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.

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