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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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.