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.