Mourning call: people gather to remember pro-Russian militants killed in Odessa, southern Ukraine, 10 May. Photo: Getty
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Ukraine: as the death toll rises, a collective psychosis is taking hold

David Patrikarakos reports from Odessa, scene of the bloodiest incident of the Russia-Ukraine conflict so far. 

On 2 May, a fire in the historic city of Odessa in southern Ukraine killed dozens of pro-Russian separatists, increasing fears of an all-out war. At dusk, as pro-Ukraine activists stormed a trade union office occupied by separatists in the city centre, the building was set alight.

It was the bloodiest incident of this conflict so far. People choked to death on smoke or died jumping from windows as they tried to escape the flames. Russian TV aired graphic footage of the fire and its aftermath – charred bodies in pools of blood, including a woman who was reportedly pregnant – relentlessly over the weekend. Many fear that this could give Vladimir Putin, who already claims that Russia might be “forced to act” to “protect” Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population, the pretext he needs to begin an invasion. Others argue that he doesn’t need a pretext; if he wants to invade, he will.

The tragedy came amid mounting violence in the east as the Kyiv government launched its latest counterterrorism operation, the first that has seriously tried to clear pro-Russian separatists from their strongholds. Over the past weeks, the Ukrainian army has advanced steadily towards the occupied cities and fighting between the two sides has intensified.

In the small industrial town of Sloviansk, the centre of the east’s continuing crisis, Ukraine special forces engaged local separatists in hours of heavy gunfire on its northern outskirts on 5 May. Four Ukrainian soldiers and at least 20 separatists were killed. The defence ministry also reported that one of its helicopters had been shot down during the assault – the third to be downed by separatists in a matter of days.

The counterterrorism operation remains confused. Soldiers alternate between intense bouts of violence and long periods of inaction as the Kyiv government alternates between the need to restore order in what is still – barely – a sovereign state and the desire to avoid giving the Kremlin any excuse for further invasion. The army, underfunded and underequipped, also faces the problem of the local population, sections of which form human shields by mingling with the armed militia or gathering around occupied buildings, making it harder for the army to attack.

Back in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”), the scene of the February revolution that overthrew the then president, Viktor Yanukovych, the atmosphere has darkened. Maidan is still filled with members of the militia left over from the uprising who have refused to leave until the presidential elections on 25 May. Dressed in camouflage and carrying bats and sticks, they loaf on the streets by day and spend their nights in the tents around the square. Maidan remains cosmetically militarised – ringed by barricades of tyres and sandbags – but it has become little more than a tourist trap, selling souvenirs of the revolution to the trickle of foreigners who still visit.

Now the barricades are being reinforced and expanded. On 5 May, access into the square via a neighbouring street was controlled by a blonde militia girl of no more than 17, who manned a makeshift gate allowing vehicles access in and out. The armoured personnel carrier parked incongruously in the middle of the street – which some of the more enterprising militiamen had been charging people 50 hryvnias a turn to sit in and have their photo taken – was being cleaned and tested.

Both sides are adopting a war mentality, the most obvious – and ominous – aspect of which is the dehumanisation of the enemy. Pro-Russians describe the Odessa fire as “inhumanity . . . last seen by the Nazis in the Second World War”, while the more extreme pro-Ukrainian elements post memes that mock those who died.

A collective psychosis, born of machismo and paranoia and fuelled by rumour, is taking hold. The latest story gaining traction in the capital is that thousands of Russians – solitary males of military age – have begun to appear in Kyiv, renting rooms and just waiting. “Let them come,” says Maksym, my wiry and intense landlord. “I’ve got body armour and I’m cleaning all my guns.”

It is a phenomenon I have seen repeatedly: in Lebanon, in Congo, in Israel. Men sit in the cafés and bars of Kyiv vowing to smash “Putin”. Machine-gun-wielding sep­aratists tell me they will “cleanse” Ukraine of the “fascist junta” in Kyiv. “If the Russians come, I’ll be up there with my Kalashnikov,” an ex-soldier friend tells me, pointing to the gaudily lit roof terrace of my local sushi restaurant.

Many members of the camouflaged militia are unemployed young men from small towns, who have a new purpose and sense of belonging. It’s hard to imagine them willingly returning to their previous lives now.

Whether or not the two sides will face each other in the coming weeks remains to be seen. What is clear is that the further destabilisation of Ukraine is Moscow’s goal, at least in the short term.

Central to Russian propaganda and the arguments of the separatists is that the Kyiv government is an “unelected junta”. By democratically electing a new president, some legitimacy would be restored, which is what Putin fears. One of his spokesmen recently said that it would be “absurd” to proceed with the polls.

Even if the elections do go ahead, the winner is likely to have only a slim mandate. Pro-Russian sympathisers in the east will boycott the elections on principle and it is difficult to see the militants who control the occupied cities allowing the citizens there to vote unmolested.

The two sides are now divided by un­mitigated hate. It is difficult to envisage a future for Ukraine free from further chaos and violence.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.