Rebel Stronghold in Ukraine Braces for Its Showdown

Posted by Chris Morales on Fri, Jul 18, 2014 @ 09:59 AM

The Morales Law Firm would like to share this article: Rebel Stronghold in Ukraine Braces for Its Showdown published by the Wall Street Journal. 

DONETSK, Ukraine—In a city filled to the brim with pro-Russia insurgents bracing for a showdown with the Ukrainian military, public transport continues to run, state pensions are paid, parks are impeccably tended and the municipal water supply is being restored.

Much of that is because Donetsk, despite hosting a separatist movement hostile to all things Ukrainian, still has its popular, elected mayor, who has kept his job by refusing to take sides.

Alexander Lukyachenko, a civil engineer by training, has focused instead on maintaining essential services in this vibrant city of a million residents. "I don't do politics," he says.

All around him, the facade of normalcy is crumbling, as Donetsk descends deeper into the vortex of separatist forces that have upended life in parts of eastern Ukraine.

More fighters flooded into Donetsk over the weekend after losing smaller towns to a Ukrainian military offensive. They joined the already vast bureaucracy that has ballooned since the separatist Donetsk People's Republic was proclaimed two months ago.

On Monday, Mr. Lukyanchenko went to Kiev to meet with President Petro Poroshenko, and says he received assurances that Donetsk wouldn't be bombed. Kiev has said its forces will try to flush the rebels out by blockading the city and using targeted artillery strikes.

Daily life had already been getting steadily worse for weeks. Murders, kidnappings and thefts are all up.

There was a murder a day in the first week of July alone, according to the mayor's office. Cars get stolen so often that people are afraid to drive. Most crimes go unsolved, because there are few investigators at work. The city police have changed into civilian clothes, and many left town after three traffic cops were shot dead. Many of those who remain are preoccupied with their own safety.

There is no indication that street crime is condoned by the separatist leadership. In fact, it would be a major misstep to further antagonize civilians, many of whom privately express their anger at the rebels and the upheaval they've brought to Donetsk.

Some groups, operating under the separatist banner or composed of criminals temporarily allied with the rebel cause, have created an environment of "revolutionary banditry," says Miroslav Rudenko, a separatist official.

Disappearances are a particular problem, as each one triggers a scramble by the victim's relatives and friends to figure out who might be holding the missing person.

A case in point is Sergey Kulbaka, a priest of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic church in Donetsk, who has been missing since July 3.

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Orthodox in ritual but part of the Catholic hierarchy, the church has long been a bugbear for some Russian nationalists who consider it a heretical offshoot, and a beacon of Ukrainian nationalism to boot. Mr. Kulbaka's car had recently been spay-painted with slurs.

Yuri Yurchuk, a fellow priest, has been trying to find him, an urgent task because Mr. Kulbaka, known to his congregation as Father Tihkon, suffers from diabetes and heart problems.

On Tuesday, after hearing nothing from police, Mr. Yurchuk got word that his colleague might be in the hands of a separatist paramilitary outfit known as the Russian Orthodox Army. The group admits to holding some prisoners in a former Ukrainian state-security compound in Donetsk.

But in an interview, an Orthodox Army representative denied they had Mr. Kulbaka. "We don't have any priests here, just drug addicts, drunks, Ukrainian national-guard members and other subversives," he said.

Mr. Yurchuk's colleagues next went to the headquarters of the separatist internal-security unit, but got no answers there either.

By late evening, Mr. Yurchuk finally got a piece of encouraging news through an informal network of intermediaries: Mr. Kulbaka was alive and should soon be released from separatist detention.

If so, he would be lucky. "There are people who've been imprisoned for a very long time, and I have no idea what's happening to them," says Enrique Menendez, a Donetsk advertising executive who has started a grass-roots group to track down missing persons.

So far, Mr. Menendez, who is part Spanish, has helped win the freedom of several detainees, mostly through a chain of phone calls. Still, he has no idea how many others are out there, or been able to gain access to any to deliver food or medical aid.

Mr. Lukyanchenko, 66 years old and in his third term as mayor, is the most senior Ukrainian official left in town. The Kiev-appointed governor was driven out long ago by the separatists and now shuttles between Kiev and Mariupol, a port city an hour from Donetsk that isn't under rebel control.

The mayor's trip to Kiev prompted speculation that he had fled, but he showed up back for work early the next morning. He has been busy trying to fix the pump stations on the canal that supplies water to Donetsk, which had been damaged in the fighting.

Mr. Lukyanchenko has been viewed with suspicion by both sides: by the separatists who rightly don't consider him one of their own, merely a necessary technocrat; and by some in Kiev who consider him a collaborator.

He hopes the two sides will negotiate a peaceful solution, a scenario that seems unlikely at the moment.

Two miles away, several hundred newly arrived rebels have taken up residence in a dormitory. One gunman, who's fought in most of the flash points of the east Ukrainian insurgency, says there was a dispute the other day over dividing a shipment of flak jackets and other gear from Moscow—such aid continues to trickle in from Russia.

He also said the rebels have had a hard time recently recruiting local volunteers—the man himself is a Ukrainian citizen and a former factory worker. There was a sense among his fellow rebels that there is no turning back. "We won't lay down our weapons, because we will all be hunted down and eventually killed," he said.

Write to Philip Shishkin at

Tags: criminals, victim, crime, imprisoned, suspicion