KIEV: It is by now a well-established pattern. Armed, masked men in their 20s to 40s storm a public building of high symbolic value in a city somewhere in eastern Ukraine, evict anyone still there, seize weapons and ammunition, throw up barricades and proclaim themselves the rulers of a “people’s republic.” It is not clear who is in charge or how the militias are organized but the pattern is of a well organised military. That military is none other than the Russian army in disguise.
Through such tactics, a few thousand pro-Russian militants have seized buildings in about a dozen cities, effectively establishing control over much of an industrial region of about 6.5 million nestled against the Russian border.
Day by day, in the areas surrounding the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, pro-Russian forces have defied all efforts by the central government to re-establish its authority, and on Wednesday, Ukraine’s acting president conceded what had long been obvious: The government’s police and security officials had lost control.
“Inactivity, helplessness and even criminal betrayal” plague the security forces, the acting leader, Oleksandr V Turchynov, told a meeting of regional governors in Kiev. “It is hard to accept but it’s the truth. The majority of law enforcers in the east are incapable of performing their duties.”
With Turchynov’s acknowledgment that a significant chunk of the country had slipped from the government’s grasp, the long-simmering conflict in Ukraine seemed to enter a new and more dangerous phase. Whether that amounts to the lasting dismemberment of Ukraine or hands control of the east to Russia and its president Vladimir Putin were among the many questions left unanswered after Turchynov delivered his stark assessment.
Whatever the long-term effects, the militants’ seizure of symbolic buildings in cities throughout the country’s southeast is serving what analysts in Russia and the West say is Putin’s short-term goal of so disrupting normal life there that the pro-Russian separatists’ plans for a May 11 vote on autonomy from Kiev could trump Ukraine’s plans to hold a presidential election two weeks later.
While Russia denies any role in stirring the unrest, Secretary of State John Kerry and others have flatly accused the Kremlin of sending operatives to the region to organize, equip and direct the Ukrainians who make up the pro-Russian militias.
The presence of 40,000 Russian troops just over the border is also contributing to the instability, particularly as Russia has warned repeatedly that it will intervene in Ukraine if the safety of the ethnic Russians there is threatened, a sweeping claim that could justify an incursion at almost any time.
But so far that has not been necessary. Through stealth and misdirection, and in defiance of Western sanctions, Russia has managed to achieve its immediate goal of what Western and Ukrainian officials believe is rendering Ukraine so chaotic that it cannot guarantee order, mend its teetering economy or elect new leaders to replace Turchynov and the acting government installed after the pro-Russian president, Victor F. Yanukovych, fled in February.
“Until May 25,” when the presidential vote is scheduled, “is unfortunately still a lot of time,” said Olga Aivazovska, a co-founder of Opora, an independent election monitoring and polling group. Whether a vote will take place — and how valid it could be if parts of the east do not take part — “is a big puzzle,” she said.
Days after imposing new sanctions on Russia, US President Barack Obama announced that he would travel to Poland in June to reassure Eastern Europeans nervous about Moscow’s aggression. The Poland stop will be added to a previously scheduled trip to Normandy to mark the anniversary of D-Day and to Brussels to meet with other members of the Group of 8, reconstituting it as the Group of 7 now that Russia has been suspended.
But none of that is expected to deter the militants. Since April 6, they have been smashing their way into local offices and hastily erecting barricades outside, wearing uniforms without insignias. The latest to fall was Horlivka, where on Wednesday armed men appeared at the City Council building and began checking the documents of anyone entering.
In Donetsk, a tough mining city, the militants say they will conduct a referendum on May 11, and other cities under separatist control are expected to follow suit. Gunmen in Luhansk seized control of that city’s administration on Tuesday and declared their intent to join in.
To date, however, there are no voting offices, nor have any ballots been distributed. They have not even decided what question they want to put before voters.
Nevertheless, the buildings now seized could serve the effort. A sample ballot reported in the Russian news media suggested voters would be asked whether they support a declaration of independence for the “People’s Republic.” There was no mention of joining Russia.
Although Russian is widely spoken in the east, which abuts Russia, credible opinion polls suggest that at most 20 percent of citizens want to join their giant neighbor, Aivazovska said.
For Putin, the disruption ensures that Ukraine cannot firmly join the West by becoming a member of Nato or the European Union. That would comport with his strategy in Georgia and Moldova, where Russian troops occupy small sections of the country, with Moscow leaving the status of the enclaves up in the air, neither leaving nor claiming them as Russian territory.
After five months of violence and revolution, Aivazovska said, nerves are jangled. “You go to bed at night not knowing whether you will wake up in a different country,” she added, echoing almost word for word a leading writer, Oksana Zabuzhko, interviewed two days earlier.
In some ways, the situation seems no more certain for Putin. As leaders in Serbia and Croatia discovered during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, once guns, money and a little importance are doled out to locals charged with unsettling their territory, the militants can slip from their supporters’ grasp.
In Slovyansk, the eastern Ukrainian town where the armed men are most firmly in control, local militia leaders say they now hold about 40 people, including seven Europeans in a German-led military observer mission captured last Friday. They were paraded before cameras Sunday, much as scores of United Nations peacekeepers captured by Bosnian Serbs in 1995 were filmed chained to bridges.
Putin, who values relations with Germany, where he was once a K.G.B. officer, hinted early Wednesday that the observers could be freed. The self-appointed mayor of Slovyansk responded via the website of Bild, Germany’s top-selling newspaper: “We have had no contact with Moscow yet, and here we don’t obey Putin but the People’s Republic of Donetsk.”
On top of nerves, Ukraine’s economy is worryingly frail. The board of the International Monetary Fund voted Wednesday to approve $17 billion in loans for Ukraine, with conditions that will undoubtedly be felt as hardships by ordinary Ukrainians. Igor Burakovsky, head of the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting, said on Wednesday that Ukraine’s foreign debt amounts to $73.2 billion.
This includes several billion dollars — the exact amount is fiercely disputed — owed for deliveries of Russian natural gas on which Ukraine depends each winter, and which passes through its territory to European clients of the Russian gas concern Gazprom.
Unlike some of the militants now strutting Ukraine’s east, or other friends of Putin, the head of Gazprom, Alexei Miller, was not sanctioned this week by the United States or the 28-nation European Union, where at least 10 former Soviet bloc countries depend wholly or largely on Russian gas for heat and power.
Much is being rethought in Europe after Putin’s annexation of Crimea and continuing intervention in Ukraine. This week, Slovakia undertook to supply Ukraine with some natural gas.
For writers, said Zabuzhko, the events of the last five months have pushed on her and fellow authors the duty of serving as a secular moral authority in the absence of credible politicians. “I have a new profession,” she said, “for which I was not applying.” Ukrainians, she added, “are searching for stability and hope — they want a glimpse of hope.