Harriet Salem in Horlivka -
On the morning of April 14, a menacing mob gathered outside the police station in Horlivka. Balaclava-clad men armed with batons and Molotov cocktails besieged the building before scaling the wall to raise the Russian flag. The captured police force eventually negotiated a surrender, but one protester fell, or was pushed, off the roof during struggles and one police officer was badly beaten with steel poles and made to kneel before being taken away in an ambulance, according to eyewitnesses.
The crowd chanted “Russia, Russia, Russia” as the Donbas Republic’s flag was raised above the building. A speaker in faux military gear announced to a gathered that, “the police are now with the people,” he told the cheering crowd, adding that the officers would wear the red and orange striped ribbons of St George as a symbol of allegiance to the new regime.
Not all were receptive to the turncoats, however. “Bring them out I want to spit in their face,” shouted one woman angrily. The mood turned even sourer when the pro-Russia militia attacked two journalists filming and snatched their equipment before erasing their data.
The mob-driven Horlivka seizure stands in stark contrast to April 13 attacks on a Security Service building and police stations in Slaviansk and Kramatorsk, when masked men in military fatigues with automatic weapons fired shots into the air before storming the building in a seemingly professional operation.
As the ugly scene unfolded in Horlivka on June 14, there was still no sign of the Ukrainian government-backed anti-terror operation announced by Donetsk’s governor, Sergey Taruta, earlier that morning. Taruta, a steel and coal oligarch, has been unable to access his office on the eleventh floor of the regional administrative building since it was occupied by pro-Russia forces who declared an independent “People’s Republic of Donetsk” a week ago. Ukraine’s under-resourced military is already stretched to the max protecting its eastern border, where according to Nato sources at least 40,000 Russian troops have been amassing for the last month.
Prelude to annexation
The pro-Russian protesters behind the building occupations say they want a referendum on the federalization of Donbas. But some hope this would just be a prelude to eventually joining Russia.
The Ukrainian government and its western allies have accused the Kremlin of fomenting unrest and orchestrating the state building seizures in the country’s east.
Certainly, the pattern of seizures, which run along the highway running from Mariupol in Ukraine’s southeast through to Kramatorsk just 80km shy of the Russian border, increasingly suggest that Moscow is preparing to invade the country’s east. The sites of the building takeovers are concentrated in a triangle where the two key road arteries running from west to east Ukraine meet. Controlling the balance of power in this region effectively seals the two highways running from via Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv into the far east regions. Donetsk and Sloviantsk, the first two seizure sites in the eastern region are also key transport hubs lying on rail network junctions, and hosting private civilian airfields.
Bringing local law enforcement under the control of pro-Russian forces and arming local militia prior to sending troops into Ukraine would also help reduce potential resistance to an occupying force. Both the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have a clear Russian-speaking majority, but linguistic preference is not a certain indicator of political allegiances and in both cases the Ukrainian minority is substantial, unlike in the vehemently pro-Moscow Crimea annexed by Russia in March. Pro-unity and pro-Russia protesters have clashed violently in several eastern cities during the last month.
Losing the valuable coal and steel industries in its eastern regions would be a massive blow to Ukraine’s already bankrupt economy, whilst Russia stands to gain a stretch of land linking it to isolated Crimea. Rinat Akhemtov, Ukraine’s richest oligarch and vocal supporter of Ukrainian unity, has attempted to negotiate with the protesters, but to no avail. In a statement issued on April 14, the coal and steel tycoon, whose business interests are concentrated in the east, said that the crisis was getting deeper and called once more for the the protesters to lay down their arms. Speaking to bne, Akhmetov's spokesperson denied accusations that the oligarch was negotiating with Russia, admitting that there was "no plan B" if Ukraine's territorial integrity was further violated.
Having lost control of most of the police force in the eastern regions, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced on his Facebook page that the government was seeking to recruit, train and arm 120,000 local patriots to fight against, "green men and gangs who threaten attack the integrity of Ukraine". In a phone call with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, reportedly called on the international cooperation organisation to send peacekeeping troops into his country’s eastern regions.
With the atmosphere becoming increasingly tense, many citizens in the east that support a united Ukraine say they are keeping their heads down. “We are scared, these are radicals with guns,” said 42-year-old IT engineer Pavel, a Horlivka resident. “The atmosphere in the city has descended into madness and anarchy."
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