In Slaviansk, rebels leave a trail of Russian expertise – and Ukrainian ruin

Part 1 of 2: Though pro-Russia separatists have fled this eastern Ukrainian town, it still provides evidence how local populations and Russian leadership have entwined amid the rebellion.

By , Staff writer

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    A Ukrainian soldier points out a sign that reads 'Battle for Donbass & Angry Russians' on ammunition boxes that remain on the grounds of an aeronautical college in Slaviansk, Ukraine, on Sunday. Eastern Ukrainian residents are coping with the aftermath of months of pro-Russian separatist control of their town.
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Tucked away in a hidden corner of the College for Aviation Technology in Slaviansk, a town in Ukraine's restive Donbass region, sit piles of wooden ammunition boxes. Affixed to one box is a label with the words, “Battle for Donbass & Angry Russians.”

“The weapons would arrive in humanitarian shipments,” says Fridan Vekouah, the man who received the rebel convoys from Russia – and, unbeknownst to the rebels, was also an undercover agent for the Ukrainian government.

Mr. Vekouah received calls from Russian phone numbers: “OK, you will get humanitarian goods, but it is not all humanitarian,” he was told. “You will take your part, and the military will take their part.”

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The rebels have fled now, as the Ukrainian government's campaign in the east rolls toward the regional capital of Donetsk. There, according to Ukrainian and US officials, the rebels' self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic” is still being supplied with advanced weaponry pouring across the border from Russia.

But the evidence the rebels left behind in Slaviansk points to a mix of local support, low-caliber volunteers, and high-quality Russian leadership. Slaviansk's example presents a case study in who the rebels are, how their separatist rebellion has gripped eastern Ukraine, and why it may be losing the fight now.

A Russian command

Eastern Ukraine was an industrial heartland during Soviet times, and attracted many Russians in search of work over the years. But it has been neglected by Kiev since Ukraine's independence in 1991, and has grated for years at being treated as second-class citizens by Ukrainian political elites in the capital.

“People here are not very patriotic [for Ukraine], there are no jobs, we have not been taken care of,” says Anna, a middle-aged volunteer in a military canteen.

So when the rebellion came to Slaviansk, it was welcomed by much of the Russian-speaking population – as it was across eastern Ukraine. But the rebels, whose numbers in the city were estimated between 5,000 and 7,000, had a distinctly non-local, Russian flavor.

That flavor started at the top. Before fleeing Slaviansk on July 5, rebel units here were commanded by Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, a Russian from Moscow. Strelkov is known for his experience in Bosnia, fighting for Serb forces, and in Chechnya, and reportedly also has links to Russian security services. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Girkin's name.]

In addition to the Russian leadership came rough-hewn recruits from Kazakhstan and Chechnya, and more Russians from as far afield as Moscow or Vladivostok in the east. Even today, most social media references of those who fought here are Russians, not locals.

The military professionalism of the rebels stands out in the defenses they left behind: a sophisticated network of sand-bagged bunkers, firing positions, and even a tunnel between Strelkov’s command compound and the aged brick building that once housed the town’s KGB headquarters and became a rebel headquarters. Even the bridge north to Kharkiv was expertly destroyed by the rebels, its span perfectly sheared away.

“Their leaders are very serious professionals, you can tell by how they built their fortifications,” says Oleg Kotenko, a Ukrainian military liaison with Slaviansk officials. “It means they are expert in urban warfare. And who has that? Russians in Chechnya, and in [1980s] Afghanistan.”

Volunteers

But the pro-Russia separatists were hardly enlightened, residents say. And despite popular support at first, the rebels found it hard to convert that support into action, to find people willing to die for their cause – even to overcome fears about the criminal look of the militia.

So recruiting success was limited. Residents and officials alike say that rebel commanders expressed concern that “normal people” were unwilling to take up arms and join them, and would need to be convinced.

What recruits they did find, residents now say, were not top-flight volunteers.

“The people who supported this were marginal people, communists, [lower class] lumpen, some of the Orthodox priests,” says Denis Bigunov, a member of the Slaviansk City Council before and after the three-month uprising. Such comments about who took part are widely heard here. And videos uploaded on the Internet show some Orthodox priests clearly siding with the rebels.

Locals did die on the rebels' side. The edge of one town cemetery is lined with the freshly dug graves of 21 rebel fighters – most of them in their twenties – each grave decorated with plastic flowers, ribbons, and words that they will be “deeply missed” by their “comrades.”

Yet finding their families is not easy, if they are still in Slaviansk. Up to half the population of 130,000 may have fled, as separatists clashed with Ukrainian government forces. And there are credible reports that Ukrainian operatives are checking out rebel supporters who remain, to be sure the risk of rebellion and future infiltration is over – at least here.

Anna, the volunteer, says the local recruits were the exception, not the rule. “People didn’t support these rebels,” she says, stating that just one person in her neighborhood of 2,000 participated in the rebellion. “All the rest were sitting at home afraid.”

“Nobody wants to fight, because this blood you won’t be able to wash out for years,” adds Anna. “Now people are disappointed in everything, in both sides. The rebels did not bring them any good, and the Ukrainian government takes all the money to fight this war. Before we did not live good, and now we won’t live good. It was better if there was no war.”

'Suddenly so patriotic'

Slaviansk looks very different now that the rebels have gone, and plenty of residents are still in shock.

One woman standing on the central square in Slaviansk is dismissive as she tells someone on her phone: “You can’t believe how many Ukrainian flags are flying around here. Suddenly, everyone is so patriotic!”

Yet another resident likened the rebel presence to someone coming to your sandbox, using it as a toilet, and leaving locals to clean up.

Many of the rebel trench and bunker fortifications have been bulldozed. The pathways through Strelkov’s command compound – including the trenches that cut through a children’s playground and apartment-block backyards ­– are filling in over time, or being hidden by the summer burst of green vegetation.

While those post-rebellion adjustments are cosmetic, there are bigger changes in attitudes. For those who again walk freely on their streets day and night, the relief is palpable that rebel forces are gone.

Says Anna, “I can’t imagine how people in Donetsk have in front of their eyes the example of Slaviansk, yet still support this 'Donetsk Republic,' and believe it can bring something good.”

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