Battle of balaclava: a masked pro-Russian militant is pictured after some 300 militants stormed the prosecutor's office in Donetsk on 1 May. Photo: Getty
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“An uneasy monotony, punctuated by violence, dominates eastern Ukraine”

David Patrikarakos reports on the worsening crisis in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian forces are defiant.

In eastern Ukraine now, violence mixes freely with chaos and unreality. Armed men stalk the streets while small children cycle by, laughing and squealing. Former coal miners in baggy tracksuit bottoms and stained jumpers strut around, empowered by automatic weapons and a cause, discussing the “glory” of Russia with old ladies handing out biscuits.

The situation across the region is getting worse by the day. In Donetsk, separatists have set up a “people’s republic”, independent from Kyiv. On 27 April, they captured the local TV station and paraded their hostages publicly. Over that weekend, they began to stamp Ukrainian banknotes with their name. The incidents reflect the confused politics and violence that coexist in the east: they are strong on gesture but largely pointless.

The agreement reached between the US, Russia, Ukraine and the EU in Geneva on 17 April, in which all sides backed measures to end the violence, including the disarming of illegal groups and their vacation of occupied government buildings, came and went without effect. The violence has only increased.

The city of Sloviansk, where I had guns pulled on me at a pro-Russia militia checkpoint, has become the unlikely epicentre of the crisis. I was inside the police station stormed by separatists on 12 April and it was clear that the conflict had escalated to dangerous levels. The armed men wielding baseball bats and clubs I had also seen in Donetsk and Luhansk had been joined by an influx of people who were clearly soldiers, similar to those who appeared during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March.

Sloviansk is now headed by a self-appointed “people’s mayor” (the former mayor sits inside an occupied building, a “guest” of her captors) – a man by the name of Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, with a fondness for wearing baseball caps and accusing western journalists and officials of being spies.

On 25 April, a group of eight international observers, part of a 13-member military verification team deployed by the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, was kidnapped by pro-Russia activists four kilometres outside Sloviansk. So far, despite freeing one of the group on health grounds, the mayor has ignored calls for the release of the others.

Ponomaryov exemplifies perfectly the position of so many of the separatists across the region: defiant but largely impotent. He is unable to rally the majority of local people to the cause and his calls on Russia to annex the region as it did with Crimea have gone unanswered. He is almost as trapped as his captives.

Instead, an uneasy monotony, punctuated by bouts of violence, dominates eastern Ukraine. The same Russian flags, the same masked armed men, the same chants (“Ro-si-ya! Re-fe-ren-dum!”) and endless mounds of tyres stretch across the occupied cities. But no one is sure what to do next.

More arbitrary violence seems the only likely outcome in the short term. In the woods and forests that surround the occupied cities sits the Ukrainian army, sent there a few weeks ago by Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov. Yet, so far, the Kyiv government has avoided an all-out assault against the separatists, fearful of giving the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the pretext for another invasion of Ukraine. Instead, the fighting is confined to isolated but mounting incidents that stoke hatred and confusion on both sides.

On 27 April, separatists captured three elite Ukrainian security agents near Donetsk. The following day, Hennady Kernes, the mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, was shot. He is reportedly fighting for his life.

On 20 April, three people were killed at a checkpoint near Sloviansk. The separatists blamed the Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector, presenting as “evidence” bundles of US dollars and a business card of the Right Sector leader, Dmytro Yarosh, allegedly found at the scene. The evidence was widely derided by western officials and pro-Ukrainian groups.

For now, the propaganda war outstrips the fighting on the ground. Russian TV – widely watched in Ukraine’s east – accuses the Kyiv government of being an unelected “junta” intent on persecuting the country’s Russian speakers. Meanwhile, Moscow has declared that, if necessary, it would act to stop those “seeking to unleash civil war” in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s declarations of intervention are becoming increasingly overt. It is clear that the crisis here will get much, much worse.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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