Masked men armed with wooden and metal bats reinforced snaking barricades with sand bags, concertina wire, and tires outside the regional administration building in Donetsk Tuesday, while pro-Russian activists held a chaotic emergency meeting inside the ravaged building to declare a "people's republic" for the eastern Ukrainian region bordering Russia.
Two days after activists seized the Donetsk government headquarters, thousands of people gathered outside the building listening to speakers who denounced the central government in Kiev and whipped up the crowd with chants of “Russia! Russia!” and “Glory to the Donbass!” – the larger geographic region of which Donetsk is the center.
The standoff at the administration building appears aimed at making a public case for independence and most likely unification with Russia. With thousands of Russian troops and weaponry deployed along the border with Ukraine, many in the West – and other parts of Ukraine – fear the Kremlin is seeking to repeat the events of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, whipping up pro-Russian sentiment in provinces like Donetsk and Kharkiv, goading authorities into a violent response and then using that as a pretext to invade, ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians, who are in the majority in some parts of eastern Ukraine.
So far, it is unclear just how deep support is for the protests – though the eastern and southeastern Ukraine have historically backed Russian-allied politicians like ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, much of the rest of the city of 1 million appeared to be going about its own business on Monday and Tuesday. But the scene at the administration building, which bears some resemblance to the "EuroMaidan" protests that roiled Kiev for nearly three months, shows a level of grassroots commitment among the demonstrators trying to spark their own sort of "RussoMaidan."
“We want to live separately, from the rest of Ukraine, like Scotland, but they’re not letting us,” says Valery Kerikov, a Donetsk miner dressed in camouflage who was overseeing a group of pro-Russian activists on the administration building balcony overlooking a crowd of at least 3,000. “Let us live apart from them. We’ll trade with them, we’ll get investment from them, we’ll work with them. But we’ll live on our own.”
The seizure of the buildings in Donetsk happened at roughly the same time that buildings in other eastern cities like Kharkiv and Luhansk were occupied, suggesting they were part of a coordinated action. In videos circulated on YouTube and elsewhere, activists can be heard asking for Russia to send in troops to support their cause.
Overnight, Ukrainian security forces took back another Donetsk building belonging to the local branch of the federal security service, the SBU. Meanwhile, Renat Akhmetov, a tycoon whose wealth Forbes magazine has estimated at more than $15 billion, met with some of the separatist leaders in Donetsk before dawn Tuesday, trying to persuade them to find compromise with the central authorities. But he insisted in an expletive-laden address shown on YouTube and elsewhere: “Donbass is Ukraine.”
But the protesters disagree.
“The government in Kiev, they’ve told us for years: 'You can’t have an opinion or express it. You just sit there quietly and do nothing and we’ll tell you what to do when,'” says Vadim Sinkov, an activist wearing a construction worker’s hat and carrying a rubber truncheon.
“We have a different culture here, a different language. Why should we be hiding this fact?" he asks. "It’s a different mentality altogether here.”
Outside the administration building, cargo vans unloaded more sand bags, tires, and construction materials to reinforce the growing barricades, as helmeted men wearing balaclavas and bandanas stopped journalists and others trying to enter the building, demanding identification. Cobblestones – to be used as projectiles in the event of an attack by security forces – were stacked haphazardly in piles. On the balcony over looking the square in front of the building, Molotov cocktails were stacked inside empty rubber tires.
Inside, meanwhile, the building was largely ransacked, broken glass littering the staircase and hallways, as activists set up first-aid stations and a makeshift cantina where women served cookies, bread, candy, and canned meats to people roaming the halls. Fire hoses were pulled out on the balcony and lay throughout the hallways, to help defend the building. Many of the offices appeared pillaged, and graffiti scrawled on the wall read “Question? What kind of idiotic Ukraine do we really need?”
With elevators out of service in the hulking 11-story building, people huffed up and down the stairwells, with random men in helmets or masks – some visibly drunk – accosting foreigners and journalists. On one stairwell landing, a woman wearing a nurse’s jacket used packing tape to tie reams of computer paper to a man’s forearms and shins, as a form of protection against attack, she said.
Trying to organize
Amid the chaos and confusion, activists sought to formalize their demands for independence from the central government and create a provisional governing council that they hoped would give some legitimacy to their efforts and lay the groundwork for a referendum on the region’s final status.
On the 11th floor main conference room, dozens of mainly men argued, shouted, and tried to discuss measures ranging from seeking help for their cause from the United Nations to how the barricades outside the building would be reinforced. Men representing what appeared to be different trade unions and other organizations yelled and periodically banged on the long wooden table, arguing among other thing whether Mr. Akhmetov, a native of Donetsk, could be trusted. At one point, one woman read a list of grievances from a declaration-of-independence-type resolution, declaring a “Donetsk Republic” only to be interrupted by people yelling “Donetsk People’s Republic.”
One man, who identified himself as Denis Pushilin, implored the room to stay civil, warning that the chaotic proceedings were in fact a “provocation to demoralize us.” The group ultimately voted unanimously to create a governing council, along with subcommittees to prepare for a referendum on Donetsk’s status, which they tentatively scheduled for May.
“We need to work together on a legal basis, otherwise we won’t get support from the US or the EU, never mind Russia,” Mr. Pushilin said. “We don’t have any way to turn back now. We have to stay here until victory.”