How the Donetsk Region was “Occupied”: as Recalled by Donetsk Residents

DONETSK – The international media now rarely report on the developments in Ukraine. Their agenda is occupied by other issues of importance such as the refugee crisis or the latest updates on the U.S. presidential race of 2016. Yet the conflict in Ukraine continues to be fought.

When I went to Ukraine this winter, the ongoing conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions was the main topic of discussion. Updates on the conflict also frequently appeared on national and local media. The frequency with which the conflict was mentioned, however, was not what surprised me. Instead, it was the personal account of two Donetsk residents of how Donetsk was occupied in the first place. Now that almost two years have passed since the Donetsk People’s Republic was established on 7 April 2014 and Ukraine is losing parts of its territory, the time has come to reflect and question the manner in which the occupation of Donetsk actually happened.

This article is a recollection of the occupation of the city of Donetsk and the Donetsk region as told by two Donetsk residents. Both were present in the city at the time of the occupation. In order to protect their safety, we have withheld their names. This is their story:

Photograph: Yevgen Nasadyuk

‘The occupation of Donetsk and the proclamation of the Donetsk People’s Republic occurred suddenly and without much resistance. On 7 April 2014, around 500 members of the local police surrounded the state administration to protect it from outside forces. Later that day, around 100 members of the tutishki, the special forces affiliated with Russia and also responsible for shooting at protesters during EuroMaidan, approached the state administration. Although greatly outnumbering the tutishki, the Ukrainian government bureaucrats immediately surrendered. Two or three days later the Ukrainian police force as well as state security forces handed their guns to the tutishki, who were at the time led by Pavel Gubarev, a pro-Russian activist who soon proclaimed himself the governor of the People’s Republic.’

This eyewitness account of the state administration’s occupation evokes some questions. Were the Ukrainian forces given orders to surrender without battle? Was their reaction perhaps pre-determined?

‘A few days following the surrender of the Donetsk state administration, regional administrations also quickly fell into the titushki’s hands. Forces called “Oplot” (also the nickname of Ukraine’s main battle tank – ed.) surrounded both the Donetsk state administration and regional administrations. Surprisingly, members of Oplot did not attempt to disrupt the occupied state administrations. Instead, it cooperated with the existing government. In exchange, the mayor of Donetsk, Oleksandr Lukanchenko, showed his support for the forces, promising to help them carry out the referendum on the establishment of the Donetsk People’s Republic. The referendum took place on the 11th of May. The mayor fled the city in July when Igor Girkin, a Russian insurgent responsible for the occupation of Crimea, entered the Donetsk region.’

‘Being occupied by titushki and then protected by Oplot, the Republic was eventually transferred to Girkin. At the time based in Slovyansk, Girkin managed to travel, accompanied by tanks, 120 kilometres to Donetsk without being stopped by Ukrainian security forces. In fact, his arrival was warmly welcomed by the state administration. Shortly after this, on the 26th of August, both the Russian army, also with tanks, entered the Donetsk region.’

This personal recollection of Donetsk’s occupation left me in disbelief. As a student of political science and international politics, I am well aware of the fact that politicians often engage in games of their own. We know there have been negotiations between Ukrainian President Poroshenko, Putin, Obama and Merkel. However, for the next few decades, we will be kept in the dark about the specifics. We can only speculate on the extent to which

Donetsk was really occupied. What we do have now are raw facts, which raise many questions, but we can only deliberate on the extent to which Donetsk was really occupied.