Romain Carre/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/AP

Standoff at government building in Donetsk critical moment for Ukraine

Ukraine security forces take back one government building, but pro-Russia demonstrators hold regional headquarters

DONETSK, Ukraine – Masked men armed with wooden and metal bats reinforced snaking barricades with sandbags, concertina wire and tires outside the regional administration building in Donetsk on Tuesday, while pro-Russian activists held a chaotic emergency meeting inside the ravaged building to declare a “people’s republic” for the eastern Ukrainian region bordering Russia.

Two days after activists seized the Donetsk government headquarters, thousands of people gathered outside the building listening to speakers who denounced the central government in Kyiv and whipped up the crowd with chants of “Russia! Russia!” and “Glory to the Donbass!” – referring to the cultural region of eastern Ukraine of which Donetsk is the center.

Overnight, Ukrainian security forces took back another Donetsk building belonging to the local branch of the federal security service, the SBU, while a man who is one of Ukraine’s richest, Rinat Akhmetov, tried to broker a compromise to end the standoff.

The standoff at the administration building has turned into a critical moment for the beleaguered government in Kyiv, which came to power in the aftermath of the violent “Maidan” protests that deposed former President Viktor Yanukovych later in February. The ouster of Yanukovych, a lukewarm Russian ally and former Donetsk governor, prompted the Kremlin to send armed troops into Crimea and ultimately annex the Black Sea peninsula, a move that humiliated the new Ukrainian government and led to the greatest East-West divide since the end of the Cold War.

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With thousands of Russian troops deployed along the border with Ukraine, many fear the Kremlin is seeking to repeat the events of Crimea, whipping up pro-Russian sentiment in provinces like Donetsk and Kharkov, goading authorities into a violent response and then using that as a pretext to invade – ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians, who are in the majority in some parts of eastern Ukraine.

“We want to live separately, from the rest of Ukraine, like Scotland, but they’re not letting us,” said Valery Kerikov, a Donetsk miner dressed in camouflage who was overseeing a group of pro-Russian activists on the administration building balcony overlooking a crowd of at least 3,000. “Let us live apart from them. We’ll trade with them, we’ll get investment from them, we’ll work with them. But we’ll live on our own.”

“The government in Kyiv, they’ve told us for years: ‘You can’t have an opinion or express it. You just sit there quietly and do nothing and we’ll tell you what to do when,’” said Vadim Sinkov, another activist wearing a construction worker’s hat and carrying a rubber truncheon. “We have a different culture here, a different language. Why should we be hiding this fact? ... It’s a different mentality altogether here.”

Outside the administration building, cargo vans containing more sandbags, tires and construction materials to reinforce the growing barricades were unloaded, as helmeted men wearing balaclavas and bandanas stopped journalists and others trying to enter the building, demanding identification. The smell of gasoline and occasionally marijuana wafted over the debris. Cobblestones — to be used as projectiles in the event of an attack by security forces — were stacked haphazardly in piles. On the balcony overlooking the square in front of the building, Molotov cocktails were stacked inside empty rubber tires. One banner draped over the tires read “America, Europe: Hands off Ukraine!”

“We will be here until the end! We will be victorious in the Donbass,” one man yelled through a bullhorn to the applause of the crowd. “This isn’t just real estate here. This is our land! This is our Motherland!”

Inside, the building was largely ransacked, with broken glass littering the staircase and hallways, as activists set up first-aid stations and a makeshift cantina where women served cookies, bread, candy and canned meats to people roaming the halls. Fire hoses were pulled out on the balcony and lay throughout the hallways, to help defend the building. Many of the offices appeared pillaged, and graffiti scrawled on the wall read: “Question? What kind of idiotic Ukraine do we really need?”

With elevators out of service in the hulking 11-story building, people huffed up and down the stairwells, with random men in helmets or masks – some visibly drunk – accosting foreigners and journalists. On one stairwell landing, a woman wearing a nurse’s jacket used packing tape to tie reams of computer paper to a man’s forearms and shins, as a form of protection against attack, she said. 

Moscow calling?

Amid the chaos and confusion, activists sought to formalize their demands for autonomy from the central government and create a provisional governing council that they hoped would give some legitimacy to their efforts and lay the groundwork for a referendum, independence and eventual unification with Russia.

On the 11th floor main conference room, dozens of people, primarily men, argued, shouted and tried to discuss measures ranging from seeking help for their cause from the United Nations to how the barricades outside the building would be reinforced. Men representing what appeared to be different trade unions and other organizations yelled and periodically banged on the long wooden table, arguing among other thing whether the wealthy Akhmetov could be trusted. At one point, one woman read a list of grievances from a Declaration-of-Independence-type resolution, declaring a “Donetsk Republic” only to be interrupted by people yelling “Donetsk People’s Republic.”

One man, who later identified himself as Denis Pushilin, implored those in the room to stay civil, warning that the chaotic proceedings were in fact a “provocation to demoralize us.”

“We need to work together on a legal basis, otherwise we won’t get support from the U.S. or the EU, never mind Russia,” he said. “We don’t have any way to turn back now. We have to stay here until victory.”

People gather near a barricade at the regional administration building in Donetsk, Ukraine April 7, 2014.
Alexander Ermochenko/AP

The group ultimately voted unanimously to create a governing council, along with subcommittees to prepare for a referendum on Donetsk’s status, which they tentatively scheduled for May.

The seizure of the buildings in Donetsk happened at roughly the same time that buildings in other eastern cities such as Kharkiv and Lugansk were occupied, suggesting they were part of a coordinated action. In videos circulated on YouTube and elsewhere, activists can be heard asking for Russia to send in troops to support their cause.

Despite the presence of many ethnic Russians in eastern and southeastern Ukraine, and historic backing for Russian-allied politicians like Yanukovych, it is unclear how deep the support for independence or unification with Russia actually is. Though the administration building was the epicenter of conflict and protest on Tuesday, much of the rest of the city of 1 million appeared to be going about its own business.

Akhmetov, a tycoon whose fortune Forbes magazine has estimated at more than $15 billion, met with some of the separatist leaders in Donetsk before dawn Tuesday, trying to persuade them to find compromise with the central authorities. But he insisted in an expletive-laden address shown on YouTube and elsewhere: “Donbass is Ukraine.”

Akhmetov is one of Ukraine's richest man, amassing his wealth in the wild years after the Soviet collapse, when insider businessmen were able to snap up lucrative state assets in Ukraine (and Russia) at rock-bottom prices. A native of Donetsk and former member of parliament, Akhmetov's industries employs thousands in eastern Ukraine (not to mention his ownership of the region's popular football club, Shakhtar Donetsk), which gives him more sway and pull in the region.

Russia has repeatedly warned about the dangers of civil war in eastern Ukraine, and asserted its right to intervene to protect ethnic Russians. Tens of thousands of Russian troops have been stationed along parts of the border with Ukraine, in what many Western observers say is a threat aimed at pressuring the new government in Kiev. On Monday, interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Moscow of seeking to carve off parts of Ukraine:

“There is a script being written in the Russian Federation, for which there is only one purpose: the dismemberment and destruction of Ukraine and the transformation of Ukraine into the territory of slavery under the dictates of Russia,” he said.

The tensions in eastern Ukraine have mounted since well before Russia’s incursion into Crimea and the March 16 referendum that laid the groundwork for Moscow to annex the peninsula. Pro-Ukrainian activists allied with the “EuroMaidan” movement that orchestrated the Kyiv protests to oust Yanukovych said Russian security service agents had been openly working in Donetsk and other eastern regions for weeks, leading many activists to either leave the region or go into hiding.

During the chaotic governing council meeting in the administration building, one woman who gave her name as Lena interrupted an explanation of the resolutions being adopted, telling a reporter: “Oops. Hold on. That’s Moscow’s calling. Sorry.”

Pro-Ukrainian activists say those who own businesses and are known for their political sympathies are facing increased bureaucratic pressure, like fire code inspections, tax audits and other administrative pressure. Many are starting to drive with guns in their cars; others are switching apartments for sleep on a regular basis. Activists are refraining from meeting in person, instead holding online voice discussions using virtual private networks to try to evade Russian surveillance.

“Only idiots aren’t afraid these days,” said one activist who asked not to be named, fearing Russian security agents.

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