DONETSK, Ukraine—There was a deep growl of artillery and Grad rocket bombardment in the distance, but it didn’t have any heads turning in the center of Donetsk. People here are used to the rumble of a fight that has raged since the summer around the city’s airport on the outskirts and their swift steps homeward seemed more to escape the freezing cold than dictated by fear.
On the outskirts of the city, though, the guards were nervous at the four Ukrainian government checkpoints we had to navigate to enter Donetsk from the west. In the dark, the soldiers and volunteers shifted their weapons uneasily as they peered into cars and trucks to scan faces and documents. Vehicles that failed to switch off headlights rapidly enough as they approached in the darkness incurred a single warning shot and then a string of curses.
“You are a foreigner!” a peeved checkpoint guard blurted at me after letting off a round in anxious protest at my laggardness. And then he angrily waved me through.
While documents were checked laboriously at the government checkpoints, on the pro-Russian separatists’ side there was a wave-through policy from guards sporting “New Russia” flashes on their uniforms. They weren’t as jittery. Nor was there any jumpiness among separatists dressed in camouflage or casual black clothing as they drank in the downstairs bar of the Ramada hotel surrounded by heavily made up young women with snake-like eyes perched at nearby tables.
Few doubt here that something is afoot. There is an air of anticipation about the Russian military build-up in recent days and the sending of reinforcements by the Kiev government to bolster defenses against a possible redoubled offensive. “They are preparing and we are preparing,” says a young government soldier from the nearby city of Dnipropetrovsk.
But the calmness in rebel-held Donetsk on Sunday night suggested no big push is planned in the next few hours, at least. A nighttime curfew that was imposed a few weeks ago seems barely enforced now—no doubt to the relief of the women at the Ramada. But for most people in Donetsk there is nowhere to go in the evening with most restaurants and bars closed.
Things were worse a few days ago, with mortar attacks on Debaltseve that killed two Ukrainian soldiers and wounded five more, according to Ukrainian authorities. But Donetsk is quieter now, and journalists who have started returning to the disputed eastern Ukrainian city are now debating whether the build-up on both sides amounts to another stare-down between adversaries or if a larger fight is in the brewing.
Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, appears in no mood to accept the loss of the Donbas region. Late Saturday, he issued a decree he hopes will bring the people of the industrial region to their senses: ordering the withdrawal of all state services, including funding for hospitals and schools, from rebel-held areas by next weekend. He has also ordered the central bank to cut the separatists off from Ukraine’s banking and credit-card system.
And if anyone thought this was an abdication and a letting go of the unruly region they need to think again. In the decree, he asked the country’s new parliament to revoke a law granting self-rule to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions—in effect rescinding September’s “special status” law granted under a ceasefire allowing the two mainly Russian speaking eastern region some autonomy.
The National Security Council recommended Poroshenko revoke the special status law following the November elections in the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic—polls that broke the conditions of the Sept. 5 Minsk ceasefire agreement. That ceasefire allowed for local elections in Donbas in December, but under Ukrainian supervision..
The separatist polls amounted to a direct challenge to Kiev’s authority. But the decision now to sever economic ties with the eastern regions was a surprise—and a gamble.
Russian President Vladimir Putin pounced quickly Sunday, denouncing the economic blockade of the Donbas. But he also saw it as a gift, arguing that the move to sever economic ties with rebel-held areas and to stop funding local public services won’t help locals trust Kiev. “I don’t understand why Kiev authorities are cutting off those territories with their own hands. Well one can understand—to save money,” he told journalists in Australia covering the G-20 summit. The Russian leader suggested Kiev is breaking a “moral obligation.”
Some worried Ukrainian critics are mounting the same argument against the high-risk move aimed at pressuring the region’s ordinary people to throw out the bespredelshchiki (“reckless, amoral men”), as some Ukrainians dub the Kremlin-backed separatists. The critics fear that it will have the opposite effect, as most locals who disapprove of the insurgency have long fled the Donbas, leaving either diehard supporters behind or those too poor or old to go. Pensioners especially are likely to react with anger to the ending of public services.
Poroshenko supporters counter that the move will throw government responsibility on the separatists, who have been allowed a free ride by Kiev. “They shell us with Grads and we should pay them?” the official governor of Luhansk, Hennadiy Moskal, told the Kyiv Post newspaper. He maintains the Ukrainian government made a mistake in the first place by not cutting off the Donbas when the insurgents grabbed large swaths of the region, saying that if separatists “decided to take responsibility, then let them take it for everything.”
With both sides girding themselves, Poroshenko said Sunday: “We are ready for the worst-case scenario; we are ready for the scenario of a full-scale war.” He insists the “Ukrainian army is much better prepared compared to five months ago,” adding, “we don’t want anything more than peace, but unfortunately we have to think the worst.”
“In the next three days there will either be a renegotiation of the Minsk ceasefire or a new assault,” said volunteer battalion commander and lawmaker Semen Semenchenko.