To properly understand the conflict in Ukraine, the recent histories of two cities are worthy of examination. Those cities are Kharkiv and Slovyansk.
Three years ago, in early May of 2014, a small number of people gathered on Kharkiv’s central square, next to where the Lenin monument then stood. There were probably between 200 and 300 people there, and those people were fully entitled to be exercising their democratic right to peaceful assembly to express their pro-Russian opinions.
Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second largest city. It has a population of over 1.4 million people, and is located just 30 kilometers from the Russian border. The day-to-day language used there, predominantly, is Russian. If Ukraine’s conflict was centred around language divisions, or if there was any correlation between proximity to Russia and desire to be part of Russia, Kharkiv surely should have followed the path of Donetsk and Luhansk, right?
In the wake of the anti-corruption revolution, which was centred in Kyiv but also saw protests in Kharkiv, people who formed part of the old guard, people who benefitted from the old ways, weighed their options very carefully. The city and oblast of Kharkiv had been run by the tandem of the city mayor and regional governor for some time, that tandem consisted of Gennady Kernes, the mayor, and Mykhalo Dobkin, the governor.
After the revolution, the attempted land grabs underway in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk were branded with the now-disgraced symbol of the St. George Ribbon. Once, rightfully, an object of great pride, the St. George Ribbon was deployed by the Kremlin in Ukraine in early 2014 in an attempt to equate the Nazis of World War II with the post-Maidan leadership of Ukraine. Mayor Kernes and Governor Dobkin flirted with the symbol as early as Feb. 22, 2014 the very day that former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. The weekends of March and April of 2014 were filled with violence in Kharkiv, as busloads of people came across the border from Russia to demand a referendum on a “Kharkiv People’s Republic.”
At one point during these weekends of unrest a theatre was occupied – the geniuses that took over the building thought it was some kind of local administration building, proving that they were without doubt from out of town.
Eventually, Kernes and Dobkin needed to make a choice, and calculated (no doubt based purely on their own interests, and it is worth noting at this point that both men have a reputation in the city for being involved in illegal or corrupt practices and/or organized crime) that they would be better off not pursuing the path towards separatism.
There is every possibility that Dobkin was instructed to follow a different path on Russia’s behalf. On March 25 he announced that he was standing in the race to replace Yanukovych as Ukraine’s president, the candidate for what was left of Yanukovych’s Moscow-friendly Party of Regions. Dobkin campaigned under pledges to reorganize Ukraine into a federalized structure, something that was very much Russia’s most persistent demand around that time, because federalism would have handed Russia a permanent veto on Ukraine’s future development and associations.
On April 28, Mayor Gennady Kernes was shot in the back. On May 25, Dobkin got 3.03 percent of the vote in the presidential race. On Oct. 26, 2014, Dobkin became a member of the national parliament, elected as third on the party list of the new Opposition Bloc party that Yanukovych’s former advisor, the U.S. political consultant Paul Manafort helped to create. On Oct. 25, 2015, Kernes was re-elected as the mayor of Kharkiv.
In general, Kharkiv is a peaceful city, Lenin no longer broods over the massive central square – his statue was pulled down on Sept. 28, 2014. Although there is clearly some pro-Russian sentiment in the city, there was a time when the streets of Kharkiv were actually one of the foremost battlegrounds for the survival of the state of Ukraine.
The peace in Kharkiv is broken from time to time by bombings, the worst of which happened when a Ukrainian Unity march was targeted one year to the day after Yanukovych fled Ukraine. Among the four people who were killed that day was a boy of just 15.
There was a time when Slovyansk was ground zero for the entire conflict in eastern Ukraine. It was the first city to be seized by the group of heavily armed and masked men who then later set about taking control of city halls, police stations, security buildings and TV broadcasting towers across Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. At the time that Slovyansk was taken, there was no war in the city of Donetsk: There was no need, as it was assumed by the Russian-backed groups that with Slovyansk as a forward operating base, the main city itself was safe.
When war came to Slovyansk, it was a surprise to the residents of the city. One lady filmed the storming of the police station from her kitchen window. In the video, her husband is heard telling her that with dozens of men with automatic weapons present in the street below, it might be wise to move away from the window. “This is funny…” she responds.
Slovyansk is home to nearly 120,000 people. It lies 80 miles north of the city of Donetsk, 100 miles to the west of Luhansk, and 110 miles to the southeast of Kharkiv. The location between these three major cities is probably all the information needed to explain why Slovyansk was chosen as the launch point for the war, target number one. Within days of the key infrastructure buildings being taken by the men with guns, the city was turned into a fortress, and all major entry and exit points were sealed off. None of this was the work of a vast collective effort of the people of Slovyansk, it happened in spite of them, and not because of them.
Slovyansk was occupied for a total of almost four months. On July 5 the forces led by Russian army officer Igor Girkin (nom de guerre “Strelkov,” who is now living again in Moscow) withdrew from Slovyansk and made Donetsk their base. During the months of occupation, eight European members of an observer mission operating under the auspices of the OSCE were kidnapped and held there for a week. The people who took control of Slovyansk also had no problem with arresting and holding journalists trying to report on what was really going on, and who was really behind these events – journalists like Simon Ostrovsky, then reporting for Vice News, who was held in the Slovyansk Security Service building for several days.
With the fog of war being deliberately fanned to cover the tracks of what was happening, reporting at the time (example one, example two, of many) invariably described Slovyansk as “rebel-held.” However, we now know this city wasn’t held by “rebels” at all – it had been captured by outside forces, and after the foreigner visitors left, the city returned to a peaceful existence as part of Ukraine, as it always had been.
There was one more twist in the Slovyansk story to come: After the Russian forces amassed there suffered a military defeat, Russian propaganda purveyors tried to salvage something from the loss of the city, and, in a story that only truly sick minds could even dream up, Russian State run TV station Channel One aired a fake report, containing an falsified eye witness interview, that a three-year-old child had been crucified by the Ukrainian army as they entered the town.
Some of Russia’s propaganda is intended to deceive, but much of it is intended to stoke hatred, and the only purpose of stoking such hatred at that time was to continue the war that was brought to Slovyansk, and to a degree to Kharkiv too, by outside forces.
The gathering of just a few hundred people next to the Lenin monument in Kharkiv three years ago shows that the events there were not the result of local agency. The withdrawal from Slovyansk is absolute proof that the events there were not the actions of the local people. The peace now reigning in both places prove that this entire conflict was manufactured from day one, ordered by Russia, staffed by Russians, equipped by Russia, and supported by Russian propaganda and lies.
The only mood of anger and resentment in Ukraine was at the disgusting levels of corruption that plagued the lives of ordinary people, and that’s why there was a revolution – and that’s what frightens Vladimir Putin
The Russian president’s fears played a critical role in his miscalculations. There was no mood of anger or resentment between the people of east Ukraine and their fellows in the center and west of the country. There was no internal foundation for this conflict.
And Slovyansk and Kharkiv teach us that, regardless of the best (war mongering) efforts of Russia, this truth is self-evident.