The Battle For Eastern Ukraine

"Do you want your right hand to be joined to your body? This is all Russian land."

Stringer / Reuters

DONETSK, Ukraine — On Wednesday night in Donetsk, a city of nearly 1 million in eastern Ukraine, the building that houses the regional government was occupied by pro-Russia protesters yet again. They considered it the symbolic heart of their resistance to the new government in Kiev, having retaken the building from police in the afternoon. As midnight approached, past the civilian guards at an entrance lined with broken glass, some wandered the darkened halls or found quiet corners and went to sleep.

More than 250 miles away, Crimea was swarming with Russian soldiers and edging closer to joining Moscow. Activists in the building said they wanted Donetsk to do the same. Like much of eastern Ukraine, it shares close ties with Russia, and people like Alexey Yuzovksy, a 37-year-old engineer, wanted to make them official, as in Soviet times. "Do you want your right hand to be joined to your body? That's the context we're speaking in," he said, wearing a leather jacket and thick muttonchops, and using a pseudonymous last name because he feared arrest. "This is all Russian land."

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed troops in Crimea last week, observers from Kiev to Washington have warned that he might turn his sights next to the country's east, where a Russian incursion would ratchet up global tensions exponentially. Fears were stoked by the fact that Putin floated the idea of sending troops to all of Ukraine, not just Crimea, when he sought war powers from his pliant upper house of parliament, the Federation Council.

That made the street wrangling between pro- and anti-Russia crowds in Donetsk — and to the colors of the flag flying above the contested government building there — seem like they might signal which way the region would head.

It also turned the spotlight in Donetsk to a local businessman named Pavel Gubarev, who emerged as the face to the city's pro-Russia movement when he declared himself the "people's governor" and led the first charge on the government building last week.

Gubarev and his supporters are wary of the new powers in Kiev, and of the protest movement that saw them installed, with its base in western Ukraine. And they have called for a referendum on the region's fate. Gubarev has made clear that he wants reunion with Russia to be the result.

With Ukraine's economy in tatters and its politics mired in turmoil, many in Donetsk pine for Soviet times, nostalgic for the big ideas, drawn in by the cultural affinity, and sick of what they see as years of stagnation. Anatoly Gubsky, 63, an electrician by trade, framed the issue that way as he sat in a dark corner of the government building on Wednesday. "After more than 20 years of perestroika, and of constantly changing presidents, we haven't seen any positive change in our lives," he said. "It's better to live in a big country like we had before."

But others touting the idea of reunifying with Russia seemed less serious about seeing it carried out — hoping to use it instead as a way to win concessions from the fledgling government in Kiev, with tough rhetoric seen as one tool in the fight to leverage more autonomy.

"Russia has always been attractive for our region," said Tatyana Marmazova, a deputy in Donetsk's city council and local member of the Party of Regions, which was headed by the Donetsk-born president and Moscow ally, Viktor Yanukovych, before he was ousted last month. "It's not just about economic relations and industry, but also mentality. Russia is also attractive because Russia has stability."

Marmazova has long been an outspoken proponent of federalism for Donetsk, which would see authority devolved from Kiev — a controversial idea that critics say would badly weaken Ukraine, as well as potentially open the region to even more influence from Moscow. She said the idea would quell much of the instability that Ukraine faces now. She also expressed measured support for Gubarev, saying that his ideas were strong, though his methods were suspect.

Asked whether having people like Gubarev pushing union with Russia helped position federalism as a potential compromise, she replied: "Probably. It could be. I can't change my position. But if the majority of people vote to join Russia, I would be glad."

Sergey Bogachov, another local Party of Regions official and the secretary of Donetsk's city council, was harsher in his assessment of Gubarev: "I think he's playing to the mob." On the talk of joining Russia, he said, "I think this is unreal, and it's immature."

Gubarev, for his part, seemed to take the Russia talk seriously — and much of the intrigue surrounding him came because he put the idea so starkly on the table, his professional wrestling-style moniker and aggressive street tactics inviting people to tune in and see how it played out.

He also raised a pressing question amid the power vacuum that has opened in Ukraine since Yanukovych's ouster: How would the authorities respond?

On Thursday morning, police cleared the activists from the government building, retaking control. Rumor also had it that Gubarev had been arrested. Sitting at his desk in the city council building, Maxim Rovinskiy, head of the department of public affairs, was looking at Gubarev's Facebook page, waiting for news. "There is no official word," he said. "We should know soon."

Rovinskiy said there were two competing forces in the city: the pro-Ukraine crowd, which mostly supported the new government and was aggressively opposed to secession, and which had been turning out in the streets in increasing numbers. Those people were mostly from Donetsk, he said. Then there was the pro-Russia faction, headed by Gubarev, made up of people "from the whole region." Addressing rumors that some protesters had come in from Russia, he said, "maybe. We don't know."

Whatever the influence from Russia, much of Gubarev's support also clearly came from Donetsk, Rovinskiy added. "He is really [politically] talented. And he is saying what people want to hear," he said. "Gubarev is saying that he will protect the people from those who won in Kiev. And that if we want to be winners, we have to be with Russia."

Then a link popped up on Gubarev's Facebook page, showing that he was still on the loose. "He is broadcasting live right now," Rovinskiy said, as Gubarev appeared on a live-streamed interview with a Russian reporter, saying he had not yet been arrested and vowing that he was not afraid.

Before the current crisis, Gubarev, who runs an advertising agency, was known around Donetsk as a passionate civic activist. He and his wife have raised money for causes such as building playgrounds for children, and he has also been honored as a dedicated blood donor. His pro-Russia politics were also readily apparent; he had a history in hardline pro-Russia politics dating back at least to 2004. "He was very strong in his political views," said Enrique Menendes, who also runs an ad agency in Donetsk and has known Gubarev for several years. Whenever politics came up in conversation, Menendes added, Gubarev usually became "aggressive."

But Menendes, who has been helping to organize pro-Ukraine protests in Donetsk, said that he wasn't aware of the extent of his colleague's hardline tilt until he paid him a business call recently. "Ah, you're asking me about business?" Mendendes remembered Gubarev saying. "Business is bullshit, and Donetsk is going to Russia."

"The man has a clear position, and he believes in it," Menendes said, adding that, like many in Donetsk, he was firmly against Gubarev's ideas. "He has real support too, not only from outside powers, but also from the people here."

Soon after, Gubarev's aides called some reporters to an apartment building in town. When they arrived, so did a long column of agents clad in full riot gear — members of the Security Service of Ukraine, the national government force tasked with counterintelligence and combating terrorism. It was the government's answer to the question of how it would respond to Gubarev, and perhaps a warning shot to other agitators for secession in eastern Ukraine. As he was brought, handcuffed, from the apartment, Gubarev smiled and winked.

Standing outside, one of his aides, a 46-year-old named Andrei who also worked as a cameraman for a local TV station, said he wasn't aware of the charges, but that they were probably for "separatism."

"I think they use the word 'separatism' in a negative sense," he said. "We can call it natural right to self-determination."

When asked how he himself would vote in a potential referendum, though, Andrei had a different answer: federalism. "The main thing that unites the people supporting Pavel is a desire for justice," he said.



A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.