The crisis in Eastern Ukraine has reached a new and dangerous phase this weekend. The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has reported that the capture of OSCE observers in Slovyansk – three Germans plus one German interpreter, a Czech, a Dane, a Pole and a Swede – is the work of Russian military intelligence (GRU). Today, the SBU proclaimed that this abduction has been orchestrated by the Kremlin – it named the GRU Colonel Igor Strelkov as the boss of this operation – with the intent of using the OSCE observers as “human shields.”
Colonel Strelkov has been fingered by Kyiv as the eminence grise of much of the nefarious activity going on recently in and around Slovyansk, which is the epicenter of Russia’s stage-managed “rebellion” in Eastern Ukraine. A few days ago, the SBU released a videotape that implicates Colonel Strelkov, as well as GRU Lieutenant Colonel Igor Beltzer plus Slovyansk’s self-proclaimed “mayor” Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, as the culprits behind the 17 April abduction and subsequent murder of Volodymyr Rybak, a local lawmaker who was loyal to Ukraine.
What is happening around Slovyansk is the next stage of Vladimir Putin’s multi-stage campaign to assert Kremlin authority over increasing parts of Ukraine – in other words, the pursuit of the Special War that I’ve talked about a lot. Russia’s moves are based on provocation – nobody does provokatsiya better than the Kremlin – and for now Kyiv is powerless to reassert its authority in Eastern Ukraine, which de facto is now under Kremlin control. As I’ve made clear, Ukraine’s first step must be taking the offensive in counterintelligence, so SBU public statements now about the large role of GRU behind the crisis and violence is a much needed move in the right direction.
Yet detailed information about what’s really going on in Slovyansk is hard to come by, not least because Russian-backed militants capture and kill people they don’t like. Fortunately, there’s a fascinating new interview in the daily Ukrayinska Pravda with the Belarusian opposition journalist Dzmitry Halko, who writes for Novy Chas, a weekly paper that is one of the very few independent outlets in Lukashenka’s repressive Belarus. This Russian-language interview, entitled “Ten Hours in Slavyansk,” recounts his strange experiences during a recent visit to GRU-occupied territory. It’s filled with important details about what’s really going on in Eastern Ukraine today, so I’m passing on the whole interview, beginning with Halko’s introduction:
Slavyansk is the center of the Bermuda Triangle, which is now located in the Donbas. We arrived there from Donetsk at somewhere around eight a.m. At this hour, the city looked like a ghost town, rather scary: There was no one on the streets, the streets were completely empty, just some people or other at the roadblocks.
Q: What kind of people?
A: It depends which ones you are talking about. They were all different; whether or not they were locals is unclear. They were dressed variously and armed with various weapons. Some with clubs of some kind, others with catapults, and others still with knives. And there were genuine military formations, military groups.
Q: Supporting Ukraine?
A: No, no, nothing at all remains of Ukraine in Slavyansk apart from a Ukrainian flag on the building of Donetsk Pedagogical University. There are no Ukrainian police there at all.
There has been some kind of MVD [Ministry of Internal Affairs] statement that there are no witnesses to our arrest or witnesses to our presence in Slavyansk. This is altogether strange for me to hear, because no one from the law enforcement organs has contacted us, and there were no police at all there in Slavyansk. Accordingly, there can have been no proceedings, no investigation, or anything else.
Q: You spoke about military personnel, did they have marks of identification?
A; Of course, I cannot claim with absolute certainty that they are Russian military. But there were situations when there was an opportunity to exchange a couple of words with these people, and we asked: “And where are you from anyway, guys?” What is wrong with this? you might think. But not one person said that he was from Slavyansk. Only one person replied that he was from the Donbas; well, of course, the Donbas is a big place.
In addition, the local inhabitants, literally all of them, spoke about these people as having arrived from somewhere or other, of having turned up out of the blue. But not as being their fellow townsfolk.
Q: Tell me about your arrival in Slavyansk in a little more detail…
A: There was nobody by city hall, it was barricaded, and it was impossible to get in. We went to the SBU building. There was an impressive barricade there, guarded by one person wearing camouflage and carrying a Kalashnikov, and a person in ordinary dress, a bearded man wearing an orange t-shirt. We addressed ourselves to him and asked whether we could come in. He took passports from the foreign journalists and said that he would go and see the commander and find out what he could do.
Incidentally, this bearded man in the t-shirt said that his mom lives in Rome, that they are in touch, and that he was here in support of Russia. So he went off to see his commander and returned with him half an hour later.
The commander, in my view, was a Russian, both in speech and in appearance. For about 20 or 30 minutes, he took us around the site. They have armed vehicles that had been seized or handed over without a fight – I don’t know. The commander showed them to us with great pride and said that these vehicles would force a passage across the Dnieper in order to break Kyiv.
Q: What kind of armored vehicles, and how many?
A: In my opinion, there were four infantry fighting vehicles. At that moment, only two vehicles were manned. At the entrance to the SBU building, people dressed in black with modern weapons went past under a Russian flag. The commander categorically forbade us to photograph these people, saying that if we did so, they would begin to shoot.
Q: Black uniforms? Like Alfa [FSB special operations forces]?
A: Yes, the uniform of some kind of special unit. The commander took us around for half an hour, then said that the audience was over and told us to go on our way. He looked like an important officer, almost a general. And I asked whether he could give us permission for us to go peacefully around the town and take pictures. He replied that he could not, that he was commander only in this small area, and that his command did not extend to all the other places.
An interesting observation: The people stationed there, from whom we simply wanted to find out who they were and why they were there, answered in military fashion: “We are not authorized…”
In Kyiv, it was possible to talk with anyone who was in the mood to converse, and not once did anyone reply: “I am not authorized.” Everyone came to the Maydan, with some kind of truth and idea of his own, but here people responded purely in military style.
These people are copying the Maydan in its entirety. Even their barricades are the same as on the Maydan. And they try to serve you tea and some kind of food in exactly the same way.
There were women here who, learning that we were foreign journalists, began to chase away the drunks. There are a fairly large number of drunks there. They began to hiss at them, to drive them away – go away, they said, don’t spoil the picture! They served us tea and coffee, and we had a good sit down and relaxed completely. Very much mistakenly, as it turned out.
After this, we wanted to get to a district densely inhabited by Roma. We wanted to know whether there had really been any pogroms. We traveled for a long time on foot, speaking with people whom we met along the way. When we crossed the big bridge in Slavyansk, we took photographs of a plate with the inscription: “Mines.” We did not photograph anything else, even the roadblock through which we had passed.
But suddenly, people wearing camouflage appeared. I would describe them as “amateurs.” They were not military personnel. One was armed with either a musket or a sawed-off shotgun. Another was armed with a knife. A third with – I don’t remember with what.
They came up to us and said that we were spying, that we were carrying out some kind of secret filming. I replied that we were doing nothing of the sort. I invited them to look at the photographs. But nevertheless, they replied that we should wait, that a vehicle was coming — there would be an investigation.
The vehicle arrived, we were squeezed onto the back seat and taken away to a third roadblock.
Q: And who was with you?
A: Italian photographer Cosimo Attanasio and French journalist and photo-correspondent Paul Gogo – both freelancers.
They brought us in, and there the vehicle was surrounded by a group of ten people who literally thrust their mask-covered heads into the windows. They asked who we were, what we are doing, demanded that we hand over our cameras, and threatened to take them and smash them. In short, they behaved very unpleasantly. The guys were really frightened, and I was too.
Q: And the guys do not speak Russian? You translated for them?
A: No, they do not speak Russian at all, I was also their translator.
They took our passports and cameras from us to check them. They hauled us out, without documents and equipment: “Stand here.” They themselves gathered at about fifteen meters from us. This was a group of people dressed in military camouflage -not like the “amateurs”; they were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, to all appearances, but of a new model. I am not very well versed in these matters, but Cosimo said that they were not ordinary AK-47’s, but some kind of new model of Kalashnikov that is only in the inventory of the Russian Army.
Incidentally, when the atmosphere had become a little less tense, we asked what kind of weapons they were. They said that they had been issued for temporary use, but gave no further details.
At some moment or other, as if at someone’s command, they abruptly changed their attitude toward us. It was as though someone had given an order, or as though they had found out that this was the policy of behaving with foreign journalists – in short, they suddenly became concerned about their image. And they decided to show what white and fluffy bunnies they were: “Please excuse us, you understand, martial law and all that.” Then they released us.
Q: Did they give you back your passports and cameras?
A: Yes, everything was returned. And thinking that now everything was in order, we set off along the same route – across the bridge. But we were stopped at another roadblock on the other side.
This cannot be described as an arrest, they simply caught us, and we showed them the photos that we had taken at the third roadblock. We said that we had been seen, checked out, and authorized to go on our way. And we received the answer: “We do not know who checked you out. We will do so for ourselves. If you do not have permission from our authorities – take a hike! Or go and get it from the city council!”
Regarding the city council: I had heard from many journalists, including from Paul Gogo, who had tried to get into the building three days before this, but had been unable to so, that it was impossible to obtain permission. During the same attempt, a Moscow Times journalist, Oleg Sukhov, was arrested as a member of Right Sector. He was even taken into some kind of room where opposite him sat, evidently, Serhiy Lefter [Ukrainian journalist previously arrested]; his hands were bound to the chair, and he was guarded by a ‘little green man’ with an assault rifle. Therefore we naturally did not go to seek some kind of bogus accreditation. This is laughable – there is no authority there, but who knows what.
Also, when we had turned around and were walking back from the second roadblock near the bridge, a jeep painted in the colors of the Russian flag pulled up alongside us on the road. In the jeep sat people in a brand new military uniform, wearing masks and carrying weapons, and, let us put it like this, they looked at us very sternly. This was the last straw, we decided to get out of there while we were still in one piece.
Q: And were the jeep’s license plates Russian or Ukrainian?
A: I think that this jeep had no license plates at all, but I could be wrong. But it was painted all over in the colors of the Russian flag.
Incidentally, about the license plates. Not far from the SBU building I saw a vehicle with battered license plates, but with some kind of Russian decal on the window – a proof of vehicle inspection, I think. A piece of paper with the Russian flag on it was stuck to the glass. Moreover, not a sticker, but something official. And in the city I noticed several police vehicles, apparently Ukrainian ones, in which armed people wearing this same camouflage were sitting.
That is to say, they are in complete control of the city; Slavyansk is occupied.
Q: And what do they call themselves, these armed men?
A: They do not introduce themselves. They have signs everywhere saying “Donbas People’s Militia.” But no one introduced himself to us. No one said anything about himself.
The only person who spoke to us was a civilian who was standing at these roadblocks with a ribbon of St. George [symbol of loyalty to Russia] and without a mask. Some kind of hardcore Orthodox fundamentalist. Only with him was it clear who he was, that he was a local; he even showed his passport – he has retained a Soviet passport in which there was a column for nationality; in it was written: “Russian.” He is proud of this. And he says that we are all Orthodox Russians here. That means, we do not want this “European plague.”
Only he spoke with us in a normal way, and told us about his motives at least. Incidentally, among these people there are many with beards, but not because they have not shaved for many days, but really long beards, as if they were some kind of Orthodox brotherhood. Many say they are from Slavyansk, I do not know.
There are very many people of a frankly antisocial appearance – drunks, criminal elements. This is the second group.
And the third group are military persons. The usual military types. With the military bearing and all the other attributes.
Q: So this is the Russian Army on Ukrainian territory?
A: Yes, I think so. I am afraid so, yes. If they had wanted to refute this, they would have told us this. But they say nothing about themselves, they do not show their passports, and they do not introduce themselves. They cannot even bring themselves to say that they are from Slavyansk.
What is one to think in that case?! Only one conclusion remains. Especially seeing that the local inhabitants do not regard them as fellow countrymen.
Q: But do they support them?
A: You know, their attitude to the occupiers is as if to some kind of bad weather. Look – a thunderstorm, a tempest, or a gale has hit: What can you do about it?! They do not support this, they simply have to resign themselves to it.
I heard various people utter the phrase: “Everything was okay before their arrival.” In a certain sense, this can be assessed as support for Ukraine. Naturally, it is weak. A person will probably not fight for this, and will even submit if the territory is occupied.
But nevertheless, I did not meet a single person who said: “Yes, they are my protectors, they are standing up for us here. And just you get out of here, European villains!”
Not one person said this.
Q: Were there any other encounters?
A: We crossed the bridge without problems, took a taxi, went to the station, and there, completely by chance, we met the last Roma left in Slavyansk.
This person was terribly scared. He had come back to fetch some children’s things or other, and was in a state of genuine terror. I stopped him and asked him to tell me what was going on.
It turned out that, a day before this, the entire Roma community had left the town en masse. Because, in his words, their homes had been fired on from the street. And all representatives of the community had received threats that they would be destroyed en masse, including the children, unless they fled.
This man said that the armed men want only Russians to remain in the city.
This has affected not only the Roma. For example, he cited the example of his neighbors, who speak Ukrainian in everyday usage; they too have received similar threats.
The person from the Roma community asked us to help him to somehow get to see Rinat Akhmetov [Ukrainian oligarch]; he wanted to talk to him, he said.
That is to say, Rinat Akhmetov is perceived here as some kind of arbiter and de facto ruler. Although, for example, the separatists in the Donetsk Oblast Administration regarded the fact that at the last Dinamo-Shakhtar [football] match there were Ukrainian flags in the stand of the Shakhtar fans. They believe that in this way Akhmetov betrayed them. But nevertheless, they see him as tsar, as a prince.
So we missed the train, took a taxi, and went to Kramatorsk. En route, at some roadblock on a country road there was a group of frankly marginal types who said that we were spies for the European Union and found fault with the passports of the Italian and the Frenchman, even though it was the first time that they had seen what an Italian or a French passport look like.
And later, sixteen kilometers from Donetsk, I saw a very strange roadblock at which seemingly Ukrainian military persons were standing under a Russian flag and a flag of St. George along with so-called volunteer militiamen.
Q: I want to clarify one thing about the military: Did they have marks of identification?
A: Yes, yes, they had Ukrainian insignia. This is simply amazing. What kind of antiterrorism operation is it possible to speak of..?!
This is a Bermuda Triangle – Slavyansk is unraveling on all sides. And it is necessary do to something abut this urgently; otherwise things will be bad.
Q: How long were you in Slavyansk?
A: In total, we spent around ten hours in Slavyansk. And we were detained for not longer than two hours.
Q: Were you beaten?
A: No, at first they grabbed us by the arm, but things went no further than that.
Q: Have you been in Ukraine for long?
A: I have been in Ukraine since 8 March. First Kharkiv, then Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, Kherson, Zhytomyr Oblast, Novohrad-Volnynskiy, Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Donetsk, a kind of circle.
Q: And have you been in the Crimea?
A: After a “conversation” with the SBU in Donetsk at the beginning of March, I understood for myself that I occupy a very pro-Ukrainian position, a very clear position, despite the fact that I am a journalist. Therefore I understood that it was better for me not to poke my head in the Crimea. Especially seeing that I had met guys who had been held in captivity for two weeks in the Crimea, and who had remained in Kherson for operations.
In Donetsk an episode happened to me – I was detained by the SBU. I lived in the same room as a GRU agent; at that time it was still Ukraine here. And this detention at the hands of the SBU – well, I do not know, it was on the whole a nice affair, I was actually reassured that some kind of services were working here, that they were exposing some people, detecting some kind of bombs.
But what is there now, it is difficult for me to say.
There you have it: provocations, intimidation, ethnic cleansing among a freak-show of alcoholics, gangsters, Orthodox “warriors,” and GRU operatives, amidst lots of innocent people trapped with nowhere to escape … some great insights there into what de facto Russian rule in Eastern Ukraine actually looks like. As I write, Slovyansk “militants” have stated they will only free their OSCE captives in exchange for prisoners held by Kyiv. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, watch this space …