East Ukraine's Rebels Dig In For The Long Haul

"The Russian bear is us."

DONETSK, Ukraine — Rebels occupying government buildings in eastern Ukraine say they have no intention of leaving unless the country's central government resigns, making a deal reached by diplomats in Geneva Thursday already look like a non-starter.

Denis Pushilin, head of the self-appointed "Donetsk People's Republic" that launched a wave of unrest when it seized the provincial government building here earlier this month, said at a press conference Friday that the deal was a "totally normal agreement, but it also applies to "the provisional government in Kiev. "They seized those buildings as well. We'll agree to leave after they do," he said.

The separatists' resolve to continue their occupation at least until May 11, when they plan to hold a vaguely defined referendum in Donetsk province, casts serious doubt on the viability of the Geneva agreement between the U.S., European Union, Russia, and Ukraine. Pushilin said Russia did not sign the deal on behalf of his group, which he claimed "had yet to enter the legal field."

The agreement says that all "illegally armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares, and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated." At no point, however, does it specify what groups these are or who is responsible for backing them. That allows rebels in Donetsk to equate their actions with protests and occupations in Kiev last winter that led to the ouster of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, now a refugee in Russia.

Kiev seems as far away as ever from ending the occupations after an attempt to send in the army humiliatingly collapsed within days this week and the talks provided no diplomatic levers on any of the parties. "The parties have broad latitude to interpret the provisions to suit their political agendas," Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert and vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said. "Each group is still able to keep doing what they did in the run-up to Geneva."

Ukrainian officials said after the Geneva agreement that they saw no need to withdraw their troops from hot spots in the east or end security forces' attempts to restore order. As diplomats negotiated, Russian President Vladimir Putin expounded at length during an annual phone-in on southeastern Ukraine's Tsarist-era ties to Russia and refused to rule out the possibility of armed intervention. Nor is Moscow bound by the agreement to remove its tacit support for the rebels, who Kiev and Western powers say receive financing, instructions, and training from Kremlin groups. Pushilin denied that his group enjoyed anything beyond "moral support" from Russians writing letters and said accusations of Kremlin financing were "rumors spread by the junta in Kiev."

The group's simple presence, however, goes a long way toward fulfilling what most analysts say is Moscow's goal in eastern Ukraine: creating a mirror image of the Kiev protests to undermine the new government and disrupt presidential elections scheduled for May 25. Russia has repeatedly emphasized that it views the escalating crisis as not just the consequence, but the mirror image of the unrest in Kiev, which prompted Putin to adopt an aggressive foreign policy unbound by international obligations.

"Now we hear calls for people in the southeast to hand over their weapons, but I tell my partners, 'That's a correct, wonderful call, but then haul the army away from the civilian population,'" Putin said during the phone-in. "Because they've gone totally out of their minds: tanks, armed personnel carriers — I see this on the television screen — they're dragging cannons. Who are they dragging cannons against? Have they totally lost it?"

The occupied Donetsk provincial government building, a staid and brutalist Soviet office complex decorated with plaques touting the region's industrial and mining prowess, recalls the Kiev protests down to the most idiosyncratic small details. A week and a half of no cleaning has lent it the stench of sweat and stale cigarette smoke permeating Soviet-era linoleum. Excitable masked young people eagerly take charge of security in doorways and on impromptu highway checkpoints, seemingly as much for the excitement of having something important to do as for practical purposes. Motley banners and flyers mock Yanukovych and the Kiev government. The low-key carnival atmosphere as local people drift in, out, and past the building differs little other than the musical choice, with Orange Revolution rock ballads switched for nostalgic stompers and Soviet oldies.

Despite the Russian flag flying outside many government buildings in Donetsk province, Yuri Temirov, a politics professor at Donetsk National University, said that the anti-Kiev groups were not so much of or for the Kremlin as serving its goals. "Local oligarchs and bosses created these anti-Kiev movements, but they seriously miscalculated, because these movements were exploited by the Kremlin," Temirov said. "They did all the Kremlin's dirty work to destabilize the situation. Then the Kremlin seized the initiative."

Alexander Khryakov, a leader of the self-appointed Donetsk Republic council, said that the rebels no longer saw occupying buildings as a goal in itself because they now enjoyed widespread popular support throughout the province. "Towns and villages are coming over in their entirety to the Donetsk Republic," he said. Khryakov thanked the European Union and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, Washington's lead diplomat on Ukraine, for "waking up the Russian bear" in Donetsk.

"The Russian bear isn't just, 'ooooooooooooooh,'" he said, making a scary ghost sound and waving his hands by his ears. "The Russian bear is us. We're standing for the position of all the aspirations of our people here."

What exactly those aspirations are is unclear. The Donetsk Republic claims it has been a de facto independent state since declaring independence April 7, even though the majority of local residents interviewed by BuzzFeed this week, as well as those polled in two surveys this month, support remaining a part of Ukraine. Pushilin said the Donetsk Republic's main goal was to work toward the referendum on "sovereignty" scheduled for May 11, but could not give BuzzFeed a straight answer about whether that entailed staying in Ukraine or not. "I don't rule it out!" he smirked as he headed for the doorway.

It was not even clear what the actual question on the referendum ballot was to be. Khryakov, a middle-aged man in a leather jacket with gold-tinted glasses and a barrel-shaped beer belly, claimed that teams of lawyers were painstakingly going over its wording, which he said relied on changing day-to-day public opinion shaped by Kiev's attempt to stamp out the uprising in a bumbling "anti-terrorist operation."

Khryakov would not answer repeated questions about whether that entailed a choice between staying in Ukraine with expanded powers, becoming an independent state, or joining Russia, and appeared flummoxed when asked why the men had seized the building in the first place if they did not have a concrete goal. "I want to go back to the USSR," he said. "The USSR means that there was nothing wrong with the fact that people lived there and we're going to take all the good stuff there."

It may not even matter whether or not the rebel groups are continuing to act as Moscow's pawns, since their mere presence is so disruptive for the Kiev government. "You can't hold elections under conditions like this," Weiss, the Carnegie analyst said. "And if you do hold them, their outcome is questionable and their legitimacy is challenged."

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