On the Ground With the Pro-Russian Separatists Suspected of Shooting Down Flight 17

Pro-Russian separatists at site of plane crash
Armed pro-Russian separatists stand at the site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash. Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine has brought the rumbling conflict in east of the country into sharp focus and put it at the top of the agenda around the world.

Although the exact circumstances of the crash are still unknown, a Western consensus seems to be forming that pro-Russian separatists fired the rocket that brought down the plane, killing all 298 passengers. President Barack Obama announced Friday that the U.S. believes that the airliner was shot down by a surface-to-air missile launched from an area controlled by the separatists, while U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power told an emergency meeting of the Security Council that there was "credible evidence" that separatists, backed by Russian agents, were responsible.

On my recent travels through Ukraine, I met some of the men fighting in the Donetsk region not far from where the plane came down and got a glimpse of the addled, paranoid mentality that's driving the disorganized separatists to fight the government of Petro Poroshenko, no matter what the cost.

Rather than one group of anonymous "militants," the pro-Russian separatists can be divided into roughly three camps. About 70 percent of them are the untrained, ruffianly rank and file who not long ago were armed with baseball bats but now have semi-automatics. About 20 percent have a bit of rudimentary training, did some national service and perhaps have slightly better equipment. And then the top 10 percent are the professional fighters who are much tougher and know what they are doing. Some of these are Russian, and some are mercenaries from other parts of the world. It would be soldiers from this 10 percent who would know how to fire the missile that shot down the plane.

PUTIN'S PLAN

The biggest of Ukraine's long list of problems is Russian President Vladimir Putin's determination to wreck the country rather than see it turn toward the West. Crimea, the scenic Black Sea peninsula invaded by Russia from its Sevastopol naval base in March, is already a lost cause. Post-annexation, ethnic-Russian Crimeans (60 percent of the population) were ecstatic—Russian TV footage of cheering crowds did not have to be faked. Now, as cruise ships cancel voyages, hotel bookings plummet and crops shrivel for lack of mainland-sourced water, it is too late for a change of heart. Faced with a slickly executed fait accompli, the West has tacitly accepted Moscow's argument that Crimea is historically Russian, quietly shelving a 20-year-old agreement that guaranteed Ukraine's borders in exchange for its surrender of Soviet-inherited nuclear weapons.

Next on Moscow's menu, perhaps, are the rust-belt border provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Here, unlike Crimea, ethnic Russians are in a minority (38 percent identified themselves as such in the latest census), and Moscow has not shown its hand directly, instead backing local separatists and inflaming the public mood via state television.

Underneath Donetsk's TV tower, tires and sandbags block access to a cream-painted, 1950s administration building. At the entrance, men in camouflage trousers and black T-shirts lounge, cradling semi-automatics. They are members of OPLOT ("stronghold" in Russian), one of 30 or more fancifully named militias—such as the Donetsk People's Republic, the Russian Orthodox Army, the Don Cossacks—that have taken control of the two provincial capitals, each with a population of about a million, as well as a slew of smaller towns.

Relaxing in the sunshine—one man sits chatting to a wife or girlfriend, a toddler playing on his lap—they explain why they have taken up arms. In normal life a lorry driver, a warehouseman, an out-of-work builder and a "sportsman," they have swallowed whole the worldview fed them by Russian television, now monopolizing the TV tower above their heads.

In this distorting mirror, the Maidan square's pro-democracy demonstrators were in the pay of the CIA, former president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by a "fascist junta," and anyone displaying a Ukrainian flag is a member of "Right Sector" (in reality they are a will-o'-the-wisp far-right group, whose candidate won less than 1 percent in May's presidential vote). The "sportsman" has stuck a roundel embossed with the silhouette of a rhinoceros to the stock of his rifle and is waiting for the varnish to dry. Why a rhino? "Because it's the strongest animal, and it's peaceful unless you annoy it."

Asked whether OPLOT's commander is Russian, he laughs, jerking a thumb at the building behind: "We've got an Egyptian in there, three Turks, four Germans—more Germans than Russians!" Are he and his colleagues being paid? "We're here because we believe. What do we need money for? Our wives bring us food."

A slightly unhinged-looking older man chips in, sour-breathed and beginning to shout. "The National Guard [Ukrainian army] all have swastika tattoos! If they're wounded, the army just leaves them to die. We pick them up and take them to hospital. Then the Right Sector comes along and shoots them!" Kiev is "building concentration camps, down near Nikolaev. There'll be filtratsiya [filtration]—men to one camp, women and children to another. You know why? Because soon they'll be putting West Ukrainians in our apartments!"

What does he think of the new government? Grabbing pen and paper, he scribbles a list of names: "He's gay. And him! Gay! Gay! Gay AND a pedophile! It's on the Internet!"

The hair-trigger switch from friendliness to anger is typical, and symptomatic. When it started back in April, the conflict in the East had a fancy-dress, play-acting quality. There was much shouting, balaclava-wearing and smashing of town hall windows, but little serious violence. Nor was it clear that the People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk even wanted to break away from Kiev; many of their supporters saw them as standing for more regional autonomy within Ukraine rather than outright independence or union with Russia.

Pro-Russian Militants
Pro-Russian separatists sit in a truck as they set out from a base in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

The insurgency may not even have been instigated by Moscow. Locally, it is taken for granted that its initial backers were Yanukovych and his Donetsk-based business cronies, who feared loss of their ill-gotten assets and possible criminal prosecution. The assertion gains credence from the separatists' early choice of facilities to commandeer. Offices belonging to Serhiy Taruta, a Donetsk-based oligarch close to Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych's political rival, were broken into and looted, while those belonging to Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man and a longtime Yanukovych ally, remained untouched.

Publicly, Akhmetov now supports the new government. Hoardings around a department store that he owns on Kiev's main shopping street used to bear the graffiti "Rinat, if you want to make money, make peace." Apparently he took the hint: The hoardings were recently replaced with a giant Ukrainian flag.

Most believe, though, that behind the scenes Akhmetov is hedging his bets, or as Ukrainians put it, "sitting on two stools, a buttock on each." It is rumored that in addition to organizing a private militia to protect his power stations, he funds the separatist Vostok Battalion, so as to keep control of the railway line to Mariupol, where he owns a steel mill, shipping firm and machinery manufacturer.

According to Taruta's press spokesman, the oligarchs are simply the victims of an extortion racket. Asked why the militias are letting his boss's steel mill, now deep in separatist territory, operate as normal, the spokesman points out that laying off workers would be unpopular and that "they [the separatists] are probably shaving something off." Other business interests are said to be financing OPLOT, which guards the mayor's office, enabling it to keep municipal services running. The mayor's press secretary concedes that OPLOT is "more constructive than other groups."

Are local businessmen paying for it? "It's possible."

Whoever started the insurgency, it is Russia that has taken it forward. Heavy weapons, including ground-to-air missiles, mortar rockets and tanks, have crossed unimpeded over the border, and local supporters like the men outside the Donetsk TV tower have been supplemented by veteran fighters from the Russian Caucasus. The Donetsk People's Republic's "prime minister" and best-known face, Alexander Borodai, is the Muscovite former editor of a far-right Russian paper. Thuggish and stubble-chinned, he came to Donetsk directly from Crimea, where he acted as political adviser to the Russian-appointed governor, organizing a referendum in favor of Russian rule. His military counterpart is Igor Girkin, a retired Russian security service officer who spent much of his career working for the notoriously brutal Russian administration in Chechnya.

AMATEUR GUNMEN

Ill-trained and ill-equipped, the Ukrainian army has found the insurgency hard to deal with. Despite a significant victory on July 5 that dislodged separatists from their stronghold town of Slovyansk, its tactics have been often been clumsy and counterproductive. In Luhansk, a line of craters crosses the public park in front of the central administration building. They mark where a rocket strike by a Ukrainian ground-attack aircraft killed eight passers-by on June 2; it was claimed that separatists inside the building had misfired an anti-aircraft gun.

Now, the glass-fronted noticeboard at the park gates is plastered with handpainted signs: "The Ukrainian army kills civilians!," "Fascists, don't fire on children!," "Mothers of Ukrainian soldiers—don't let your sons be turned into cannon fodder!" While besieging Slovyansk, the Ukrainian army let itself be lured into responding to rebel mortar fire out of residential districts, resulting in a steady stream of civilian casualties. A similar siege of Donetsk, with its population of almost a million, would be far bloodier. Altogether, civilian deaths in the conflict already run into the hundreds.

The result, besides growing public anger at the government ("Why are they shooting at us?" asks a waitress in an empty café. "What have we done wrong?"), is a growing refugee problem. In the congress hall of an old trade union building, the Donetsk People's Republic's minister for humanitarian aid shows off untidy piles of secondhand clothes, toiletries and medicines. Some boxes are marked "to Novorossiya"—the tsarist term, revived by Putin, for the south Ukrainian steppe. Others are "from the LDPR"—the far-right, ludicrously misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Earlier in the conflict, a photo of cars queuing at a border post, billed by Russian television as showing refugees fleeing to the motherland, was quickly identified as an old picture of a border crossing into Poland. Now, the footage is real: Before Slovyansk's recapture, about half of its population of 120,000 had fled, escaping not only mortars but water shortages and an electricity blackout.

So many checkpoints block the roads in the East that the safest way out is by train. On the sleeper to Kiev, a middle-aged couple, both Russian-speaking doctors, pull shut the compartment door before leaning forward conspiratorially to share anti-separatist jokes: "What do you get if you cross the Donetsk People's Republic with the Luhansk People's Republic? Luhdonia." "Why is the Donetsk People's Republic like one-half of Robin Hood? Because it takes from the rich but doesn't give to the poor." Poroshenko's English is better than Yanukovych's Russian—the ex-president couldn't spell the simplest word. As for the insurgent rank and file: "We call them orcs. They're losers, marginals. All they do is drink and go on about Orthodoxy."

The doctors' daughter emigrated to Canada several years ago. A photo, proudly pulled from a wallet, shows tow-headed grandchildren in front of a giant Christmas tree. Their son, a mining engineer, has just moved his family to Kiev. When the fighting ends, will they be back? They shake their heads—probably not.

Pro-Russian rebel checkpoint
Pro-Russian rebels from the Vostok Battalion stand guard at a checkpoint in Donetsk. Gleb Garanich/Reuters

JUST LIKE EUROPE

The mess in the east, though, is only part of the Ukraine story. Five months ago, in Kiev's Maidan, mass demonstrations against the grotesquely corrupt Yanukovych left over a hundred police and protesters dead. Now, tear gas and sniper fire have given way to stalls selling patriotic souvenirs. On display are fridge magnets in the shape of a gold baton, Ukraine's standard oval loaf of bread. The full-size original, found in Yanukovych's palatial compound after he fled to Moscow, has become a symbol of the greed and criminality that pervaded the country under his rule.

Another popular item is a doormat stenciled with Yanukovych's face and the words "Please wipe your feet." The Maidan's metamorphosis from battleground back into shopping district is part of a nationwide rebuilding process. To Andriy Kyrchiv, an environmental activist who spent every winter weekend at the protests alongside his 21-year-old daughter, it feels as if the country is starting from scratch. "Ukraine only became truly independent in November, when the Maidan began," he says. "That was when social consciousness changed, when the Soviet Union inside us died. We knew that we had to alter things, that we had to start living the way other people live." He was afraid for his daughter, of course, but he "understood her need for change. She was born two years after independence. She has nothing Soviet inside her at all."

Poroshenko, the new president, has touched on the same theme in recent speeches. Ukraine, he points out, is where Poland was 25 years ago, the implication being that where Poland—prosperous, democratic, a respected EU member—has led, Ukraine can, albeit belatedly, follow. The signing of an Association Agreement with the EU on June 27, which gave Ukraine tariff-free access to markets in most goods and services, is a first step along that path.

For a glimpse of what the vast majority of Ukrainians hope will be their country's future, the place to go is Lviv. Sixty kilometers from the Polish—or as Ukrainians like to say, the EU—border, the city was ruled by Poland until the end of the 18th century, by Austria through the 19th, again by Poland in the 1920s and 1930s, and from 1945 on by the Soviet Union. Its prewar population, once mostly Polish or Jewish, has vanished, murdered or deported by Hitler and Stalin. Structurally, though, the city has survived remarkably intact, its history written in a picturesque maze of medieval walls, 17th-century town houses, Baroque churches and Secessionist apartment buildings.

When Ukraine won independence, Lviv was lovely but dismally quiet and neglected. Since then, it has turned itself around, thanks to manufacturing (the Spanish clothing store Zara makes its clothes here), food processing, tourism and IT outsourcing, all boosted by a well-liked mayor. Anna Topolnyk, marketing director of one of the largest of the city's over 130 IT firms, shows me around its offices. Housed in what used to be the headquarters of a Soviet-era television manufacturer, they are a mini-Googleplex of pingpong tables, bean bag chairs and bright orange paintwork.

The firm, she explains in flawless English, is 12 years old, employs 150 full-time staff and turns over nearly $5 million a year.

The fighting in the East, Topolnyk admits, is putting off new customers. "We explain to them that it's 800 kilometers away, but they're still nervous." On the other hand, it is making it easier to hire new staff, as Donetsk programmers relocate. She is even hoping for a "sanctions windfall," as U.S. firms direct their business away from Russia. Bigger problems are corruption and the opaque and contradictory tax system. "Fix them and we'll cope with everything else. We're survivors, we can wait a couple of years for new roads." Why do Western firms outsource to Lviv rather than to cheaper suppliers in, say, India? "It's called near-shoring. The time difference is small, and people like coming and spending time in our coffeeshops."

When you stroll around Lviv's cobbled Market Square, this is easy to believe. There are tandems and Segways for hire, posters for klezmer concerts and an Italian film festival, a place where you can browse illustrated children's books while ordering your own blend of fresh-ground coffee, a sushi bar, a chocolatier and a quirky art glass studio. Between the stone lions flanking the entrance to City Hall a carpet of turf has been laid down, marking the start of Sustainable Energy Week.

At Veronika's, a wood-paneled haven overlooking clipped plane trees and ravishing Art Nouveau facades, a French visitor's letter of appreciation hangs framed on the wall: "Your décor is in very good taste, and all your patisserie is exquisite. Even in Paris, few patisseries are as good as yours." At the next-door table, a young Russian couple share Caesar salads with their children. Given the situation, don't they feel uncomfortable here? "It's awful what's happening, but everyone is very friendly, and we love it. It's just like being in Europe."

The train journey back to Kiev takes 10 hours (another thing on Ukraine's do-list is faster railways). Outside a wood-framed sash window, the high summer countryside glides peacefully by. Here, a sweep of wheat; there, a potato patch, a man pushing a bicycle, an ochre-painted brick cottage, fruit trees with white-washed trunks, cows standing in a river. Wildflowers are everywhere—poppies and ox-eye daisies, banks of purple loosestrife, tangles of yellow vetch, wavy stands of willowherb, stiff ones of giant hogweed. At the stops with their sad shtetl names—Berdichev, Vinnitsa—women shoulder aboard steaming vats of varenniki, the pasta cushions, filled with potato or cabbage, that are a Ukrainian staple. They are delicious, and a bowlful costs a few cents.

Twenty-three years ago, when it rather unexpectedly won independence, Ukraine felt like a provisional, experimental country. Despite its manifold failings, this is no longer so. Inspired by the Maidan, and infuriated by Putin's aggression, Ukrainians seem to have a new sense of who they are, and what kind of country they want to live in.

Civil initiatives of every stripe are springing up to monitor the new government (still very much on probation) and right the wrongs of the past one. At Kiev's Mohyla Academy, journalism students have created stopfake.org, a site that corrects disinformation in the Russian media. (The photo of the Polish border crossing is one of its scalps.) Another site, started by journalists on Kiev's English-language paper, is publishing paperwork found at the ex-president's dacha. Outside the National Bank, investors in a government help-to-buy scheme demand compensation for money they were forced to put into Yanukovych-owned banks. At a pop-up press center, funded by local PR firms, an MP and an activist give a joint press conference detailing yet another Yanukovych scam, where billions of dollars of "Kyoto money," granted to Ukraine in exchange for cutting carbon emissions, was channeled into fake companies.

In the Kiev suburbs, on a wooded hillside above the River Dnieper, Yanukovych's dacha has been opened to the public. A pair of school-leavers is looking around. Having photographed the bowling alley, rifle range, billiard rooms, gym, spa, barbecue lodge, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, golf course, vintage cars, mock-medieval cinema and zoo, they are now taking turns sitting on the presidential bidet.

Do they really believe that Ukraine can make it, when many in the West are writing it off as a failed state? They look amazed and indignant. "Of course!" says one. "I'm Ukrainian! I was born here. I've always lived here. I'm not planning on living anywhere else!" An older man who has been listening in comes over to shake their hands. "That's right, lads. I'm optimistic too. We'll do it." Then they wander off into the grounds, to shake their heads at a fake Roman ruin.