a Baroque exterior. The church stands in a beautiful orchard setting. Its trees were decked with rime frost. As we walked to the west entrance, I stopped to listen to a bandura player serenading two friends. The bandura is a large stringed instrument, rather like a cello. The three individuals were elderly and sat tightly together on a bench, muffled against the cold. The plaintive songs haunted my imagination for hours afterwards: they were a reminder that war is ghastly, and that the best option for everyone is love.

But how? Surely in a just world, Russia would hand Crimea back to Ukraine. It would say ‘sorry, guv, let’s talk about our differences, not fight’. Russian forces would retreat over the eastern borders. People stuck in the middle would be given food and their houses repaired. Then again, NATO hawks would not have taunted Putin by going further east than they promised. The US and UK government would have backed up their legally binding guarantee to protect Ukraine’s borders with something stronger than silence. Russia, Ukraine and the EU would learn to live with each other; Ukraine would not be pushed into joining either of them; we would not have a polarised world where ‘west’ is seen as the enemy of ‘east’, and more than half the population lives in destitution. And so on. It has to be possible. When I was in Ukraine, talking to Alex and Tanya and their like, I began to think it might be.

Ukraine matters: it’s not a far away country of which we know nothing or a non-place populated by vicious zombies (as some Russian media would have us believe), but a fascinating, well-educated nation that could be a great potential ally and trading partner – which is not an invitation to go and suck it dry. Ukrainians would like help from the EU and the USA, but true to their Scythian roots, they are not craven about it and though understandably frightened, are not likely to run away (where would they go?). They are well aware of the EU’s shortcomings. As the Slovenian writer, Slavoj Žižek says, it’s not Ukraine that needs to shape up, but western Europe. Then there are the oligarchs, power wielding, dodgy freewheelers who seem not to care about anything much except themselves. Spot any differences between them and British robber barons? Should we aim to get rid of them all? Because some of them could make a big difference to Ukraine’s future if they chose. One question is, can we trust the signs that some of these figures may have changed their attitudes, or are they chameleons who can change their colours according to the environment? These unknown quantities include the current president, Petro Poroshenko (who is on the face of it, quite conciliatory and pro-Western), and another oligarch called Rinat Akhmetov. Often referred to as Ukraine’s richest man, Akhmetov made his fortune in his native Donbas from coal and coke mining. According to bornrich ( he was the chief sponsor of Ukraine’s deeply unpopular president, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country during the Maidan protests last year, and Akhmetov himself has been accused of violent crimes, although the charges against him were dropped. Akhmetov represents Yanukovych’s political party in parliament but he is a big giver, having donated millions of dollars to charities and other philanthropic projects dedicated to relieving the causes of poverty and putting Ukraine onto a securer economic footing. Rinat Akhmatov was most recently in the news because he has been supplying aid convoys to the eastern regions stricken by the conflict. But stomach-grinding complications arose there too, because Ukrainian soldiers were stopping the convoys at checkpoints, to prevent the supplies from being stolen and sold in rebel held areas.

These are some of the questions hanging over Ukraine, a place that for me is no longer a vaguely conflicted space next to Romania on the map but a country full of soul.

Ukrainians want peace but not at the price of being destroyed either from within or without. ‘We have always been the buffer zone. If Europe will not help us, we will do it alone.’

The People’s War, a Ukrainian-French-British film, is ready: if you are interested in showing it please contact me.
Posted by Caroline at 12:39 No comments:
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Labels: Azov Battalion, Laetitia Gaudin, Putin, Russia, Timothy Snyder, Ukraine crisis, Ukrainian patriots, war in the Donbas
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