The man who refused to become Moscow’s stooge

Published by The Mail on Sunday (13th March, 2022)

Despite the valiant efforts of residents to block roads with felled trees and even to force back some armoured vehicles with their bare hands, one of the first places to fall into Kremlin hands was the small town of Horodnya.

This was inevitable, since it sits just 25 miles from the border and is on the path towards Kyiv.

Yet now, two weeks later, the people refuse to be subjugated by Vladimir Putin’s forces – as shown by the shocking suicide of a man chosen by the Kremlin to be its stooge in control of the town.

Russian security services thought that Roman Makas, a prominent local businessman, would co-operate with their invasion – but instead he shot himself on Friday rather than have to collaborate. 

The tragedy stunned the Russian-speaking town of 11,700 people, yet it symbolises the extraordinary defiance being shown across Ukraine.

‘He preferred to die rather than work for the occupiers,’ said Oleksiy Honcharuk, the former Ukrainian prime minister who comes from Horodnya.

Across Ukraine, from the Belarus borders down to the Sea of Azov, Putin’s forces have found fierce resistance when they advance and furious opposition when they think they have captured areas.

In the southern city of Melitopol yesterday, about 2,000 people joined protests demanding release of their mayor Ivan Fedorov, who was seized on Friday by eight armed men with a bag placed over his head following his refusal to co-operate.

President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed such bravery yesterday, saying: ‘Do you hear it, Moscow? The invaders must see that they are strangers on our land, on all our land of Ukraine, and they will never be accepted.’

There have been similar scenes in Kherson, the first major city captured, with rallies for nine days by Ukrainians draped in yellow and blue as they chant abusive slogans against Putin and his occupying forces.

‘It is not turning out to be the easy ride that the Russian forces were expecting,’ said Yevhen Yenin, first deputy minister of internal affairs. ‘Most Ukrainians are resisting. They refuse to co-operate and inform us on troop movements.’

However, Yenin told The Mail on Sunday that Putin’s agents have obtained lists of anyone who served in the volunteer military forces against pro-Moscow separatists in the Donbas and are trying to hunt them or their families down.

Former prime minister Honcharuk said the suicide followed failed attempts by Russian agents from the Federal Security Service to strong-arm the town’s mayor into collaborating.

‘But the mayor said he would only co-operate if they could keep the Ukrainian flag and there was no interference,’ said Honcharuk.

As a result, Russians sought an alternative leader of the community and hoped that businessman Makas, sponsor of the local football team, would take the role.

However, despite pressure to collaborate and even spreading rumours that he had agreed to take the role, Honchurak said Makas realised fellow townsfolk would hate him. ‘He preferred to die than to co-operate.’

On Wednesday at least 100 flag-waving citizens in the town staged a protest march, chanting slogans such as ‘Occupants leave’ and ‘Death to the enemy’ on the birth date of Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko.

Oleksander, a Horodnya resident, said: ‘The Russians were trying to stop them, firing in the air and blocking the roads.’

He also said Russian forces had found lists of Ukrainian police officers who were now in hiding. ‘The Russians are searching for them, trying to persuade them to join the Russian occupants. But no one will co-operate.’

Oleksander added that loathing against the invaders – despite some 60 per cent of the town’s population, pre-invasion, seeing Russia as friendly – had grown since the Russians had cut communications, blown up the mobile phone tower and stopped people entering or leaving.

He said they had seized also all the houses in one street for their troops, ‘ordering everyone to leave and giving them 30 minutes to pack’.

Oleksander said: ‘There’s a lot of humiliation and threats, constant searches – but people do not give in.’

Now medical supplies are running out, according to the husband of a doctor in Horodnya’s hospital. ‘There are patients with life-threatening diseases such as diabetes and Aids but the Russians do not care. It’s going to be a disaster,’ he said.

He also said that a Moscow publicity stunt – involving a Russian truck with humanitarian aid – backfired when no locals turned up to take the supplies since they refused to be filmed by Russian TV ‘gratefully’ receiving assistance.

The only Ukrainian town mayor known to have collaborated is Gennady Matsegora, leader of a small town near Kharkiv, who said in a statement three days after the invasion: ‘The Russians persuaded me that it would not change the life of our town. The schools, kindergartens, hospitals and shops will be working. I made this decision. All the responsibility rests on me.’

A week later, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law that made collaboration with ‘the aggressor state’ a criminal offence with punishments of up to 15 years in prison.

Moscow is trying to pacify occupied areas by writing off electricity and gas debts, offering Russian passports and playing their national anthem on the radio. Farmers have been told to start sowing crops, with promises of access to Russian markets.

Alexander Starukh, the head of Zaporizhzhia regional administration, says journalists in the captured Sea of Azov port of Berdyansk are being forced at gunpoint to broadcast Russian propaganda. In some cases, Russian forces have responded to dissent with violence. The mayor of Novopskov, in east Ukraine, said residents’ protests ended after troops shot three people and beat up another.

Russian soldiers also passed on a warning that they had permission to shoot protesters. And chillingly, European intelligence officials say that Russia will also use public executions to break morale and stifle any signs of unrest. 

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