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Putin Stirred Up Donetsk, Now He's Leaving Its People High and Dry

Mikhail Klimentyev/Getty

In the town of Gorlovka, just northeast of Donetsk, a veteran of the Soviet Afghan War and the Crimean annexation nicknamed “Demon” led a team of local volunteers to seize and occupy the local police station on April 13. Now, over a month later, they’re still there, rushing around in uniforms and keeping busy controlling the small town and trying their best to prevent Sunday’s election or attacking the Ukrainian army stationed nearby.

To get permission to move around Gorlovka, my photographer and I had to get the Demon’s blessing and we were ushered into the lobby of the former police station, put into two broken chairs and told to wait. Some of the men were watching Vladimir Putin’s appearance at a panel at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum that day. He was talking about sanctions and Ukraine, about foreign investment in Russia, but it was hard to hear over the constant din of self-importantly busy men.

What they missed, and what I was seeing on Twitter, was that Putin had just thrown them all under the bus. It was the final chord in a weeks-long process of walking back his position: Putin hadn’t recognized the Donetsk referendum on May 11. It was a striking difference from his response to Crimea’s and the vows to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine with force if necessary. It was also the first sign that Putin was starting to back away from the rebellion in east Ukraine—a rebellion that he had manufactured.

But in St. Petersburg he went much further, saying that he respects Ukraine’s elections on May 25 and looks forward to working with the newly elected Ukrainian government. He also essentially called the situation in Donetsk a civil war, which is just the kind of war Putin doesn’t like to get involved in. Picking up on the signal, the speaker of the Russian parliament and Putin’s close ally tweeted that this was a “Ukrainian crisis.” “There’s no need for a mediator,” he wrote. “It is Ukrainian society that must find within itself the strength to solve this.”

In other words, this was no longer Russia’s problem.

In the Gorlovka police station, no one had gotten the news but the frustration was already there.

“When is Putin coming to help us?” one young man in fatigues asked my photographer, hearing that he was from Moscow. “We could really use his help. Can you call him or write him or something?”

We broke the news to him that Putin probably wasn’t coming. He turned his head away in disappointment.

“How could that be?” he stuttered.

Just down Gorlovka’s main drag, we stopped to talk to a young woman who was playing with her two sons on a deserted playground. She just gave her name as Ksenia.

“The town is half dead, everyone is hiding, everyone is scared,” Ksenia said. Everyone had been let off work and out of schools early again on rumors that the Ukrainian army was about to enter the town, she explained. 

Unlike most people in the area we spoke to, Ksenia didn’t vote in the referendum—“I didn’t see the point”—and she said she would have voted on Sunday if any precincts opened in town, which is certainly isn't happening on the Demon’s watch. But Ksenia was not exactly a Ukrainian patriot.

She feels alienated not only by the Ukrainian army’s military operation in the area, but by the new government’s rhetoric. “They call us terrorists, separatists—oh, the words they’ve made up to describe us! We’re all Ukrainians!”

“Before all this started, I was satisfied with how things were, I felt myself to be Ukrainian,” she said, noting that this was despite her Russian roots. “But now, after everything that’s happened”—in Slavyansk, in Odessa, in Kramotorsk—“I’m not satisfied. And there isn’t one Ukraine anymore.” The only option left, she said, was to join Russia. She too hadn’t heard the news.

It was a sentiment we heard all over the area. In the nearby mining town of Yenakiieve (Yanukovych’s birthplace), we met four women gabbing under a tree as their children played around them. They asked us if we knew what was going on—the constant, and constantly unanswerable, question, in the area. (Even the advisors of the new Kiev-appointed governor of Donetsk told me they couldn’t answer that question.)

“There are so many rumors going around and everyone interprets them in their own way,” one of the women, who looked to be in her mid-twenties, told us. “The result is panic.”

"We’re terrified,” one of her companions chimed in. “It’s so hard. It’s just psychologically very hard.”

“You go to go get bread or sausage, and everyone is says, Oh, did you hear this or did you hear that?”

Their main source of information is Russian television, which, under the Kremlin’s direction, has whipped the area into a frenzy, promising local residents that a mob of child-eating fascists was on its way from Kiev to rape, pillage, and murder the Russians of the Donetsk region. Many of its reports range from manipulation to outright lies, with claims that Ukrainian troops are killing local priests, or using the same man in a hospital bed to claim, in one report, that he is a Western agent, and, in another, the agent’s victim. The women said they also get their information online, but the information they seemed to be getting came from the darkest, most conspirological corners of the Internet—those that confirmed what they were hearing beamed in from Moscow.

As a result, the women were preparing bomb shelters in their basements and were scared to send their children to school, because someone had told them that, in Odessa, a school was captured by the Kiev fascists. One day, they saw a helicopter in the sky and were convinced it was coming to spray them with poisonous chemicals.

They were too scared to let us take their pictures, fearing that someone would see them and come kill them.

Now the only option, they all felt, was to call on Russia to wrap them in its protective embrace—though Kiev’s policies seemed to only be enflaming the desire.

“We always considered ourselves Ukrainian, we were born here,” one of the women said. “Now they call us moskali”—a derogatory Ukrainian term for a Russian—“terrorists, separatists.”

“They started the war in Slavnyansk,” another said. Another cited the deaths in Odessa.

“These are just regular boys. No one is paying them,” another said of the fighters.

“Before we never thought about joining Russia, now we just want someone to protect us,” one of the women explained.

Which is why they all poured into the polling stations on May 11 to vote for the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic: it was not so much a vote of confidence in a circus-act republic, as much as it was an answer to Kiev’s disdain for them. 

But they knew now it was a vain hope.

“The leaders in Donetsk said first we’d have a referendum, then we’d ask for entry into Russia,” one of them said, shaking her head. “Now Putin is saying, ‘Why are you knocking on our door? This isn’t in our plans.’”

“We kept waiting for Putin to help us but he’s not coming,” another woman chimed in. “I guess he changed his mind.”

She’s right. For all of Kiev’s mistakes in dealing with the crisis, it’s hard not to see the tragedy caused by Putin’s. His statements about the need to protect Russian-speakers from fascists and neo-Nazis in Kiev triggered an information war led by NTV, Russia Today, Channel 1, LifeNews—the vanguard of the propaganda machine. They told the local Russian-speaking population, much of which watches Russian TV, that a fascist junta was barreling down on them, bent on genocide. The women on the playgrounds believe this now just as much as their men, who have begun picking up arms to fight the Ukrainian military to the point where they far outnumber their Russian minders. The separatist fighters we met to spoke of saving their women and children from a fascist horde, and their fear seemed as genuine as it was primal.

And now, just when Putin has whipped the region into a murderous panic by making its residents believe they are in existential danger, he has washed his hands of them.

But just because Putin decides he wants out, doesn’t mean the story ends. His plan to destabilize Ukraine worked better than he could have expected. Putin, through people like the Demon and his television armada, have brought the region into what increasingly looks like a civil war, the men off fighting in the countryside and the women losing their minds to fear at home. Ukraine’s presidential elections will come and go, but it’s hard to imagine these people putting down their guns, or ever wanting to live in Ukraine as Ukrainians for a very long time.

The only thing that’s changed is that Putin, for all his passionate interest in these people’s fates just a month ago, doesn’t really care anymore. It just isn’t in his plans. He's changed his mind.