In the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a surge in viewers from the UK, Europe as my Brexit reportage has gained some traction.
And with that, followers come to Twitter, viewers scroll through my videos, and a question arises for, judging by comments, a not inconsiderable number ‘what’s with all this Ukraine thing‘. So, as concisely as possible, in 10 points, here we go –
1. I lived in Kiev, Ukraine, for a couple of years, from 2011-13 (I went there to work as a journalist pre Euro-2012, working mainly at What’s On magazine), and Odessa from summer 2013 until spring 2014, visiting almost every part of the country in my time there. When Euromaidan started, in November 2013, I immediately recognised far-right factions I’d covered in my time in Kiev, behind it. Pictured, Oleg Tyagnibok of Ukrainian neo-Nazi party Svoboda, who I’d done a lot of reporting on in my time in Kiev.
2. The above, plus knowing that Euromaidan didn’t represent the whole country of Ukraine (always divided broadly along west, ethnic Ukrainian, east, Russian, centre, a mixture) meant from the very start, I didn’t support it. As almost all the western media did, this limited my employment options. When I got a surprise offer to do some work with Russia Today, RT (who’d seen my blogs on the theme), I went with it. RT back then, isn’t as we think of RT today, and back then it gave me the opportunity to report things as I saw them.
3. Euromaidan powered along, fuelled by US money. I went to film it in January of 2014, and was aghast at what I saw (above, pictured) – at the core, a mob of radicals and hangers along, powered along by external finance, external stirring, western media condemnation of police taking any action, description of a molotov-throwing mob as ‘peaceful protesters‘, and a gulled central, and western, Ukrainian middle class taking daytrips down there for a part of the ‘revolution experience‘.
4. My time on Maidan filled me with a deep foreboding of what was to come next. But, I headed back to Odessa, hoped it would pass, hoped the country I was very fond of, had written articles defending pre Euro-2012, would somehow find a way to avoid the disaster which Euromaidan had made me sure it was hurtling towards.
That didn’t happen, president Yanukovych (pictured, unpopular with many, but under him Ukraine had been stable) was overthrown, the mob took over, a wave of destruction, disorder and mob rule followed (yet, the western press glossed over the violence by protesters, accentuated that by police, and passed off a violent overthrow of government as a ‘revolution of dignity‘), and action spread, including to Odessa, where I started filming that for my YouTube channel.
I also went to Crimea, and filmed the reality of the situation there – an ethnic Russian population now under real threat from the new Kiev powers, with their stringent anti-Russian agenda (shape of things to come? Parliament was hastily convened after Euromaidan just to repeal the 2012 law giving the Russian language official status) , holding a referendum to reunite with Russia, something which was done, I covered, and which reflected the huge will of the people.
Were Russian forces there? Of course, Russian forces were there, the Black Sea Fleet (pictured), and Russia had an allowance of up to 25,000 troops in any case. Without them, Crimea would surely have seen the same scenes of chaos as Kiev. When it came to polling day, referendum in Crimea, the ‘little green men‘ of which the western media fixated, were actually nowhere to be seen.
5. Around this time, my own position, in being vocal in criticism of Euromaidan, had negatively impacted on the corporate teaching business, and life I’d built up in Odessa. And not just me, as I witnessed any number of Facebook arguments between those Ukrainians who had formerly been friends, now Maidan-polarized. With my business coming apart, I took a sabbatical and took off around the east of Ukraine, filming street interviews to see what people were really feeling at that time –
I had started, and then concluded that trip in Crimea – at referendum time – early March 2014, then March 16th.
I didn’t see any other western correspondents there on referendum day, despite press access being easy. In any case, I was the only one there going into polling stations, speaking to people. And I filmed a Crimean referendum which reflected the will of the vast majority of people on the peninsula. The rest of the Ukraine I’d visited around this time? Tense, fracturing, coming apart. No one knew exactly what to expect, all hoped there wouldn’t be war. Crimea, on the other hand – optimism, and hopes for a future, as part of Russia (which, historically, it always had been, only given to Ukraine by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954 in a gesture never expected to have any real significance, given it was all the Soviet Union).
6. I returned to Odessa, but things were clearly moving, in flux. I had already shut up shop there, as far as work was concerned, instead spending time filming the ever-escalating demos in the city, just for myself actually, I never offered, and RT never asked for this although we were still doing interviews via Skype. Anyway, in early April, a travel blockade of sorts was imposed between Ukraine and Russia – Ukraine, effectively stopped letting in Russian journalists, at least male ones, finding pretence to turn them back at the border.
With action escalating, not able to get anyone there, RT called and offered me a week’s correspondent work in Donetsk, so on 7th April, I made the 700+km drive from Odessa to Donetsk. (Photo, Nikolaev, en route)
7. What was happening in Donetsk, and other parts of Donbass, was both similar to, and the opposite of Euromaidan. Similar, in as much as many of the same tactics were being deployed – activists taking over administrative buildings, cheered on by crowds of locals. See here, as things began in Donetsk –
But it was different in that this was anti-Euromaidan. These people wanted not Europe, but Russia. And they found a western media which didn’t describe them as ‘peaceful protesters’ etc as on Maidan, but as ‘masked men‘ and ‘terrorists‘…
8. I was mostly based in Slavyansk in April, May, though travelling all around the Donbass region. I watched, and reported on, the situation turn from a conflict, into a war. And, why did that happen? Kiev refused to in any way negotiate with Donbass, the breakaway republics, instead the newly appointed ‘Euromaidan government’, unelected, but installed with widespread western backing, again backed by the west in this, sent in not the president, prime minister (Turchynov and Yatsenyuk, pictured, with John Kerry), or negotiators, but in mid-April, sent the army into Donbass. Ukrainian forces began by taking up positions around the towns and cities under DPR control, in Donbass. Through April, Donbass saw an increasing escalation of incidents, a car shot with passengers killed, the army moving positions closer. May of 2014 began with pro-Russia activists in Odessa being burned alive after an attack by pro-Ukrainian activists. This triggered an immediate, sharp escalation in Donbass, with Ukrainian forces then making attacks on Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, and more.
9. The above, and further antagonism from Kiev after referendum results on May 11th delivered a vast majority in favour of breaking away from Ukraine, saw the situation escalate during May of 2014. The election of Petro Poroshenko (pictured) as president on May 25th, and his pledge to defeat the ‘terrorists’ as he called them, within hours, saw real war start on May 26th with Donetsk airport taken by the DPR as a pre-emptive measure against Kiev sending forces there, and fierce battle by Kiev to retake it.
That was followed by then fierce battle between sides, and regular shelling of DPR and LPR towns, by Ukrainian forces. Outnumbered and outgunned, with in-fighting and tactical errors, the DPR and LPR lost swathes of territory in July of 2014, and in August, with Lugansk surrounded, cut off from Donetsk, it almost looked to be game over.
However, fightbacks in late August, early September saw a wave of territory retaken by the DPR and LPR. War continued over winter, with key strategic point, and symbol, Donetsk airport (below), taken in January 2015, Debalstevo in February.
10. So, the last big change in territory was February of 2015, but war has waged, with different degrees of intensity, since then. From May on of 2015, Ukrainian shelling of Donbass got very intense, with multiple casualties. Here, Gorlovka, May 26th, an 11-year-old girl and her father killed, mother maimed –
Now, I speak a lot about ‘Ukrainian shelling’, but surely there’s two sides? There’s no question, that DPR and LPR forces shell Ukrainian positions. And the people’s militia have been blamed for fatal shelling attacks on Mariupol (note the headline here ‘rebels shell’, in the Guardian, yet when it’s Ukrainian shelling, western media does the ‘both sides exchange blame’ line) and Kramatorsk – whether they are actually responsible for these, is debatable. But there is no debate that thousands of deaths have been caused by Ukraine shelling civilians areas of Donbass. I’ve been there dozens of times – homes burning, bodies lying, no military positions anywhere near, and only one direction the shelling could have come from – Ukrainian positions.
Of course, they always try to blame the people’s militia, for ‘shelling themselves’. Shockingly, the fact that thousands of deaths in Donbass has been caused by Ukrainian military shelling, has remained largely unreported by western media. As for MH17, by the way, there’s a lot more to it than the immediately arrived at verdict of a ‘separatist BUK’ – I’m working on a documentary about that just now.
An issue with Ukrainian military is that there’s no such thing as the Ukrainian army anymore, in the aftermath of Euromaidan (pictured here), any number of radicals, extremist splinter groups and so, such as the Pravy Sektor, headed down to Donbass to wage war. These groups have frequently said they don’t answer to President Poroshenko, and do what they want etc. Here, a Ukrainian fighter, Vita Zaveruha, just decides to shoot a village in Donbass ‘for fun’ –
Now without actual Kiev backing, no real territory can be taken – and of course, Kiev wants the appearance of abiding by Minsk-II – but regular shelling of Donbass, by Ukrainian forces, goes on to this day with fatalities and casualties fewer than there were, but still a regular occurrence, this video from Donetsk, end of June –
And about the ‘meme’ of Donbass, the ‘Russian involvement’ the western media go on about (ever fuelled along by Ukraine’s president Poroshenko, just there in the Wall Street Journal), but the Russian media largely deny exists. Well, it’s somewhere in between. There’s clearly been some Russian military assistance – a 17,000 km2 territory, of the DPR and LPR, fending off a country of some 550,000 km2 with its own army, tanks etc. However, much of what is passed off as ‘Russian involvement’, ‘Russian army, tanks’ etc – here, typical unsourced speculation passed on by the Atlantic Council – is done so without any actual evidence at all.
I can say categorically from my time there, the Russian regular army have never been there, however there have been quite a lot of Russian citizens, many with military experience (pictured, notable DPR commander Motorola). There have been volunteers from many countries, from Brazil to the UK. Yet, the vast majority of fighters on the people’s milita side in Donbass has always been local men. A few of my photo of the peoples’ militia ‘opolchenie’ here, provide examples –
And whatever hardware Russia has either sent, or turned a blind eye to crossing the border, it’s been a long, long way from the latest Russian military hardware, most of the hardware on the Donbass side is from Soviet times, in cases reconditioned and yes, a significant amount captured from Ukrainian forces.
So, it’s a war, it’s an information war. And believe me, the BBC, to name just one example, have been completely dishonest in their coverage of it. So much so I’ve long refused to have anything to do with them. They deliberately go in, find the odd extremist who wants to ‘recreate the Soviet Union, is on a holy war’ etc (incidentally they lied to get my video footage for this documentary, on that theme), then show them as representing the whole movement. The BBC, always so good at finding nice people on Euromaidan. Speaking to people, letting them express their opinions and wishes in a favourable light, as they did so often on Euromaidan –
That was never done in the corporation’s deliberately dehumanising coverage of Donbass. Instead, it’s been stitch-ups, getting into locations by saying they’ll show things honesty, standing there and reciting the standard ‘Russian aggression’ mantra. It gets a bit comical at times even as here Ian Pannell stands at Donetsk airport saying most of the shelling is ‘outgoing’, before fleeing when interrupted by incoming shelling.
There’s no such thing as a clean war, and no question a lot of things have been done on the DPR side – from Strelkov’s shooting of ‘looters’ in Slavyansk to complaints of cars stolen, houses squatted, others. Yet, in any people’s uprising, as in Donbass, there will be those simply waiting to exploit the situation for their own ends. On the Ukraine side, Ukraine should have been a regular country, with a regular army, yet they’ve been even worse. I’ve filmed bodies of civilians tortured, killed before Ukraine forces fled from positions –
Ukrainian forces took me captive, seemed drunk, acted generally like a shower of guerrillas, stole my car, I’ve spoken to a litany of people who’ve passed through checkpoints where Ukrainian soldiers have demanded bribes, stolen iphones, worse. Interviewed people who said Ukrainian forces put them on their knees, demanded they sing the national anthem at gunpoint, others said Ukrainian forces looted everything from their homes.
Ukraine’s special police took this man, returning home from Belarus with his wife and 3-month-old child, and tortured him to death after they found a text message conversation with a classmate of his, in the people’s militia –
And then there’s the, always-disputed, but in this case real-looking video of Ukrainian soldiers burying a ‘pro-Russia separatist’ alive.
All said and told, it’s a bloody complicated war indeed. However, I hope after reading these points, at least some things are a bit clearer.