PCHOLKINO, Ukraine — Standing on the hood of an armored personnel carrier as his ashen-faced paratroopers slumped behind him, Col. Alexander Shvets of Ukraine's 25th Airborne reported back to command on a cheap cell phone.
"We've been taken captive. They used dirty tricks," he said. The hundreds of local residents and ragtag militiamen that had surrounded his column of 13 APCs throughout Wednesday bayed. "Look," he continued, losing his patience. "I've been surrounded by a human shield of 500 people all day. You don't know what you're fucking talking about."
As the sun set, Shvets and his men — many of whom were reservists called up to help Ukraine regain control of the eastern province of Donetsk from anti-government rebel groups — were allowed to drive back to their base in neighboring Dnipropetrovsk. The day they spent here outside the small town of Kramatorsk, hemmed in by angry residents, was emblematic of the Ukrainian central government's withering attempt to assert control in the East, now in tatters. With instructions only to guard an airfield they had secured the day before, Shvets' troops pulled up by a railway crossing after locals mobbed to prevent them moving on to nearby Slovyansk, the epicenter of unrest that swept the province over the weekend. Afraid to open fire on their fellow citizens, the paratroopers simply sat around.
Eventually, they were allowed to leave — but not before dismantling their weapons.
Ukraine's "anti-terrorist operation" against anti-government rebels has proved a spectacular debacle. Soldiers refused to move in on rebel-held positions. The rebels captured six APCs, drove the soldiers into Slovyansk flying the Russian flag, and sent them back on dingy buses, dejected, disarmed, and defeated. Self-appointed "self-defense" commanders who couldn't even agree on which one of them was in charge disarmed and defeated Ukraine's army.
On the eve of talks in Geneva between Ukraine, Russia, the U.S., and the European Union on the country's crisis, Kiev seems to have proven many of the points the Kremlin and its propaganda machine have rammed home for weeks. Eastern Ukraine is in chaos, and Kiev's central government has no power over large parts of it. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov acts deaf to protesters' demands, and frightens them with force. Moscow's calls for a federalized Ukraine with special status for the Russian-speaking Southeast, which Kiev and its Western backers decried as tantamount to breakup only weeks ago, now seem inevitable.
The debacle began Wednesday morning, when several of the APCs that helped secure the airfield in Kramatorsk the day before rolled into town and were confronted by local residents.
Within hours, six of them rumbled into nearby Slovyansk, flying the Russian flag.
By mid-afternoon, four of the APCs were parked on Slovyansk's main square next to playgrounds where children frolicked. Masked men in fatigues carrying automatic weapons drifted in and out of the occupied city hall.
Some of them lolled about on park benches.
Others posed for photos with local residents.
One even did tricks.
Ukrainian and Western officials say the "men in green" — so called because they don't wear insignia and won't say where they come from, as if they landed from Mars — are Russian special forces, including some who seized Crimea in March. Some of the men to whom BuzzFeed spoke admitted to being from Crimea, but denied any Russian ties and differed in some crucial aspects from their Crimean counterparts. Their uniforms were a different color and not worn by all; some of them also seemed to have brought their own shoes.
Ascertaining how exactly the rebels had taken control of the APCs, as with much information during this phase of the crisis, was difficult. Ukraine's defense ministry kept silent about the capture all day — one official even claimed the Ukrainian soldiers had gone to Slovyansk under a false flag operation — before finally admitting their loss, which they blamed on "Russian diversion terrorist groups." Rebels told BuzzFeed that the Ukrainian soldiers were angered by Turchynov's order to move in on them and had given them their vehicles and weaponry as a gift.
The 40 or so soldiers BuzzFeed found being held captive behind city hall in mid-afternoon, however, said they had not defected and refused to explain how they had wound up under the guard of ragtag militiamen with machine guns. "It's a long story," one of them said, shrugging his shoulders as he reclined against his pack. Eventually, rebels ordered the men to line up and marched them to two decrepit buses waiting by the square. A few dozen locals, many of whom were evidently not observing the dry law declared the day before, formed a tunnel for them to walk through, cheering and clapping. Humiliated and disarmed, the men filed onto the buses and drove off.
It was unclear whether Kiev, which has announced several operations and ultimatums in recent days that it has failed to follow through on, actually made any other attempts to drive out the rebels. Militiamen at a barricade outside Slovyansk where gunfire was heard claimed they had come under attack from a group of five men in black with no insignia. The men gave widely differing accounts of what had happened: Some described it as a drive-by shooting, while others claimed the men in black slipped through trees in the nearby forest before fleeing. They believed nobody on either side was hurt. One of the APCs now flying the flag of one of the rebel groups behind the uprising drove around behind a field.
In Donetsk, a group of men claiming to be from Oplot, a paramilitary group of mixed martial artists, seized city hall Wednesday morning. The group is believed to have ties to Russian groups and former president Viktor Yanukovych, who pro-Kremlin figures claim may soon make an imminent return from Russia to Donetsk, his old stomping grounds. Yanukovych's former party, the Party of Regions, has disowned him, however, and called at an emergency conference in Donetsk for rebels to give up all government buildings.
Back at Pcholkino, it was clear that the irregulars were now running the show. More roadblocks sprung up throughout the highway between Slovyansk and Donetsk, the provincial capital, though their purpose seemed less to check for saboteurs than to give the people manning them something to do. A priest who gave his name as Igor remonstrated with the paratroopers. "Slavic people are never against each other. God is one and we Orthodox people should be as one," he said. "Bros, think with your head, not what's between your legs." The men did not react.
The locals surrounding it said they had spontaneously gathered after noticing the column of APCs and, for the most part, displayed little hostility toward the men. "They don't want to shoot us and we don't wish them any harm," Gurgen Arutyunyan, 32, said. "Donetsk has been protesting for two months trying to get its idea across, and all they do in response is send in the army. We don't want to go to Russia — we want to live on our own terms — but if they take more action like this, then of course people will turn to Russia for protection."
Asked what they wanted, nearly all the protesters made identical demands mirroring those voiced on Russian television for weeks about a federalized Ukraine. That, many commentators say, suggests Moscow's goal may be to destabilize Kiev's government, which it says is illegitimate, and disrupt presidential elections set for May 25 to help bring a more favorable candidate to power. In any event, the protesters appeared to have succeeded in bypassing Kiev's ban on Russian state television, which it shut off last month. Many of them would not talk to BuzzFeed without assurances this reporter was not secretly working for oligarch and presidential favorite Petro Poroshenko's Channel 5, which is seen as having supported protests in Kiev against Yanukovych last winter.
Even some of the soldiers seemed affronted by Kiev's mixed messages and failure to address the concerns of eastern provinces. "Some people say one thing, others another — it just leads to clashing heads with locals. I don't know whom to believe anymore," Dima, 27, a reservist, said. "The only thing we are scared of is armed conflict with the locals. We are not scared of the Russian army," he added.
As the paratroopers sat idly on the stalled APCs, a helicopter, a fighter jet, and a cargo plane took turns flying over the crowd, but no help came. Locals brought the paratroopers pots of jam and stew while self-appointed heads of local self-defense groups argued about who was in charge and what to do with them. Some wanted to send them back to base; others wanted to send them to Slovyansk, take their weapons and vehicles, and drive them to Dnipropetrovsk on a bus. Eventually, masked "green men" with obvious special forces training arrived from Slovyansk and parted the crowd. One by one, the APCs trundled slowly off into the dark — though not without handing over the firing pins from their rifles first. They didn't have much of a choice.
"They took an oath to the people of Ukraine. And we're the people," one of the "self-defense" commanders, who gave his name as Valera, said. "They can't change sides — they're on our side."