Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in the east?

The Kiev administration continues to talk tough, as it did while losing Crimea, as Horlivka becomes the latest city where state institutions have passed into the hands of separatists

Horlivka

Officer Nicolai Kochergin stared at the telephone for a few rings before picking it up. “It’s about an accident”, he shrugged, holding his hand over the mouthpiece, “not everyone knows what’s going on here”. He then sat down and began to take down details from the caller.

Down a short corridor, the reception area of the police station was covered in shattered glass. Files were strewn on the floor, an upended computer lay next to fist-sized rocks which had shattered every window, front and back. A huddle of men in balaclavas were planning a march to the mayor's office; around six officers in blue uniforms were looking drained, a few slumped on chairs, others leaning against a wall.

This was the scene at Horlivka, the latest city where state institutions have passed into the hands of separatists; falling dominoes in the eastern part of Ukraine with a seemingly impotent government in Kiev issuing ultimatum after ultimatum ignored by gunmen now on a roll.

The country's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, charged that police officers in the region "are unfortunately incapable of protecting Ukrainian citizens and combating manifestations of terrorism and separatism". This, he claimed, was because they had been recruited under Viktor Yanukovych, the president overthrown in the uprising which began in the Maidan. Mykola Velichkovych, the deputy interior minister, echoed: "In the east we have seen numerous acts of sabotage from the side of the police, they have let us down."

This, however, was from a government which, I recall, the Ukrainian military in Crimea complained had effectively abandoned them, offering no leadership or guidance as they faced weeks of siege and intimidation from Russian forces and separatist paramilitaries, as the territory was being annexed by Vladimir Putin.

Nevertheless, the Kiev administration continues to talk tough, as it did while losing Crimea: various ministers have announced that an "anti-terrorist operation" was under way. We have not seen any overt signs of that, but that, one supposes, is the nature of some of these missions.

There were reports that a convoy of National Guard, the force formed with a nucleus from protestors from the Maidan, the centre of the uprising which brought the Kiev government into power, were on their way from the capital. It remains unclear, however, how much faith Mr Turchynov has in his troops. According to his official website, the Ukrainian President telephoned the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, to ask for UN peacekeepers to hold joint "anti-terrorist operations" with his forces.

Mr Turchynov, one may surmise, has a somewhat loose idea of what exactly UN peacekeepers exactly do. In any event, Russia's veto at the Security Council would scupper any mission not to the Kremlin's taste.

Masked pro-Russian militiamen stand guard inside the regional police building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Horlivka yesterday Masked pro-Russian militiamen stand guard inside the regional police building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Horlivka yesterday (AFP)

Moscow was also considering an appeal. It came from separatists who had taken over the police station at Slovyansk. They were seeking protection from the Ukrainian military. The protest in the city has yet to face any onslaught from Kiev, although that may come. The only death so far had been of a Ukrainian Special Forces officer shot by separatist gunmen on Sunday, in what was the first gun battle of the confrontation.

Despite Mr Turchynov's strictures about Yanukovych-era police, the officers at Horlivka resisted for a long time against a baying crowd of several hundred with masked men in the forefront. The station chief, Andrei Krischenko, was personally involved in a scuffle with a young man who was trying raise the Russian flag on a balcony. The protestor fell to the ground suffering, according to his friends, a broken neck.

Commander Krischenko was himself injured, with cuts to his head, and later driven away in an ambulance. "We allowed that to happen, he would not be harmed" said Andrei, one of the separatist leaders later inside the station. "We are disciplined men, but the crowd outside were very angry, you could not really blame them after what happened: he would have been hanged if they caught him."

The chief had been asked several times in the last 24 hours to change sides with his men, or hand over the station, but he refused to do either. Was he corrupt, or inefficient, unpopular with residents? "The previous chief, Panaichik, was really corrupt, but this man has only been here two weeks, sent by Kiev" shrugged Andrei. Was he then regarded as an agent of the new administration? "We haven't seen any evidence of that. At the end we asked him to join the people, or just go, and he refused. So we had to take direct action."

The pro-Moscow demonstrators claimed that a number of policemen have already joined them. Those inside did not look wildly enthusiastic, but firmly denied that they had been coerced. Officer Kochergin's choice was quite simple: "I am part of a team which co-ordinates across the area; we are here to take the calls whatever's the political situation, people depend on us, we can't let them down, I'll continue working as long as they allow me to."

What did the future hold for him and his colleagues? "I really, really don't know, we have no idea what's happening in Kiev..." At that point a man in casual civilian clothing came in and instructed him not to say any more. The man told me, quite politely, that the officer needed to get on with his job, "there is a lot of work to be done."

Read more: EU mulls further economic sanctions against Russia
Analysis: Both sides in the conflict lay claim to the truth

Generally, the protestors echoed demands made in the other towns and cities where official buildings had been taken over, 11 of them so far: Slovyansk, Yenakiyevo, Horlivka, Artemivsk, Kramatorsk, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Zaporizha, Donetsk, Makiyivka and Druzhkivka, forming the Peoples' Republic of Donetsk.

"These things the illegal regime in Kiev has been saying about the Russians organising everything is nonsense, it is just an excuse for them not to give us a referendum", said Pavel, a schoolteacher. "We are not going to ask to join Russia, just have a federal system, we want to have some control over our own government in Donbass; we can stay in Ukraine. We are not Crimea."

A little while later however, the protestors announced that Aleksandr Feodorovich Shulzhenko, had been appointed as the new police chief; he would not answer to senior officers in Kiev, but instead to the police chief at Simferopol - the capital of Crimea. A local news outlet reported that a lieutenant colonel from the Russian army in Crimea, unnamed, had been appointed to the chain of command; this, however, could not be verified.

As I was leaving the police station a man came running up. He had, he said, something important to say. "I have lived in Horlivka all my life, I am 60 years old, and I have never seen most of these people, they are strangers", insisted Vladimir Petric (not his full name). "I once ran to be a deputy [MP] and I was an assistant to a deputy, so I know about politics, what is going on in my city. But this was organised elsewhere, they brought it ready made into Horlivka.

"I have a lot of connections with Russia, I like Russia, I lived in Moscow; but what is happening now is astonishing, unbelievable. We think Putin will invade stealthily; the Kiev lot are incompetent, but they will have to fight and then there will be a lot of people killed. I worry about my country, my city."

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