The running joke in the Kyiv Post newsroom in February 2014 was how Russia would react after the months-long pro-democratic uprising ousted the pro-Kremlin president.

Viktor Yanukovych had fled to Russia and was now wanted for treason in Ukraine, but we were speculating that Moscow would probably cut off natural gas supplies to the country, as it had done in the past.

Instead, Russian soldiers with no military insignia appeared across the Crimean Peninsula, and within less than a month a sham referendum was held for the Kremlin to illegally annex the Crimean Autonomous Republic.

First blood was drawn there when the covert Russian invasion started in 2014. One Russian and one Ukrainian soldier were killed, and a joint funeral was held in Simferopol, the peninsula’s capital, in March of that year.

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We took turns from Kyiv on reporting trips at the start of the invasion, and mine came in April with a train trip to Donetsk, accompanied by a photographer.

By then, more people had died, mostly civilians in Donetsk who participated in pro-Kyiv protests and were attacked by Russians bused in from the Rostov-on-Don region. The regional oblast administration was occupied, and Russian citizen Denis Pushilin held a news conference in the building’s main chamber.

I attended it and he denied that the Kremlin was behind what was being called the “Russian Spring” by pro-Moscow bloggers and activists all across the southeastern part of the country, all the way to Odesa along the Black Sea.

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A Russian soldier without military insignia mans a bridge leading into the Donetsk regional town of Slovyansk on April 12, 2014. Photo Courtesy of Konstyantyn Chernichkin.

The following day, on April 12, 2014, I saw news that armed men had taken over the buildings of the district administration, main police station and security services in Slovyansk – it was former FSB Col. Igor Girkin and other Russian operatives.

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The photographer and I hired a local driver and went to Slovyansk. I headed to the local police headquarters where I was kicked in the buttocks and called a “Polish spy” by the local population for asking questions in Ukrainian.

After going around the block to get closer, I asked one of the armed men what their demands were as a I witnessed a Swedish journalist’s fixer get hauled in for questioning.

“It’s whatever the people want,” the presumed Russian mercenary said in response.

It just didn’t seem right that this was a grassroots, local uprising. Especially, since I took a long route back to Donetsk and drove through about a dozen cities in the span of 48 hours to see that a dozen or more towns were taken over almost synchronously.

They included Bakhmut (formerly Artemivsk), Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka, Makiyivka and so forth. Mariupol was also under covert Russian control, I learned through reliable contacts there from the Committee of Voters of Ukraine.

It was too orchestrated, too well-coordinated to be spontaneous, I thought. It must have been a planned invasion.

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In hindsight

While the Kremlin portrayed those fateful events as a “civil war,” a report published in April of this year by the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) says it was nothing but a covert Russian invasion.

This is not to say local collaborators weren’t part of what Russian propagandist media was calling a “rebellion.” They were seen as people who lived “on the margins of society,” pro-Kyiv Donbas residents would tell me. Some of those who backed Russia and took up arms, had in previous years attended militant summer camps in Russia.

The SCEEUS analysis states that although the war in the Donbas “was never a civil war in any meaningful sense of the word, the political conflict that preceded the war did have domestic roots.”

Thus, “it was local collaborators encouraged and supported – in part financially – by Moscow rather than Russian citizens dispatched to Ukraine by the Kremlin who dominated the scene.”

Still, public opinion polls conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, Razumkov Center and Democratic Initiatives all were showing that the majority of residents of Crimea and Donbas at that time were for a sovereign Ukraine and didn’t want to join Russia.

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Numerous journalists I knew kept writing, “rebels,” “militants,” or “pro-Russian activists,” in reference to Russians in plain sight.

Losing control

After getting back to my hotel room in Donetsk, I took another taxi ride to see that the city’s main police station had been taken over by Berkut riot police, the same ones I saw in Kyiv during the Revolution of Dignity.

I asked them why they had occupied it, to which I heard that police in Rostov-on-Don “make more money.”

The main Security Services (SBU) building had been dark, with no activity seen there since I had arrived in the city; my hotel was located about a block away and I persistently knocked on the door with no response.

It turned out that former SBU Alpha Group chief of the security agency in the region, Oleksandr Khodakovsky, had changed allegiance to the Russian side.

To this day Kyiv is still arresting or assassinating Russian collaborators.

Damaged residential high-rise in the Donbas, 2015. Photo Mark Raczkiewycz

It was a tumultuous time and difficult to make sense of the situation to send dispatches to Kyiv from Donetsk. At one point, my chief editor, Brian Bonner, called me and asked what my assessment was.

Under enormous stress, I just said that “Kyiv doesn’t control most of the [two easternmost regions of] Donbas anymore,” adding that I had accumulating evidence that Russians are behind the armed uprising.”

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The chief editor told me to head back to Kyiv, and I was probably one of the last people on a domestic flight before the Donetsk Airport was taken over by Russians.

The battle for the airport – whose Ukrainian defenders were labeled as “cyborgs” by swarms and waves of attacking Wagner mercenaries as well as Chechen and other Russian units – lasted from May 26, 2014 to January, 21, 2015.

At that time, Russia had what was called, “escalation dominance.” Whatever Kyiv did, Moscow could match and exceed it. Russia still has it as Ukraine gets drip-fed military assistance from its allies while Russia benefits from North Korean, Iranian and covert Chinese support.

I still remember adhering to an unwritten code of journalistic ethics and not calling out the numerous journalists I knew who kept writing, “rebels,” “militants,” or “pro-Russian activists,” in reference to Russians in plain sight.

A major US news agency even fired me for being “biased” because I kept writing they were invading Russians in disguise. But I kept writing my stories the way I saw them. With time, my reports were vindicated.

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The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post. 

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