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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.