It sits in a flat expanse of green farmland, an hour and a half by car from Donetsk, the regional capital and the epicenter of an insurrection against the government in Kiev.
In Donetsk, and in towns to the northeast like Slaviansk and Kramatorsk, pro-Russian separatist militias have set up armed roadblocks and barricaded themselves in government buildings.
In recent weeks, the fighting in eastern Ukraine has taken on its own grinding, self-perpetuating momentum, independent of developments taking place in Kiev, Moscow, or the West.
An array of militia forces on both sides launch attacks almost daily, and within each respective camp—insurgent and pro-Kiev—the proliferating paramilitary brigades do not necessarily communicate, or even care for one another.
Earlier this week, on May 21st, a group of unidentified anti-Kiev insurgents launched an attack in Blahodatne that killed sixteen Ukrainian soldiers, a sign of their deadly strength.
A few months ago, larger powers—whether the Kremlin or Ukrainian oligarchs who thought that a rebellion in the east could further their own interests—may have had some operational control or sway over the militias in eastern Ukraine, but that influence appears to have waned.
The men with guns are the ones in charge now.
That is a thoroughly depressing development for Ukraine.
Even if there is a negotiated solution to the ongoing conflict—itself an unlikely development—it may not be sufficient to halt the cycle of violence across the Donetsk region.
Velyka Novosilka lies to the west, farther from the strongest, most concentrated hostility toward Kiev along the border with Russia.
Here, the encroachment of separatist feeling has been more subtle, and certainly less forceful.
On the morning of May 14th, around fifty people gathered in front of the regional administration building for a rally in support of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the imaginary breakaway state declared by separatist leaders earlier this month after a dubious “referendum” on May 11th.
They chanted and made speeches, and, soon enough, the red-blue-and-black flag of the would-be republic hung from the flagpole out front.
The handful of regional bureaucrats inside the building didn’t do anything to stop them; the police were similarly idle.
The passive response seemed understandable.
Why risk your life to defend a distant, ineffectual government in Kiev that isn’t very popular in the east, especially when it seems possible that the Donetsk People’s Republic—or simple anarchy—will win out after all?
If that was Velyka Novosilka’s counter-revolution—the local version of the pushback against the Maidan protests that toppled the former President Victor Yanukovych, in late February—it was followed by a counter-counter-revolution, led by a small band of disgruntled residents.
One of them, Sergei Komburov, a forty-three-year-old retired policeman, told me that his group, which numbered about ten, had come together even before the protests began in Kiev late last year.
“We were against these authorities even before Maidan, and after Maidan nothing changed, all the corrupt people stayed the same,” he said.
I met Komburov and his allies one afternoon last week, at a Soviet-era collective farm that served as a kind of headquarters and staging base, before they set out on a mission to recapture the regional-administration building.
Komburov, who had taken to bee-keeping on his family land since his retirement from the police, told me that the separatist demonstration in town had been a ruse, an attempt by the old élite of the rural community to hold on to power.
Its ringleaders, he said, consisted of the area’s former deputy police chief, members of the local branch of the Communist Party, and businessmen involved in the illegal scrap-metal trade.
Komburov and his compatriots were intent on raising the Ukrainian flag again and restoring Kiev’s writ over the town.
Their other objective was to install Alexander Arykh, a baby-faced twenty-eight-year-old lawyer, as the regional administrator for Velyka Novosilka.
Arykh had been appointed to the post by the government in Kiev, but was unable to take office so long as the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic hung outside the administration building.
Komburov was also expecting his own appointment from the ministry of internal affairs in Kiev, as the new regional police chief—he would be leaving his bees and returning to the force.
Such are the times, he said.
In anticipation of resistance from the separatist forces, Komburov’s group had appealed for some extra muscle from pro-Kiev figures in the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk region, whose governor, the colorful oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, has helped to finance the creation of loyalist militias with his own cash.
Around two dozen members of the Donbass Battalion, a volunteer paramilitary group formed in recent weeks to counter pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, were dispatched to assist Komburov.
The Donbass Battalion is one of a handful of new armed factions—militias with the mission of combating separatist insurgents and retaking territory for Kiev, but with unclear orders and legal authority.
The Donbass fighters looked like a simultaneously ragtag and fearsome bunch: they wore mismatched black uniforms with balaclavas pulled over their heads, and carried an assortment of weaponry that ranged from Kalashnikov assault rifles to a Second World War-era carbine and a wooden crate full of grenades.
Before the mission, I spoke with Semyon Semenchenko, the Battalion’s thirty-eight-year-old commander.
He told me that he was a former officer in the Ukrainian Navy, who had years ago gone into private business in Donetsk.
He decided to head the militia after he saw the government’s weakness and its inability to counter the creeping rebel takeover of the east.
“They weren’t doing anything, so we decided to do it ourselves,” he said.
“Our goal is the defense of our homeland, and that is of a higher order than following any one particular law.”
It’s a troubling operating philosophy, given the murky, lawless nature of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where militias under nobody’s control do battle with one another.
The men fighting in paramilitary formations like the Donbass Battalion believe they can save Ukraine from disintegration—but they could be what pushes it deeper into internecine conflict.
At around four in the afternoon, Komburov and his men, along with the gunmen from the Donbass Battalion, piled into a handful of cars and headed down a dusty, potholed road toward Velyka Novosilka.
I caught a ride in an old, clunky van with two local farmhands crouching in the back, wooden rifles at their feet.
After a short drive into town, the small convoy pulled up outside the police station.
The Donbass fighters took up positions in the grass by the side of the road, stopping approaching cars and aiming their guns at the upper windows of the police building.
A crew from Vice News captured what happened inside: led by Semenchenko, the Donbass Battalion tore through the building, pushing the police officers inside to the floor.
Semenchenko assembled them all and berated them.
“We are fucking pissed off by your prostitute politics,” he said.
“Who has forgotten their oath of loyalty to Ukraine? I will take your silence to be representative of your shame… There will be a Ukrainian state here, this is Ukrainian land.”
A few minutes later, the Donbass men filed back onto the street, and rushed in the direction of the administration building.
Locals stopped to watch as armed men in masks ran across the town square.
One of Komburov’s men, Alexander, pulled down the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic and ripped it up with his hands.
“Fucking separatists,” he said.
He reached for a Ukrainian flag he had brought in his car, and, as the afternoon turned into evening, the blue and yellow of Ukraine were raised over Velyka Novosilka once more.
The next day, Komburov was standing in the doorway of the police station.
A cleaning lady was sweeping up pieces of glass and measuring an empty window frame; it had been smashed during the assault the day before.
“Don’t worry, we’ll pay to replace that,” Komburov told me.
The Donbass Battalion may have been rough and aggressive, he said, but it was just a “passionate display to show the personnel they can’t let the region slip away to the separatists.”
The operation, he continued, was meant “to show these people that they took an oath to the state of Ukraine. All we’re asking is that they carry it out.”
The town was essentially without any sense of authority.
The chief of police had gone missing: he had taken a sick leave, then disappeared, and he wasn’t answering his phone.
“There is no state,” Komburov said.
“The police are demoralized, totally without discipline. They don’t know what to do.”
Komburov and his men had called around and asked all the officers to come for a meeting that afternoon.
About a third of them had shown up, and those whom I saw walking into the precinct looked confused and dispirited.
With the chief nowhere to be found, one of his deputies, Alexander Tsura, took charge of the meeting.
Tsura tried to project an air of normalcy, even though it was clear to everyone that the situation was far from normal—their ostensible bosses in Donetsk had either gone silent or were working with the separatists, and, above all, everyone in the room remembered the unpleasant armed raid the day before.
The officers had no weapons: their guns had disappeared a few days earlier, when the previous chief ordered them all to turn in their arms.
No matter, Tsura said; patrol shifts would continue as before.
He pleaded with his charges not to abandon their jobs.
“Nobody run away,” he said.
“If everyone deserts their posts, then it will just be me all alone, and I won’t be able to do anything. But together we’ll survive these hard days.”
Semenchenko then asked to speak to the officers.
His tone was softer and more agreeable than the day before.
He was no longer trying to frighten them, but to make a moral appeal—one that was nonetheless backed with a hint of menace, if only because he was still wearing a black balaclava.
(He explained that he would fear for the safety of his own family in Donetsk were his identity to be revealed, but promised the men that he would show his face soon enough.)
“You can argue for any political position you like—for any republic—and I can agree with it or not, it’s your right,” he said.
“You can want to join Zimbabwe, I have nothing against it. But if you begin to use force, I won’t allow it.”
In that case, he said, the men of the Donbass Battalion would respond in kind.
“Maybe I’ll be judged for this later. And maybe it’s a personal tragedy, but society benefits, and I’m ready to take responsibility for this,” he concluded.
The officers filed out without saying much.
Later that afternoon, I met Arykh in a small park dotted with stone memorials: to the Holodomor, the Stalin-era famine in the Ukrainian countryside; to the local men who died in the Second World War; to the victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
I asked him if he was uncomfortable with how he took up office, on the back of an armed incursion led by masked men.
“It was unfortunate—sad, maybe—but there was no other way. It’s a necessary method in our times,” he said.
The challenge to governing Velyka Novosilka was not so much the Donetsk People’s Republic, he said, but a long-standing sense of discontent.
The village and its surrounding area had been neglected by successive waves of politicians, and it had been easy to play on that disappointment in a time of broader crisis and fear.
The town, Arykh explained, doesn’t even have gas: in winter, residents warm their homes with old stoves or electric heaters.
“For fifteen years, the state has been promising to lay a gas line,” he said.
“Every now and then, some deputies show up and say, ‘We’ll bring you gas,’ but nobody does anything, they just make fools of people.”
His first task is to prepare for a nationwide Presidential election, scheduled for this Sunday, May 25th.
In areas controlled by separatist militias, voting will happen sporadically or not at all.
Arykh had to rush to put together the forty-nine electoral commissions in the Velyka Novosilka region.
He told me that several people had been receiving threatening phone calls, warning them not to serve on electoral councils.
In the small town of Velyka Novosilka, these unidentified voices were familiar enough.
“They know perfectly well who was calling them,” he said.
The greater threat to elections, at least in Velyka Novosilka—where polls should function more smoothly than elsewhere in the region—is a lack of enthusiasm.
Voters in eastern Ukraine have no clear candidate to support, no well-known and credible defender of the interests of the Donetsk region.
Much of that is the fault of Yanukovych, who, over the years, kept the region’s political field weak and underdeveloped, lest any challengers to his authority emerge on his home turf.
Although the streets of Velyka Novosilka are calm, the conflict does not appear to be over.
The presence of the Donbass Battalion frightened as many people as it reassured; several mothers complained to me about walking with their children while masked men with assault rifles roamed the streets.
“It’s a humiliating situation,” one local man said.
It didn’t seem to matter who the Donbass fighters were, or what they sought to protect—the very sight of them was threatening to people accustomed to the placid rhythms of village life.
On Wednesday night, I spoke with Komburov in his office at the local police station; he had gotten his appointment from Kiev a couple days before, and was still waiting to be fitted for a uniform.
It wasn’t clear how his new underlings were reacting to his arrival: when I saw him discipline a handful of officers inside the precinct, the injured pride and outright loathing in their faces was obvious.
Komburov acknowledged that the Donbass Battalion had alarmed the town’s residents.
“People didn’t understand that people with masks and machine guns are here for their protection,” he said.
It seemed like an easy thing to get confused about.
But, he added, fewer Donbass fighters were on the streets now, and he hoped that they would move on before long.
“They helped bring order to this village, and now it’s my job to maintain that order.”
That will not be easy.
One of Komburov’s first priorities is to investigate the pro-separatist rally on May 14th that hoisted the flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
He suspects a number of local police officers may have been involved.
“I don’t have the authority to forgive them,” he said.
Arykh had said something similar to me earlier:
“We saw the videos, we know their names, we know who they are.”
It’s not clear whether prosecuting the flag-raisers will restore law and order to Velyka Novosilka; it seems just as likely to deepen the sense of civil unrest, and the decay of the state’s authority in the face of suspicion and rumor. In the meantime, the Donbass Battalion moved out of town earlier this week.
On Friday morning, they were caught up in a fierce battle with rebel forces at a checkpoint in Korlovka, a village not far from the city center of Donetsk.
Several of the men were killed, and Semenchenko said that about half of his men had sustained injuries.
As the fight was underway, Semenchenko—or someone writing on his behalf—posted increasingly desperate messages to his Facebook page, declaring that his fighters had run out of ammunition, and pleading with the Ukrainian Army to send a personnel carrier to rescue a group of his men who had been pinned down by sniper fire inside a building.
At one point, he proposed a prisoner exchange with a rebel battalion, and then threatened that, if any harm was done to his fighters who had been captured by the insurgents, he would bring “terror” to the residents of Korlovka.
It was a disastrous and bloody day for the Donbass Battalion in their first showing in real combat; several rebel fighters were also killed.
The clash, and the bullet-riddled bodies it left behind on the side of the highway, only added to the deepening sense that eastern Ukraine is slipping away—not even to Russia, or to some separatist republic, but to something darker, more corrosive, and impossible to reverse.
Source: The New Yorker