A mighty roar echoes, followed by a bellowed war cry: “Glory to Ukraine. Glory to its heroes.” Makeshift batons are held aloft as one hundred pseudo-soldiers charge headfirst into one another.
This is just a training session for Kharkiv’s Samoobrona, the city’s pro-Ukraine local self-defense unit. But the men gathered here, regular local guys, teachers, historians, and gangly students mixed in with a few ex-military, are preparing in earnest for a brutal new reality — war is knocking at their door.
Just 25 miles north of Kharkiv, on Ukraine’s eastern border, more than 40,000 Russian troops are massed. Nearly every city to Kharkiv’s south and east, from Mariupol to Luhansk, has slipped beyond the control of the country’s capital. In a series of seizures, pro-Russian separatists, armed with AK47s and clad in balaclavas, have taken charge of most the region’s state administration and security service buildings, as well as the valuable weapons stashed inside. Brutal suppression of those opposing the Moscow aligned fighters, including kidnapping and torture, has become commonplace.
Kharkiv’s middle class has watched on aghast. In this cosmopolitan university city historically renowned for its intelligentsia, support for the rebels is significantly weaker than in the rest of eastern Ukraine. In Kharkiv, only 16 percent of the population support their region’s separation from Ukraine in favor of joining Russia, a figure nearly half that of the neighboring rebel-occupied Donetsk Oblast.
Yet regardless of these statistics a takeover attempt on Kharkiv, whether by the Russian military or militia, now looks almost inevitable. This region is the missing piece in the Kremlin’s strategic jigsaw puzzle and its seizure would secure the much-needed land passage from Russia to Crimea.
Indeed, the Russian-backed separatists may have already delivered the fatal blow. On April 28 the city was plunged even deeper into crisis after an assassination attempt on the Kharkiv’s mayor, Gennady Kernes, left him fighting for his life. The assailants have not been identified, but the political allegiances of the mayor, who switched his initial position of supporting the separatists to backing the Kiev government, suggests that Moscow-aligned forces were behind the attack.
'Who the fuck cares what Putin thinks? He doesn’t need an excuse, if he wants to invade he’ll do it anyway. We have to act now or lose altogether.'
Kernes, who was nicknamed Gepa (meaning ass in Russian), had alleged ties to the Moscow mafia and was a member of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions. So he wasn’t a natural ally of Kiev’s new government, or Kharkiv’s generally pro-Ukrainian, liberal middle class. Yet, in testimony to the depth of the country’s plight, the mayor's support was a welcome lifeline to those struggling to keep Ukraine united.
“He’s a rude man and a thug, but love him or hate him, he controlled this city and his influence was important in keeping things together here in this time of chaos,” Natalie Zubar, a civil rights activist for more than a decade and the founder of Kharkiv-based NGO Maidan Monitoring Information, told VICE News. Zubar bustled about arranging seating and technical equipment for a live stream debate she's organized on the city’s hot topic: How to tackle separatism.
With the mayor out the picture, the city has effectively been politically decapitated and many are now concerned the local police force will defect to the rebels’ side, as has happened in so much of the rest of the region.
Pro-Russia activists held a large scale demonstration in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv today. The marchers carried banners opposing Kiev’s new government. Video via Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Igor Baluta, a Kiev-loyalist and newly appointed head of the Kharkiv regional administration, said that police officers are now subject to regular psychological tests to determine their allegiances and counter the defection problem. “Those that have questionable loyalties, or are just demoralized are not put in charge of guarding state buildings,” he told VICE News. Many have been fired, 30 percent of the police force has already been dismissed, and Baluta says he will continue to purge those who waver. “We are appointing new personnel to take their place, patriots of Ukraine,” he added.
Not everyone is convinced it will be so simple. Ukrainian unity protesters remember how the officers just stood on the sidelines as they were brutally beaten by pro-Russian groups at rallies held in April. “The police are prostitutes, they've betrayed the people, they have supported the separatists in their hearts all along,” muttered Zubar angrily. “These events have made people afraid to come out in the streets, afraid to say their opinion. It’s terrible, a catastrophe.”
The city’s pro-unity supporters’ anger at Kiev’s inaction against the rebels on their doorstep is reaching boiling point. This is Zubar’s second revolution in Ukraine as an activist. Like many, she feels that the Orange Revolution in 2004 achieved little, and now she’s tired of being told to exercise restraint. “Who the fuck cares what Putin thinks? Where will it get us?” she asked, gesticulating wildly in the air to hammer home the point. “He doesn’t need an excuse, if he wants to invade he’ll do it anyway. We have to act now or lose altogether.”
Stripped of his shield Alexy looks less like a soldier, and more like a lost boy clutching a makeshift baseball bat.
However, starved of resources and in a state of crisis, the beleaguered government in Kiev has confessed there is little they can now do to counter the Russia-backed takeover of the east. Years of underinvestment has left the army woefully underequipped and unprepared for an offensive operation. Two attempted “counter-terrorism” stings, aimed at ousting the rebels in the east, fizzled out almost before they began. On April 30, Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, admitted that many of those serving in the country’s security services have either defected to the rebels’ side, or are simply unable or unwilling to fight back.
But with little to no support from the state, and limited access to arms, it seems unlikely that the self-defense forces will fare much better in a direct attack. Some say they are now placing their hopes in protracted underground partisan warfare. “We’ll camp out in the forests and fight if we have to, this is our land,” 42-year-old Sergey, nicknamed "Sych,” told VICE News. A former officer in the Ukraine and Soviet army, turned self-defense commander, Sych says the Samoobrona have already started preparations for a guerilla war, stashing food, medical equipment, and other supplies out in the fields.
As darkness falls the gymnasium self-defense training session draws to a close and sweaty men pour out into fresh night air. The jittery commanders call for some to stay back, they’ve heard rumors the separatists are mounting an attack on the police station. Alexy, an 18-year-old student, volunteers eagerly for the duty. Yet stripped of his shield he looks less like a soldier, and more like a lost boy clutching a makeshift baseball bat — no match for rebels armed with AK47s or Russian tanks. “I didn’t tell my parents I was coming here,” he says quietly. “My mum would worry.”