A former mine engineer, the head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, has admitted to feeling shy in front of large audiences.
But though he may still mumble, he was strident yesterday as he gave a speech at Donetsk National University vowing a renewed push by the rebel forces, which this week saw them take control of Donetsk airport.
“There will be no more ceasefire agreements,” he told the few hundred students gathered in the physics department.
These were the students who had rejected the Ukrainian government’s offer to relocate to a new university in Vinnitsa, central Ukraine. “Our friends and family are here – what kind of choice did they think we had?” said 19-year-old mathematics student Nastya.
Much of Zakharchenko’s speech to the students yesterday was straight out of the book of his mentor, Vladimir Putin: uncompromising, harsh, but also tinged with military banter and self-deprecation. By the end of the performance, Mr Zakharchenko was offering the students advice on love, studying and the use of a Kalashnikov. He invited two female students to accompany him to see the ruins of Donetsk’s airport.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
But Mr Zakharchenko’s main purpose was to lay clear the uncompromising direction of the rebels.
“Our kindness has been taken for weakness,” he said. “There will be no more ceasefire agreements and no more rotations of Ukrainian troops through our checkpoints.”
The troop rotations, which had appeared peculiar to many observers, were, he said, an obligation that they had taken on as part of the Minsk agreements. In future, the only part of the agreement he would be sticking to was prisoner exchanges, he added.
As news filtered through the crowd that a Ukrainian checkpoint in Krasny partisan to the north of Donetsk had fallen to rebel hands, it seemed developments were living up to Mr Zakharchenko’s words.
Although Friday was largely quiet in the centre of Donetsk, Julia, a resident of Ukrainian-held Kramatorsk, some 35 miles further up the road, said a certain level of panic had set in among residents. “We’re hearing all kinds of rumours that rebel forces are on their way to us,” she said.
There is logic behind the rebel push. The economy in the rebel-held areas is at breaking point. Small and medium-sized businesses have largely deserted the area, and Kiev has restricted travel and financial flows into the region. The region’s port, Mariupol, is still held by Ukraine and without that and access to the major infrastructure of the wider Donetsk region, it is hard to see how the Donetsk People’s Republic could ever be viable. And people are hungry.
Mr Zakharchenko made reference to the difficulties in his address to students. Rebel forces were, he said, focused on retaking Slavyansk, to the north of Donetsk. Slavyansk is a source of fresh water for many of the cities immediately outside the zone controlled by Russian-backed rebels, including Mariupol. “First we’ll take Slavyansk, and then we’ll move on to Mariupol,” he told the students.
There is also radicalisation on both sides. Donetsk is transformed from a year ago, when 66 per cent of the city expressed a desire to stay part of Ukraine. Many of its young, mobile and pro-Ukrainian people have fled. Those remaining have witnessed a military push, destruction and despair that they largely attribute – rightly or wrongly – to government forces.
On the other side, October’s parliamentary elections in Ukraine returned parties with populist agendas. Political rivalries between leading politicians have upped the rhetoric, and arguably gave President Petro Poroshenko less room for manoeuvre.
Diplomatic efforts continue. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said yesterday he was ready to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov next month in Munich. In an interview with Reuters, Stoltenberg described a “substantial increase in Russian heavy equipment” in Ukraine.
Over the first 20, very dark days of January, the Donetsk city morgue registered 116 victims of the conflict, not including victims of Thursday’s trolleybus shelling. The UN yesterday reported that more than 5,000 civilians have died as a consequence of the fighting, including 262 in the past nine days. Many assume the number to be higher. “We will only know the exact numbers of dead after the war, and after many independent investigations,” said Enrique Menedes, a local businessman turned humanitarian worker.Reuse content