Putin’s secret army, hellbent on war

Published by The Mail on Sunday (20th April, 2014)

Outside the occupied Ukrainian police station, sandbags were being piled for protection as a car slammed to a halt. Out jumped four men, wearing military uniforms and carrying a range of weapons including rifles, pistols and knives.

One held a Kalashnikov by the nozzle in each hand. Another had  an assault rifle slung over his shoulder, a pistol in his belt and a radio listening device in his right ear.

As the sun bore down on Slavyansk, a small industrial city emerging as a front line in the struggle convulsing this shattered country,  I persuaded this pair to talk.

Who were they, I asked? ‘We are in the world army,’ said one, his eyes hidden by sunglasses. Cryptic conversations have been commonplace during this conflict between Moscow and Kiev – but he spoke with a strong Russian accent.

Loosening up, he confessed to coming from Sevastopol – the Crimean city that is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and which was used as a launchpad for the region’s recent annexation.

So what did he think would happen here? ‘There will be war,’ he said. ‘The West has invested too much  in Ukraine. Nato will end up fighting us so we must be ready.’

It was a chilling threat – not least since the man identified himself later as a marine officer who had served in Chechnya and a parachutist with more than 1,600 jumps.

Hours earlier I heard self-styled separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine insist there were no arms at any seized buildings. Yet I had already watched eight more gunmen enter the station; another six arrived soon after with bed mats.

These menacing forces undermine President Vladimir Putin’s claims that Russia is not involved in this insurgency. Yesterday, as they openly patrolled outside Slavyansk, Putin confirmed extra troops had been deployed on the border as a ‘precautionary’ measure.

When I said the West did not  want war, the officer in sunglasses pointed out Britain had not wanted bloodshed in Afghanistan either. ‘But look what happened – you ended up fighting there for years.’

He pointed at the glinting golden domes of an Orthodox cathedral nearby when I asked why he would risk his life for this cause. ‘We are fighting for our religion like the Muslims,’ he said.

Ukraine is divided not just by language but by two strands of Orthodox religion, with one looking to Kiev and the other to Moscow. Putin is stoking up deep-seated cultural, historic and religious divisions.

Officially, there are no Russian forces in this part of the country –the president himself said so last week. But then he also finally ended his charade over the stealth invasion of Crimea, admitting all those silent troops in unmarked uniforms who popped up across the peninsula before annexation were Russian.

For one month, I watched that  slow strangulation of Crimea – and these events in eastern Ukraine seem to bear a startling similarity as separatists occupy key strategic sites, then demand a rapid referendum on ‘independence’. Some soldiers in Slavyansk even banter over being in Crimea.

Ironically, both sides of this struggle really want the same thing: an end to the corruption and economic stagnation blighting Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Amid the instability stirred up by Moscow’s machinations following the ousting of former president Viktor Yanukovych, the economy has crashed and Ukraine’s currency has lost two-fifths of its value.

Some see hope for salvation in the fledgling democracy in Kiev – but others seek the old certainties of their Soviet past. ‘I want to rejoin Russia for a better life with stability and a more competent government,’ said Sergei Melnik, a miner whose salary has fallen 60 per cent. ‘I used to be paid on time but these days I do not know if I will be paid at all.’

Some pro-Russians resent that wealth created by east Ukraine’s mines and steel mills has been frittered away. ‘We give other regions so much money but they just look down at us like we are second-class citizens,’ said Emilia, a young mother volunteering as a medic on the Slavyansk barricades. ‘The truth is we speak Russian, think Russian and even dream in Russian.’

Yet recent surveys found two-thirds of the country’s Russian-speaking population want to remain in united Ukraine, while three-quarters say they do not feel under pressure because of their language.

Only 27 per cent favour unity with Russia. ‘I have lived under Moscow before,’ one academic told me. ‘The last thing I want is to do it again and see my freedoms curtailed.’

On Thursday night, the Ukrainians fought back with a rally in a Donetsk park. Politicians promised to ‘eliminate the terrorists’ in their midst as couples danced to folk music. Afterwards, young men told me they were ready to die for their country – yet for all the impassioned bravado, there is naivety about their faith in the future, just as with their counterparts in Crimea.

Ukraine is a weak nation run by an inexperienced interim government, with one of the world’s best equipped armies massed on its border. When its decrepit forces fought back last week, six armoured personnel carriers were seized instantly by pro-Russian militia.

As the protest finished, news arrived of a deal to ‘de-escalate’ this volatile crisis following talks between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union in Geneva. But within hours, it seemed to be falling apart.

On Friday morning, I passed through more barricades, noticing the usual piles of Molotov cocktails and anti-American posters, to a chaotic press conference in the captured regional government building.

First speaker was a bearded man I had seen the previous day direct two busloads of supporters – some stinking of drink – to take over the airport after complaints Russian journalists were being barred entry. Denis Pushilin, chairman of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, said they would not leave the building as agreed under the deal until the ‘illegal’ government in Kiev quit.

Putin’s popularity has surged during this crisis, despite economic wobbles. This pugnacious president has never hidden his desire to restore Russian hegemony over the former Soviet Union states.

In 1999, in his first speech as prime minister, he said Russia was a great power with ‘legitimate zones of interest’ in former Soviet lands. Now we have a new Cold War with the first annexation of territory in Europe since 1945, followed by stirring of revolt in eastern Ukraine.

Putin has devised a new form of warfare fought with blatant lies, balaclava-clad stooges and a barrage of propaganda. The key question is whether a weak and divided West will prevent this expansionism or just abandon the people of eastern Ukraine as they did in Crimea. And then whether another nation – perhaps even a member of Nato – might be targeted next.

‘This all began when we asked to join Europe,’ said Maxim, a young engineer I met at the Ukrainian rally. ‘In return, Europe talks tough but will do nothing to help at our time of need.’

It was hard to disagree, watching as his homeland slides once again towards Russian subservience.


Most recent articles

Africa is refuting the usual economic pessimism

Published by The Wall Street Journal (16th April, 2014) The terrorist bombing that killed 71 people in Nigeria’s capital Monday morning abruptly turned attention from what had been remarkable news. Nigeria became briefly the world’s fastest-growing economy following an overnight transformation on April 6 when the West African nation discovered that its economy had almost […]

Who would invent the Lib Dems now?

Published by The Independent (14th April, 2014) Almost four years ago a senior Liberal Democrat outlined his vision of the party’s future to me and pointed to the model of the Free Democrats in Germany, which spent decades playing the role of kingmaker in a range of coalition governments. Despite its small stature, this party […]

Spark that could ignite a tinderbox

Published by The Daily Mail (14th April, 2014) This is the long-dreaded moment. It is seven weeks since a strange struggle in the east of Europe began, with the silent invasion of Crimea by Russian special forces stripped of their insignia and supported by well-armed local militia to quash any dissent. Despite the seizure of the […]

Does Britain really need a ministry of culture?

Published by The Guardian (11th April, 2014) So farewell then, Maria Miller, the minister who made more of a splash with her drawn-out departure than she managed to achieve during four years in government office. She spent 18 months in the cabinet at the ministry of culture, overseeing a hotchpotch of responsibilities from ballet and […]

Decency defeats the forces of darkness

Published by The Mail on Sunday (6th April, 2014) Countrymen: The Untold Story of How Denmark’s Jews Escaped the Nazis by Bo Lidegaard (Atlantic) One Saturday morning in October 1943, the vicar, lawyer and bank manager of a small seaside town in Denmark spent several hours agonising over how to help Jewish families hiding from […]

Don’t fall for Putin’s lie

Published by The Guardian (1st April, 2014) Vladimir Putin has won plaudits at home and brushed aside censure abroad with his brazen theft of Crimea. His few supporters at the UN last week tellingly included some of the planet’s most unsavoury regimes, such as North Korea, Syria, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Their leaders no doubt appreciated […]

As gay people celebrate, another minority remains stuck in the shadows

Published by The Independent (31st March, 2014) They were clearing up the confetti, nursing hangovers and disappearing on honeymoons yesterday after the first batch of gay marriages in Britain. It was a remarkable moment as  the contented couples celebrated their unions with the traditional kiss. Within my lifetime, homosexuality has been first legalised, then embraced […]

Ethiopian sues Britain for giving aid to his country

Published by The Mail on Sunday (30th March, 2014) An Ethiopian farmer has been given legal aid in the UK to sue Britain – because he claims millions of pounds sent by the UK to his country is supporting a brutal regime that has ruined his life. He says UK taxpayers’ money –  £1.3 billion over […]

Bullets fly as Russian special forces storm Belbek

Published by The Mail on Sunday (23rd March, 2014) Russian armoured vehicles firing heavy machine guns and supported by scores of special forces soldiers yesterday stormed one of the last two remaining Ukrainian bases still holding out in Crimea. The brutal assault at Pokryshkin airfield at Belbek, which left up to four wounded, was the […]

Russians storm Ukraine’s main naval base

Published by The Daily Mail (20th March 2014) The Russian flag was flying over Ukraine’s naval headquarters last night after it was stormed by hundreds of militiamen and cossacks. The men broke open the gates of the base in Sevastopol yesterday, captured its commander and drive out troops loyal to Kiev. The seizure raised tensions tensions […]

Crimea’s sham vote – and a very uneasy truce

Published by The Daily Mail (17th March, 2014) Russia and Ukraine have agreed a truce until Friday as the contested Crimea region voted in a sham referendum that will almost certainly lead to its rapid annexation. Yesterday’s ballot, held under the shadow of an invasion, has been called illegal by Kiev and Western allies, but […]

Crimea’s referendum was a sham display of democracy

Published in The Guardian (17th March, 2014) Almost before they had cleared up the vodka bottles in Lenin Square, scene of the party to celebrate Crimea’s reunification with the motherland in Moscow, the well-planned moves kicked into place. There was, of course, no doubt about the verdict of Sunday’s vote in the referendum. So with […]

Exodus on eve of a referendum with only one answer

Published in The Mail on Sunday (16th March, 2014) Sweating in the spring sun, it took Sergei several trips to load all his bags and belongings on to the huge blue and white train. His wife Liubov tried to calm one of their young children who was screaming, while a second child stood watching beside […]

The shock troops sent to terrorise Putin’s opponents

Published in The Daily Mail (15th March, 2014) Stepping out of my hotel yesterday morning, I found a sinister new force patrolling the streets of Simferopol. These men wore black balaclavas, blue military combat clothing and carried large assault rifles – yet despite the Russian invasion of Crimea, they wore the badges of Ukraine. Baffled, I […]

Crimean notebook: ‘They’ll have to break all my bones to make me a Russian citizen’

Published by The Spectator (13th March, 2014) Vladimir Putin still swears that there are no Russian troops in Crimea, so their mission is to say as little as possible as they invade this holiday region in their unmarked uniforms and vehicles. It is remarkable how soon you get used to shouting questions at these heavily […]

Clashes in Crimea as Ukrainian PM vows ‘this is our land’

Published in The Daily Mail (10th March, 2014)* Demonstrators loyal to Ukraine were attacked with whips, baseball bats and clubs in Sevastopol yesterday as the mood in Crimea turned increasingly tense after the stealth invasion by Russia. The assault by about 100 Cossacks and pro-Russian militiamen was described as ‘very savage’ by BBC reporter Ben […]

There is no moral equivalence between Moscow and Kiev

Published by The Independent (March 10th, 2014) Less than 100 yards from my hotel, the Russian flag flies over the Crimean parliament. Inside sit Russian soldiers, their faces obscured by balaclavas as they fiddle with their weapons, while outside stand Cossack paramilitaries, who have freely told me they are serving soldiers. More troops sit slumped […]

Inside the lair of ‘The Goblin’

Published by The Mail on Sunday (9th March, 2014) Shoved to the ground by a Russian stooge,  I suffered nothing more than a cut knee. But as protesters are attacked, women abused, activists intimidated and families terrorised, the Russian invasion of Crimea is turning nasty. Yesterday, amid reports of a fresh minefield on the border […]

Ukraine’s new hero defies Russian fire

Published by The Daily Mail (5th March, 2014) They marched right up to the top of the hill and, several hours later, they marched back down again. Their mission was unaccomplished – yet in defying the Russian forces who have seized their Crimean airbase they gave Ukraine a new hero. His name is Yuli Mamchuck. The […]

Tartars in fear of brutal Russians’ return

Published by The Daily Mail (4th March, 2014) At four o’clock in the morning Zodiye Saliyeva’s mother was ordered out of her home at gun point, along with her three sisters and all their neighbours in Yalta. Forced to leave their possessions, they were herded into a school before being crammed on to railway containers and […]


Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: