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Russians Start Paying the Price for Putin’s Ukraine Adventure

How much are ordinary Russians willing to sacrifice for their leader's imperial ambitions?


For most Russians, indeed nearly all of them, the crisis in Ukraine has had a distant, almost virtual quality. It has been something they watched on TV, or debated in their kitchens, rooting for the pro-Russian rebel militias and cursing the Ukrainian government as though the war between them was hardly more than a gruesome sporting match. The emotions were visceral, but the suffering wasn’t personal. Only in the past few weeks has the crisis begun to hit home.

Russians have started asking themselves — or rather, they have been forced to ask themselves — whether they are prepared to make real sacrifices for the sake of their country’s policy in Ukraine. So far, of course, they have not had much choice in the matter. Russian President Vladimir Putin did not hold a plebiscite in Russia before deciding in March to annex the region of Crimea from Ukraine. Nor did he ask the public’s opinion before imposing a ban on Western food imports on Aug. 6 to punish the countries that have sanctioned Russia in response to the Crimean land grab. The food ban was simply imposed by a Kremlin decree “to protect Russia’s security,” and the predictable result was a run on supermarkets in Moscow and other cities, a spike in prices and panic buying in the dairy aisle.

It was not the first measure to test the public’s patience on Ukraine. Desperate for cash to develop Crimea, the Russian government has dipped into the national pension fund, essentially deciding to confiscate everything its citizens will contribute to it this year and the next. “No one has any intention of giving this money back, because this money has gone to Crimea,” said Finance Minister Anton Siluanov. (His deputy was promptly fired when he confessed on Facebook that he “feels ashamed” for the expropriation on Aug. 5.) Then there were those hapless Russian travelers, roughly 27,000 of them, who were stranded in airport terminals in early August after a Russian tour operator folded under the weight of Western sanctions. “We worry that this is only the beginning and that there will be a domino effect,” said a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Tourism Agency.

Indeed there is likely to be. As the sanctions war escalates, it will continue to eat away at Russia’s economic growth — and ordinary Russians will be forced to confront the question of whether they are prepared to pay for Putin’s foreign adventurism. In such a scenario, Lev Gudkov, one of Russia’s leading sociologists and director of the Levada Center, an independent pollster, believes that they are unlikely to fall in line behind their leader. “It’s one thing to express support,” he says, “but quite another to suffer for it.”

Expressions of support for Putin have lately been almost unanimous. In Levada’s surveys since the crisis began in March, his approval ratings shot up more than 20 percentage points to reach an overwhelming 87% at the end of last month. But that phenomenon has a flip side. Just as Russians applaud Putin for every perceived success in Ukraine, they are likely to fault him for every repercussion. Two-thirds of the population, says Gudkov, place all responsibility for the crisis squarely on Putin and his inner circle rather than on themselves. Only 7% to 12% are prepared to make personal sacrifices for the sake of Russia’s policies in Ukraine, he says. “The rest take a characteristic position: ‘Leave me out of it.’”

But short of emigrating, Russians can’t opt out. They will all have to deal with the fact that inflation is due to reach up to 9% this year, while the Finance Ministry has proposed a new sales tax of 3% to plug holes in the federal budget that have largely resulted from the crisis in Ukraine. Diabetics in Russia are having to stock up on insulin just in case it winds up on the import ban as well. People with special diets, including professional athletes, are scrambling to find Russian alternatives to the Western foods they need. “Nobody wants prices to rise,” said Arkady Dvorkovich, the government’s chief economic adviser, in trying to calm the public during a television appearance on Aug. 13. “Nobody wants hoarding. Nobody wants deficits.”

Yet that is what Russians can expect, and the task of making them accept this reality, and even embrace it, has fallen to the Kremlin’s propaganda outlets — and they have dusted off the Cold War creeds of self-sufficiency in trying to lift the nation’s spirits.

One of the more typical examples of the genre was published in Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s most popular newspaper, on Aug. 3, a few days before Putin imposed the ban on Western food. Under the headline “Hard Times Await,” the piece lashed out at fast-food chains like McDonald’s and waxed nostalgic for the Soviet treats that Russians remember from childhood. “When the Iron Curtain fell, meat patties on round buns seemed to us like symbols of freedom,” wrote the author, Ulyana Skoibeda. “Now our national leader [Putin] has declared that Ossetian pastries and Tatar pies can compete with American hamburgers. It is a total reorientation. From looking outward, we turn in, from the West, into ourselves.”

All of this, she argued, should come naturally to Russians, as though they are just lapsed believers being shepherded back to their traditional faith. But the author (perhaps because she was about 14 years old when the Iron Curtain fell) neglects to mention how tight the cuffs of isolation were back then, and what a relief it was when they came off.

Even the Soviet elites had trouble believing the extent to which they’d been deprived. In the fall of 1989, two years before he was elected post-Soviet Russia’s first President, Boris Yeltsin took a tour of an American supermarket for the first time in his life. It was a typical franchise of the Randall’s grocery chain in Houston, the sort of place where workaday Texans did their weekly shopping. But as Yeltsin’s adviser, Lev Sukhanov, later recalled with almost childlike wonder in his memoirs, “it felt like we were standing right in the middle of a kaleidoscope.”

Yeltsin had never seen anything in Moscow, not even at the exclusive shops reserved for the chiefs of the Communist Party, that could compare to the gastronomical wonderland he found inside that Randall’s store. “The gleaming radishes the size of plump potatoes,” Sukhanov recounted, “the pineapples, the bananas.” There were some 30,000 items on the shelves, including more types of sausage than the Kremlin delegates could count. “The eye could not enumerate all the different kinds of candy and cakes, could not process the variety of their colors, their delicious attractiveness,” Sukhanov wrote. “It came as a deep shock.”

Later that day, as they flew from Houston to Miami to continue their official visit as members of the Soviet legislature, Sukhanov remembers Yeltsin sitting with his head in his hands. When he finally came out of his stupor, according to the memoirs, he said, “What have we brought our poor people to? All our lives we’ve been telling them fairy tales. All our lives we’ve been inventing. But the world had already invented everything long ago.”

Almost exactly 15 years after Yeltsin handed power over to Putin, the old fairy tales of Soviet dogma are being revived. Having gathered the entire Russian legislature in Crimea on Aug. 14, Putin told them in a speech that the ban on Western food was just a means of “supporting the product manufacturers of the fatherland.”

That has been a favorite talking point on Kremlin news outlets lately. In calling for Russians to embrace a patriotic diet, they have claimed that the domestic food industry has “the chance of a lifetime” to replace Western imports, which are in any case unhealthy and not all that good. But even some of Putin’s own spin doctors have had trouble sticking to that line.

During a radio program on a Kremlin-owned station on Aug. 10, the host went on a half-hour rant about the “stupidity” of trying to replace Western goods with Russian ones. “It’s all a catastrophe,” said Vladimir Solovyov, one of the most popular television personalities in Russia and usually one of the Kremlin’s favorite messengers. “What are we going to do, replace honey with crap? That doesn’t mean the crap will taste like honey … Don’t lie to yourself.”

His co-host, growing nervous as the live broadcast continued, tried weakly to convince him that Russia would manage, just as it did in the Soviet Union. Solovyov persisted: “I want to make my own choices, and not to have the state choose for me,” he said. “I want the right to choose for myself what wine I drink, and if I’m told that I don’t have this right, then I want to be convinced that I’m accepting these discomforts for a good cause.”

But is the conflict in Ukraine a good enough cause? Is it worth having to part with the comforts that Russians now take for grant? To give up the “kaleidoscope” of Western produce now available in Russian supermarkets? These are not easy questions, and it will be a lot harder to answer them with a resounding yes than it was to support the swift and easy annexation of Crimea. And as the consequences of that decision unfold, they will begin to weigh on Putin’s sky-high popularity. Gudkov, the sociologist, expects the President’s ratings to sink by November back to what they were before the annexation of Crimea. But that does not mean Putin will change course.

“Nobody supported the Soviet policy of isolation either,” says Gudkov. “It was very painful for people, that feeling of slouching toward a dead end. But nobody asked the public’s opinion whether they wanted this or not.” They simply had to pay the price for their leaders’ decisions. Then as now, nobody gave them much of a choice.

TIME Ukraine

Putin Calls Western Bluff With Humanitarian Convoy Stunt

A Russian convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian aid for Ukraine drives along a road near the city of Yelets August 12, 2014.
A Russian convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian aid for Ukraine drives along a road near the city of Yelets August 12, 2014. Nikita Paukov—Reuters

The trucks heading to the border with eastern Ukraine will test the West's assumption that Russia is always up to something nasty

When the Russian convoy of nearly 300 trucks departed from a military base near Moscow on Tuesday morning and headed toward the border with Ukraine, they were kitted out to look as benevolent as possible. All of them were painted in pristine white, and matching tarpaulin was stretched over their cargo. As they prepared to head out, a priest went around and sprinkled their engines with holy water as television cameras rolled. But the nicest touch was applied to the drivers, whose identical knee-high shorts and khaki caps made them look like postal deliverymen.

The show was not entirely convincing. After all of Russia’s efforts to stoke the conflict in eastern Ukraine since it began in March – including supplying the separatist militias fighting the Ukrainian military with weapons and volunteers – it was hard for Ukraine to take seriously Russia’s claim that these trucks were carrying nothing more dangerous than baby food and power generators. Nor did the West give Moscow the benefit of the doubt. Before the trucks were even loaded, let alone inspected, the U.S. and its allies warned that the convoy was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the government in Kiev pledged on Tuesday that it would not be allowed to pass.

Both reactions could backfire. The goal of this convoy, though likely a lot more complicated than simple humanitarian aid, has more to do with domestic Russian politics than military strategy. Between June and July, the proportion of Russians who support a military incursion in eastern Ukraine has dropped from 40% to 26%, according to the independent Levada Center polling agency. But support for humanitarian aid to the region has meanwhile remained at around to 90% since May. “The Kremlin does not usually ignore this kind of consensus,” says Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center. So President Vladimir Putin at least had to attempt a humanitarian mission.

And that’s likely all there is to the convoy, says Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent foreign policy expert in Moscow. Putin hasn’t put his military aims aside, but knows that a phony aid convoy would be a poor way of achieving them. “It just wouldn’t make any sense,” he says. “Why would you mount such a grandiose and public spectacle with these trucks if you wanted to smuggle in weapons or start a war?”

Besides, the deception wouldn’t be necessary. Russia already has tens of thousands of troops gathered at the border with Ukraine, and if Putin gave the order, they could mount an invasion in a matter of hours while still maintaining some element of surprise. Nor would Putin need any trickery in order to funnel support to the separatist rebels. Their militias already control huge chunks of the border, and Russia has had no problem sending weapons and fighters across it without the use of subterfuge.

So the West’s anxiety over this column of trucks has seemed overblown. On Aug. 8, when Russia proposed its humanitarian mission during a meeting of the UN Security Council, the American ambassador to the UN warned that it would “be viewed as an invasion” if Russia acted unilaterally. “At every step in this crisis, Russians have sabotaged peace, not built it,” said Samantha Power. The day before the convoy set out, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the head of the NATO military alliance, said in an interview with Reuters that there is a “high probability” of Russia invading Ukraine, potentially “under the guise of a humanitarian operation.”

The following day, as the convoy made its way to the border, the government in Kiev announced to no one’s surprise that they would not allow it to pass. “We will not consider any kind of movements of Russian convoys on Ukrainian territory,” said Valery Chaly, the deputy head of the presidential administration. “It would be disturbing to allow Russian trucks into Ukraine even without their drivers.” If the cargo indeed contains humanitarian aid, he added, it would need to be offloaded and moved onto Red Cross trucks before entering Ukraine.

The optics of that kind of traffic jam would play right into the Kremlin’s favorite narrative. On the one side would be the Russian convoy waiting to provide assistance to the victims of war, and on the other would be the Ukrainian military trying to block it. All the Western warnings of a Russian Trojan horse would also start to look a bit paranoid. “This is very smart on Putin’s part. It allows him to call the West’s bluff,” says Matthew Rojansky, an expert on Russia and Ukraine at the Wilson Center in Washington. “He is calling out this hyperbolic position that everything Russia does is aggressive and counterproductive.”

Most of the time that position has been right. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have indeed been aggressive since the conflict began in March, and its support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine has been anything but productive for the cause of peace. But the humanitarian convoy appears to be one of the few exceptions to the rule. It would have allowed Putin to save face among his own electorate, answering the public calls for a Russian aid mission to eastern Ukraine. Achieving that now looks impossible without the use of military force, and whether or not Putin wanted that outcome, the West’s mistrust has brought him closer to it.

TIME Ukraine

MH17 Recovery Team Forced to Halt Work in Ukraine’s Killing Fields

Ukraine Plane
A pro-Russian guards the road as Australian, Malaysian and Dutch investigators prepare to examine the area of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Rossipne, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine on August 5, 2014. AP

Investigators attempted to do the difficult work of bringing bodies home, as the civil war nearby crept closer to the crash site. The area remains in the hands of the same pro-Russian separatist militias who are widely suspected of shooting down the plane

The Dutch-led recovery team for Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 got off their bus in single file, neatly stacked their body armor on the ground and lined up for roll call. They looked exhausted, dusty and half-starved after another day among the wreckage of the airliner that was shot down on July 17. But at least the day’s search had gone well. They had found some more personal belongings of the nearly 300 people killed in the disaster, as well as some human remains, which, in the words of one of the forensics experts, “could be mistaken for pieces of wood” after lying for more than two weeks in the fields of eastern Ukraine.

No one knows how much longer it will take to bring all of the victims home. Only on Aug. 3, two and a half weeks after the crash, was the recovery mission able to set up its base of operations in the small mining town of Soledar, just outside the war zone that surrounds the crash site. And just three days later, the Dutch Prime Minister suspended the search because of worsening violence nearby, saying it made no sense to continue under the current conditions.

Those conditions indeed defied sense. About 100 policemen and investigators from Malaysia, Australia and the Netherlands — whose citizens made up the vast majority of the passengers on that plane — were dispatched to the site, and quickly set up a temporary base with sleeping cots and a canteen, working with meticulous order and control. But the crash site itself was a different story. “I’m afraid over there we have very little control,” Cornelis Kuijs, the Dutch police colonel who is leading the mission, tells TIME in Soledar. “We have no freedom of movement whatsoever.”

That is because the crash site, spanning an area of several square miles, remains in the hands of the same pro-Russian separatist militias who are widely suspected of shooting down the plane in the first place. This put a huge moral and practical strain on the mission and the investigators. Every evening, their negotiators are forced to hash out a new deal with the rebel fighters on what chunk of the crash site they can access the following day. “Wherever we are, they are right there. They are watching over us,” says Abu Bakar Khalid, chief of police for all of Malaysia, who came personally to oversee his country’s delegation to the recovery effort. “They don’t trust us,” he tells TIME of the rebel fighters. “And it’s hard for us to trust them.”

That goes double for the dozens of police officers involved in the mission. Though their role is to protect the forensics experts and investigators working at the crash site, the policemen were not allowed to bring any weapons with them, as that would have jeopardized negotiations with the rebels, says Kuijs. So the officers were forced to stand unarmed among the prime suspects in the murder of their countrymen, feigning an air of neutrality. “Yeah, of course, sometimes you have thoughts of doing something to them,” says one of the Dutch policemen, who asked not to be named, as he is not authorized to speak to the media. “But you have to focus on the mission.”

The mission was and is simple: bring home the remains of the victims, dozens of whom are still unaccounted for and presumed to be scattered among fields of wreckage and debris. Secondary to that objective is the aim of recovering the possessions of the victims, and on that front the team made a breakthrough on Aug. 3, when they were able to access an entire train car full of the victims’ belongings that had been gathered by the locals and stored at a depot in the town of Torez. For weeks the recovery team was aware of its location and contents, but the intense fighting around the area prevented them from getting near it. “We knew it was standing there, so we were very anxious,” says Kuijs. As the fighting briefly receded from the area that day, “we were able to negotiate on the spot that we could go to the train and recover what was in there,” he says. “That was tremendous.”

Much of the crash site, however, remains dangerously close to the fighting between the Ukrainian military and the rebel militias, and as the search crews comb through the fields, they can usually hear the artillery fire around them. “It’s very close,” says Khalid. “It’s very powerful.”

And it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. For a few hours on Aug. 1, it seemed as though the Ukrainian military had finally broken through the rebel defenses and reached the crash site. The army’s press officers gathered a group of reporters that morning, including this correspondent, to drive to the village of Grabovo, where large chunks of the fuselage and numerous bodies had fallen.

But when the convoy of reporters came within about 15 km of the village, the soldiers said they had spoken too soon. “They left a lot of surprises for us,” said Sergeant Alexei Frolov, an explosives expert who had just finished defusing a massive roadside bomb on the highway leading to the crash site. It included a sack of TNT weighing about 50 kg. Farther along there were others, the sergeant said, and the village of Grabovo was still in rebel control. The following day a group of reporters saw what looked to be pieces of the Malaysian airliner piled up at one of the rebel checkpoints near Grabovo, apparently being used to reinforce their barricades.

Australian, Malaysian and Dutch investigators examine pieces from the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 plane, near the village of Rossipne, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Aug. 5, 2014.
Australian, Malaysian and Dutch investigators examine pieces from the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 plane, near the village of Rossipne, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Aug. 5, 2014. AP

As the fighting intensified, Kuijs was busy last week preparing the recovery mission’s base in Soledar, which is about as close as he could bring his team without putting them at risk of a stray mortar falling on their camp. Built around one of the biggest salt mines in Europe — the town’s name translates from Russian as “the gift of salt” — Soledar does not exactly offer the recovery team all the comforts of home. With a population of about 12,000, the town has neither a restaurant nor a hotel, so the mission has been forced to house most of its workers in a crumbling old sanatorium or on the floor of the local House of Culture, whose facade is adorned with a crest of the Soviet hammer and sickle. “There is no room for cultural differences here,” says Khalid. “We work together, eat together, sleep together.”

If anything, the culture shock has been most pronounced among the locals, who have never seen so many foreigners descend on their town at once. “I’ve never even seen a Malaysian,” says Alyona Morozova, who was out for a walk near the House of Culture with her 1-year-old daughter Evgeniya, as the recovery mission came back from their search on Aug. 4. “It’s like they came from outer space.”

Kuijs, a pair of red-rimmed spectacles perched on the tip of his nose, was meanwhile greeting the returning convoy, which included armored ambulances and vans with labels that read, “MH17 Recovery.” Slowly the investigators tried to shake off the weight of everything they’d seen and found that day. Some went up to the gymnasium in the House of Culture for a rest on one of the army cots. Others did some laundry in a bucket with a bar of soap.

The atmosphere was solemn but not depressed, and here at least, if not at the crash site, the summer weather felt like a blessing. “I haven’t heard anyone complain,” said Kuijs. “Everybody is just so dedicated and so …” He took a heavy pause. “Happy is not the right word. But proud. Proud that we are bringing back these remains and bringing back this property. That is the promise we made to the families.” As for when they might finish their mission, the commander said, “it would take a crystal ball” to guess that, mostly because their work could be disrupted at any time. “Depending on the fighting they could close the door, and it will be the end for us. So I have no clue,” he said. “We just do our utmost to accomplish what we can, because the timeframe will be limited. I’m sure of that.”

Kuijs could not have known just how limited that window would be. On Aug. 6, only days after the search team spoke to TIME, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte temporarily suspended the mission as fighting nearby worsened. The Premier promised only that the search for remains would continue when Ukraine was “more stable.”

“We’re stopping now,” he said, “but we won’t stop.”


Ukraine Trauma Counselors Battle ‘Info-Intoxication’

With both Russian and Ukrainian propaganda outlets fanning divisions in conflict-ridden eastern Ukraine, local communities are struggling to move on


In the middle of summer, as the fighting in eastern Ukraine receded toward the Russian border, psychiatrists working in the area began to notice a strange affliction among the people caught up in the conflict. Its symptoms were hard to discern at first from the more typical psychological damage the war was inflicting on local people—anxiety, insomnia, depression—but they were distinct enough for the doctors to start giving the malady names: “info-intoxication,” they called it, or more simply, “Ukrainian syndrome.”
The difficulties of treating it became clear to Dr. Yuri Fisun in early July, when the pro-Russian rebel militias retreated from his hometown of Slavyansk, and he was finally able to see patients again, working as a volunteer at a makeshift counseling center set up inside the separatists’ former headquarters in the local City Hall. He never took sides in the conflict, but like many of the people who lived through it, he came away shell-shocked and suspicious of both sides. The Ukrainian military had bombarded this key rebel stronghold with heavy artillery for weeks, depriving it of water and power as they encircled it with military hardware. “The people who stayed during the fighting had trouble sleeping once the sound of explosions had stopped,” he says. “They had gotten so used to them.”
But the town has slowly started coming back to life as the government retakes control. Pension payments have resumed, the people who fled the fighting are returning home, a couple of cafes have reopened, and in City Hall, a group of trauma therapists is trying to treat a community that seems to be suffering from a collective case of post-traumatic stress. The therapists don’t see their work as merely a source of comfort for the locals. It is rather a test of whether the deeper tensions of this conflict can be resolved, or whether they are bound to bubble up again with another round of violence.
What Fisun and his colleagues noticed was that the forces feeding the hatred in Slavyansk survived even after the fighting stopped. Mixed in among the signs of trauma was a great deal of aggression and paranoia, usually expressed with peculiar phrases that Fisun sensed his patients were not coming up with on their own. He eventually found their source: television.
A slight man with a lulling timbre to his voice, Fisun did not own a TV himself, so he got into the habit of watching the news every evening online and taking notes in preparation for his patients the next day. He focused on the Russian state-run networks, which many of the locals still get through satellite dishes or the Internet, and he found a pattern. “Overnight they had internalized the latest propaganda,” he tells TIME. “And it was surprisingly hard to dislodge.”
Ever since the Ukrainian forces took back control of Slavyansk, Russian state media has insisted that wholesale purges of the population had ensued. There were mass arrests, “execution lists” and bounties for the bodies of civilians, according to Kremlin-run TV broadcasts. A particularly sickening report on Channel One, the Kremlin’s main network, claimed that Ukrainian soldiers had crucified a three-year-old boy on a bulletin board in the central square of Slavyansk and made his mother watch him bleed to death.
None of this had any basis in fact, as TIME confirmed through two weeks of reporting in the former rebel strongholds. These towns and villages have indeed suffered extensive damage from the Ukrainian bombardment, and the U.N. estimates that hundreds of civilians have been killed in the conflict so far, many from the impact of shelling. But once the army moves in to retake control, they have so far made few discernible attempts to weed out the remaining separatists, many of whom have melted back into these communities.
“They came once in the beginning, checked my papers to make sure I’m local, and I haven’t seen them since then,” says Alexei, a 34-year-old lumberjack in the war-ravaged village of Semyonovka, declining to give his surname. “I haven’t even heard of anybody getting arrested or interrogated,” says Sergei, a 38-year-old mechanic in the town of Debaltsevo, who also declined to be named, citing a distrust of journalists. Both of them said they had not joined the separatist militias themselves. But while Slavyansk was in rebel control, many if not most of the men in the area provided at least some help to the pro-Russian cause. Failing to do so would have drawn the suspicion of, if not also reprisals from, the rebels and their supporters.
These days armed soldiers are rarely seen patrolling the streets of Slavyansk, and state security agents identifiable by their bullet proof vests and sidearms seem to go out of their way to interact politely with locals while standing in line at a pizzeria or grocery store. “Don’t get me wrong, there is a desire among some of the boys to go in and raise hell,” says Taras Katsuba, a Ukrainian lieutenant colonel, standing with a group of soldiers outside town of Debaltsevo on August 1, the day after government forces took control of it. “They’ve seen their buddies get killed. But we know the situation is overheated right now. Folks are scared, and if we go in and start arresting people or whatever, it’ll only make things worse.”
Yet the rumors of Ukrainian death squads and “cleanup operations” have nevertheless persisted in these towns, and Fisun says it is the goal of mental health professionals to counteract them one by one. Armed with his notes on the latest Russian news broadcasts, he goes into therapy sessions with an aim to persuade patients that they are false, that they have nothing to fear from the Ukrainian government. “This is a top priority for us right now,” he says. “It is the main thing driving the neuroses and the social aggression.”
His colleagues have taken a more direct approach. Tatyana Aslanyan, a psychiatrist who is coordinating teams of trauma counselors working around Slavyansk, usually sits and listens quietly to the people who come for her therapy sessions. These sessions are open to the public, organized by civil society groups and run by local volunteers. But the mistrust in the city is so pervasive, Aslanyan says, “many people still see us as some kind of filtration center; they’re scared we’ll hand them over to the security services.” So it’s no surprise that turnout is usually modest, and men are rare among the people seeking help.
During a recent group session in the village of Semyonovka, about a dozen local women sat around in a circle at the village congress hall, whose roof had been blown open with a mortar during the fighting in May and June. Semyonovka has suffered more physical damage than perhaps any other place in the war. “It was better when we didn’t have electricity,” said one of the locals taking part in the session, a young mother of three. (The therapists asked TIME not to print their names.) “But now we can turn on the TV and get depressed again.”
For the first time Aslanyan interjected sharply: “No television!” she shouted. “Listen to me, turn it off, throw it away.” The woman began to cry.
The source of distress is not only the Russian media, Aslanyan says in an interview the previous day. Though most of Ukraine’s news networks are privately owned, they have often sought to fight fire with fire in the propaganda war, denouncing the separatist rebels as terrorists and their sympathizers as traitors. Numerous reports have accused the rebel fighters of “kidnapping” dozens of children when they were, in fact, apparently just trying to evacuate them from the warzone.
In May, separatist fighters helped evacuate the mental hospital outside Slavyansk where Fisun has worked for 35 years. It had been hit by a number of mortars by then, he says, and the rebels “brought buses around” to drive the patients to safety. “As I understand, these were the local boys,” says Fisun, “not Russians but men from Slavyansk who had joined the rebel militias.” He has no sympathy for their cause, but the depictions of them as terrorists on Ukrainian television have simply mirrored the warped picture available on the Russian airwaves. “As a result you hear people demanding more of a purge in their own communities,” says Aslanyan. “Many of them feel the Ukrainian forces have been too soft, that they have not done enough to punish people.”
Olga Kadysheva, another psychiatrist working as a volunteer in the warzone, also believes that what she calls the “info-intoxication” is coming from all sides, with television and online news reports feeding rumors that get spread by word of mouth. “The treatment is diet: cut off the intake of information, all of it, Ukrainian, Russian, it doesn’t matter.” But the deeper concern among the therapists is that the rumor mill is only feeding fears and prejudices that existed long before the conflict, and could persist long after the fighting stops. The ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, who make up a majority in many towns across the region, have long felt like outsiders in their own country, in part because Ukrainian is the only official language.
“The polarization of society is what deepens the break in the psyche,” says Kadysheva, who came from the city of Kharkiv, outside the warzone, to help coordinate and train therapists in Slavyansk. “Am I Russian or am I Ukrainian? Am I a separatist or am I not?” As the rebels retreat from their strongholds deeper into southern and eastern Ukraine, the rifts in society that their war has left behind have looked more like a shattered mirror than any clean split down the middle. Those who stayed in bomb shelters throughout the fighting condemn those who fled the warzone. Those who did not support the separatists condemn those two did, and vice versa. The dividing lines now seem to form a tapestry of mistrust and mutual reprobation, the local psychiatrists say, and mending them up again will take years. In the meantime, the propaganda outlets on both sides will be able to play on these divisions, making it harder for the communities to get on with their lives.
With additional video reporting Maxim Dondyuk


Russia’s Fear of Potential Threats Has Spawned a Real One in Ukraine

Ukrainian troops patrol near the village of Novoselovka, some 30 kms from the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, on July 31, 2014. Genya Savilov—AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine's army was too weak to defend itself in March. Not anymore

The Ukrainian airbase at Kramatorsk, a short drive from the border with Russia, was a sorry sight just a few months ago. The road leading up to it was strewn with barricades of trash, and pro-Russian separatists liked to gather around it for little victory picnics of beer and sunflower seeds. They had blocked the main gate to the airfield in early April, and rather than forcing the separatists back, many of the Ukrainian soldiers based there from the 25th Airborne Brigade had deserted. One of the few who remained on the evening of April 19 was sulking over his army ration when two reporters came up to the base and asked about the unit’s morale. “On a scale of one to ten,” the soldier said, and raised three fingers of his left hand.

A lot has changed since then. In early July the base at Kramatorsk became the nerve center for the military operation against the separatist militias in eastern Ukraine. Every few minutes on an average morning tanks and armored vehicles now stream in and out of the gate in columns, heading for the front lines. Helicopters fly over the heads of Ukrainian snipers, and the commandos guarding the main gate would not look out of place in a remake of Rambo. Their fighting spirit seems plenty high. “You’ll see us yet in Moscow, marching in Red Square,” bragged a captain from the revitalized 25th Airborne on Wednesday morning, standing outside one of the towns they had taken back from the separatist rebels the day before.

This was not much more than empty bravado—Ukraine’s army is still a fraction the size of Russia’s—but the sentiment behind his threat is still a bad omen for Russia’s security. At least in military terms, Russia’s logic in starting the conflict in March was to strike first against a potential enemy. Its commander in chief wanted to pre-empt what he saw as a future threat to Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol, on the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. “If we hadn’t done anything,” said President Vladimir Putin on April 17, a few weeks after annexing Crimea, “Ukraine would eventually be dragged into NATO. They’ll tell us: ‘This doesn’t concern you,’ and NATO ships will wind up in the city of Russia’s naval glory, in Sevastopol.”

This was a pretty far-fetched prospect at the time. The NATO military bloc, Russia’s enemy during the Cold War, had rebuffed Ukraine’s request for membership in 2008, and two years later, Ukraine’s parliament voted to drop all plans of joining the alliance. Putin’s generals still felt the danger of NATO appearing in Crimea was serious enough to justify a pre-emptive move, and they pulled it off. But the cost to Russian security has since been growing by the day as Ukraine’s armed forces grow stronger. In exchange for stopping the hypothetical approach of a potential enemy in Crimea, Russia has created a very real enemy all along its border with Ukraine.

Over the past few months Ukraine has rushed to revive its armed forces after two decades of mismanagement, corruption and a false sense of security which, among other things, lulled the military-industrial complex into a sort of prolonged hibernation. Now reservists are being called up to serve after years away from their bases. The Ministry of Defense has ordered idle weapons plants to renew production, including a thousand armored personnel carriers. The newly created National Guard has received tens of thousands of volunteers to fight in eastern Ukraine, and a handful of paramilitary battalions have assembled thousands more.

Perhaps most telling of all, there was no public outcry when Ukraine reinstated the military draft in May, nor when the parliament voted on July 31 to impose an extra 1.5 percent income tax across the country to help fund national defense. Ukrainians have recognized the need to have a formidable army, and they are prepared to sacrifice for its creation for the first time in their post-Soviet history.

For that they have Russia to thank—and Russia has itself to blame. In the spring, the Russian military would have faced little resistance in Ukraine if Putin had given the order to march across the border and conquer all of the country’s eastern and southern provinces. (Indeed, a top NATO commander estimated in April that Russia could accomplish this in under a week.) But now it would face a much more resilient opponent. In a nationwide survey conducted in May, 14 percent of respondents said they would volunteer for the army in case of a Russian invasion; 10 percent said they would engage in “underground or partisan activity” against Russia, meaning, in essence, guerrilla warfare.

So if Russia was hoping to steal a swift march on eastern Ukraine, it has missed its window of opportunity. A Russian invasion would result in a protracted conflict, one that could start to eat away at Putin’s popularity if Russian soldiers start coming home in body bags from an obvious war of aggression. That may be why the Kremlin seems content to keep funneling support to its proxy militias in eastern Ukraine for now. But at the current pace of its advance, the Ukrainian military will be able to rout the separatist rebels in a matter of months, if not weeks. “Then we will have to fortify our borders,” says Sergei Savitsky, a major in the Ukrainian engineer corps. “We need to seal it up tight and keep it that way.”

Sitting on the bank of the Bilenka River on a recent afternoon, Savitsky watched his fellow soldiers build a sturdy pontoon bridge, replacing the one that the rebels had blown up while retreating in early July. It seemed like a remarkable feat for an army that didn’t even have enough uniforms to clothe its soldiers in Crimea a few months ago, and it was hard not to wonder how they pulled it together that fast. “We always had the skilled men, the raw material,” Savitsky said. “We just needed something to shake it into action.” Now Russia has provided that wake up call, and whatever threat the eastward creep of NATO may have posed, it would not have advanced as suddenly or as tenaciously as Ukraine’s military revival.

TIME russia

In Russia, Crime Without Punishment

Vladimir Putin backs the rebels suspected of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Why each new crisis makes him stronger

The scene was almost too horrible to take in, and yet in a world of bristling threats no scene has been more revealing: under the baking July sun of eastern Ukraine, hundreds of bodies lay rotting as pro-Russian militiamen, some of them apparently drunk, brandished their weapons to keep European observers away. A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 bearing 298 souls–AIDS researchers, young lovers, eager children–had been blown out of the sky, apparently by a Russian-made missile, and the dead fell in a gruesome storm. One voice, and one voice only, could put an end to this indecent standoff over the innocent victims. But Vladimir Putin merely shrugged and pointed a finger at the Ukrainian government and, by extension, its Western allies. “Without a doubt,” Putin told a meeting of his economic aides on the night of the disaster, “the state over whose territory this happened bears the responsibility for this frightful tragedy.”

Had Putin finally gone too far? As the days passed and the stench rose, the coldly calculating Russian President got his answer: apparently not. While state-controlled media at home buried Russia’s role in the disaster under an avalanche of anti-Western propaganda, leaders in Europe and the U.S. found themselves stymied once again by Putin’s brazenness. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose nation lost 193 citizens in the attack (one of them a U.S.-passport holder) called pitifully on Putin to do “what is expected of him” in helping recover the bodies. U.S. President Barack Obama struck a similar tone on July 21 after the victims’ remains had been packed into refrigerated train cars out of reach of foreign investigators: “Given its direct influence over the separatists, Russia and President Putin in particular has direct responsibility to compel them to cooperate with the investigation. That is the least that they can do.”

That was the crisis in a nutshell: the least Putin could do was the most Obama could ask for. The American President announced no deadlines, drew no red lines and made no threats. Even as U.S. intelligence sources asserted with growing confidence that Russian weapons and Russian allies were behind the missile attack, U.S. diplomats were met with roadblocks as they tried to rally Europe to stiffen sanctions against Putin. Obama and Rutte spoke as leaders without leverage, for their voters aren’t interested in military conflict with Russia or its puppets. A generation of Westerners has grown up in the happy belief that the Cold War ended long ago and peace is Europe’s fated future. They are slow to rally to the chore of once again containing Russia’s ambitions.

So Putin presses ahead. His increasingly overt goal is to splinter Europe, rip up the NATO umbrella and restore Russian influence around the world. As if to put an exclamation point on that manifesto, the pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine apparently resumed their antiaircraft attacks less than a week after the destruction of Flight 17. On July 23, two military aircraft belonging to the pro-Western Ukrainian government were shot down just a few miles away from the airliner’s crash site.

And Putin evidently will keep going as long as each new crisis only makes him stronger. The 21st century czar has mastered the dark art of stirring up problems that only he can solve, so that Western leaders find themselves scolding him one minute while pleading with him the next. The crisis in Syria last year is a perfect example. He supplied weapons and training for the armies of President Bashar Assad, propping up the tyrant while Western statesmen demanded Assad’s ouster. Yet when Assad crossed the “red line” drawn by Obama and used chemical weapons against his own people, Putin stepped in to broker the solution. At the urging of the Russian President, Assad gave up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In turn, the U.S. backed away from air strikes in Syria. And guess who still reigns in Damascus? Putin’s ally Assad.

Other world leaders try to avoid crises; Putin feasts on them. When a pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine, Putin dashed in to annex the region of Crimea–an act that redrew the borders of Europe and snatched away Ukraine’s territorial jewel. Within a month, Western diplomats began stuffing the issue into the past. Why? Because by then, Russia had stolen a march on eastern Ukraine, giving the West another crisis to deal with–and another problem that only Putin could reconcile. He made a show of pulling Russian troops back a short distance from the border with Ukraine, but Russian arms and trainers kept the separatists supplied for the fight. And when the fighting produced the macabre spectacle of the rotting corpses, once again the instigator was in the driver’s seat.

“Mr. Putin, send my children home,” pleaded a heartbroken Dutch mother named Silene Fredriksz-Hogzand, whose son Bryce, along with his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers, were among the victims of Flight 17. And he did send them home–but only after the crash site had been so thoroughly looted and trampled that investigators may never be able to prove exactly what happened.

Divided We Stand

Can the West stop a figure who is determined to uphold the dreary habits of czars and Soviet leaders while projecting Russian exceptionalism and power? Putin doesn’t have a lot to worry about when he looks at the forces aligned against him. Obama, as the leader of a war-weary nation, has ruled out all military options, including the provision of weapons to Ukraine. Europe is both too divided and too dependent on Russian energy supplies to provoke any lasting rupture in relations. The only option would seem to be the steady ratcheting up of sanctions.

That’s harder than it sounds. Putin has allies in the heart of Europe–notably Italy, which now holds the rotating presidency of the E.U.–and it has lobbied against the sort of sanctions that could do serious damage to Russia’s economy. Cutting off trade, the Italians say (and they speak for others), would only reverse the current, inflicting substantial pain on European corporations that benefit from it. “The Europeans are in a panic over the U.S. line on sanctions,” says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political consultant who traveled to Europe in mid-July to rally support among pundits and politicians there. “As soon as the E.U. gets the slightest chance to turn away from Washington on the issue of Ukraine, they will take it.”

Even if Europe does begin to match Washington’s tough stance on sanctions, there is scant evidence to suggest that they will work. They did not, for example, dissuade Russia from allegedly giving the separatists sophisticated SA-11 missiles, one of which U.S. intelligence officials say was probably used to shoot down MH 17. Imposing sanctions may simply make Putin lash out more. “It’s like poking a bear in the paw with a needle,” says Andrei Illarionov, who served as Putin’s top economic adviser in the early 2000s. “Will it prevent him from ransacking your cooler? Probably not.”

In fact, the first three rounds of U.S. sanctions–targeting Russian officials, oligarchs and state-run companies–have done little to stop the bleeding of Ukraine. If anything, as the world turned its attention away from the conflict in the former Soviet republic in the past several weeks, the fighting there has worsened. The top NATO commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, says Russian weapons and paramilitary fighters have continued flowing through the holes at the border. Russian troops massed in western Russia have kept up the threat of a full-scale invasion. “Everything that Putin has done has shown that he is absolutely all in on this issue,” says Ian Bremmer, head of the New York City–based Eurasia Group consultancy. “The Russians do not back down.”

Crackdowns and Conspiracy Theories

Instead of chastening the Russian President, the prospect of isolation has only seemed to harden his resolve. Nor is there any sign that Moscow’s ruling class–a section of Russian society that constitutes a key pillar of support for the President–has flinched in the face of Western threats and sanctions. Putin’s public-approval rating is the envy of every Western leader, standing at 86% as of late June, 20 points higher than when the Ukraine crisis began last winter, according to the independent Levada-Center polling agency.

But even if more-meaningful sanctions were somehow enacted, there is no guarantee they would help shove Putin off his pedestal. The Russian President thrives in crisis because he so effectively controls the narrative in the motherland. Russia’s pro-Kremlin TV networks–both state-controlled and private–are the main source of information for 90% of Russians. This TV propaganda machine helps keep Putin secure in an era when other strongmen have been toppled in revolutions driven in part by social media. Apart from a state-backed crackdown this year on independent news websites, the Kremlin’s supporters have proved adept at drowning out online dissent and flooding the Russian-language web with Putinthink.

His media networks have cast the conflict in eastern Ukraine as a righteous struggle, pitting a resurgent Russia against the conniving West. The pro-Putin talking heads on these channels hit reliably similar themes, championing Russian dignity, Orthodox Christian values, the survival of the Russian-speaking world and the fall of the American menace. Now MH 17 is being crammed into this narrative. After a brief wait for Putin to set the tone, a tide of conspiracy theories flooded the Russian media, all of them blaming Ukraine or its ally, the U.S., for shooting down the plane. With feelings toward the U.S. at an all-time low in Levada’s surveys, this wasn’t a difficult sell for a populace weaned on the dogmas of the Cold War. “It goes without saying that everything bad that happens to us is initiated by the United States,” says Mikhail Zygar, editor in chief of Russia’s only independent news channel. “That’s something many Russian politicians or just ordinary Russians get with their mother’s milk.”

Putin’s designs, meanwhile, are far grander than Ukraine. He hopes the conflict on Russia’s western flank will create divisions within Europe that shrink American influence. His vision–which he referred to on April 17, at the peak of Russia’s euphoria over the conquest of Crimea–is the creation of a “greater Europe” that would stretch from Portugal to Russia’s Pacific Coast, with Moscow as one of its centers of influence. By creating problems like Ukraine that only he can solve, he puts himself in the center of European politics. Russia’s vast oil and gas resources–on which Europe relies–only add to his influence.

The U.S., in this scenario, becomes a rival rather than an ally of Europe. “The United States is a major global player, and at a certain point it seemed to think that it was the only leader and a unipolar system was established. Now we can see that is not the case,” Putin said at the end of his appearance on a call-in show that day in April. “If they try to punish someone like misbehaving children or to stand them in the corner on a sack of peas or do something to hurt them, eventually they will bite the hand that feeds them. Sooner or later, they will realize this.”

A Case of Russian Pride

What happens in the aftermath of the MH 17 disaster will test Putin’s assessment of declining American power. The coming days will determine whether the U.S. and Europe can form a united front against a country that virtually the entire world believes handed a loaded weapon to an unregulated militia. “We can’t do this unilaterally,” says a senior official in the Obama Administration. “We’ve got to work with the Europeans on a strategy to help contain Russia.”

So far there’s not much unity on show. Four days after the downing of the airliner, when the bodies of the victims were still stuck in rebel territory, French President François Hollande said France would go ahead with the sale of at least one warship to Russia, the helicopter carrier Mistral, against the direct objections of the U.S. and U.K. “The symbolism is terrible,” the Administration official tells Time on condition of anonymity.

The symbolism was not much better when E.U. Foreign Ministers met on July 22 to discuss ways to isolate Russia further. Even with emotions still raw over the downing of MH 17, the ministers did not bring European sanctions into line with those of the U.S., choosing instead to add a few names to their blacklist of rebel leaders and Russian technocrats. They pledged to draft a list of harsher punishments later in the week, possibly including an arms embargo. Even the Dutch, who lost so many, do not yet seem keen to take the lead. “In the near term, much will depend on the Dutch and where European opinion settles,” says the Administration official. “The Europeans had already been moving forward–slowly, but forward.”

Certainly, the Dutch-led investigation into the shoot-down isn’t likely to trouble Putin soon. British experts are analyzing the plane’s flight recorders. Forensic experts are examining the wreckage that was scattered across an area of several square miles. The investigation could take years, and it will be complicated by the fact that the people likely responsible for the disaster–the rebel fighters–had several days to remove evidence of their culpability.

There is always the chance of a quick and unexpected breakthrough–a missile fragment with a chemical signature or a serial number identifying its source. One of the trigger pullers could break his silence and confess to the crime. That could lead to an arrest, extradition, a trial and conviction years down the road. But these are chances Putin seems willing to take. “Maybe he can still apologize,” says Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Adviser under President Jimmy Carter. “But he would have to swallow a lot of mendacity.”

Besides, for now, Vladimir Putin answers to virtually no one. His command of the Russian airwaves will help him manage any blowback at home, spinning even the most damning evidence as part of an ancient American conspiracy. The more the world picks on him and Russia, the more it feeds a Russian will to push back, out of a sense of pride and victimhood. Isolation will still be the West’s only means of attack, and if Europe has lacked the will to impose it after Syria, after Crimea and even amid the global outrage over MH 17, it is unlikely to take action once the shock of the crash subsides. Putin has played this game before. He need only bide his time for the West’s own inaction to clear him.


TIME Ukraine

Ukraine Rebels Haul Away Victims of Malaysia Airlines Crash

Emergency Workers carry a body at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region July 19, 2014.
Emergency workers carry a body at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 19, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

Victims' families have been forced to wait and wonder as pro-Russian separatists load bodies of the dead onto trucks

The engine of the old Zil military truck sputtered as the rebel fighter put the gearbox in reverse, mixing the smell of exhaust fumes with the sickening stench of death already hanging in the air. Behind him on the side of a country road in eastern Ukraine was a row of corpses, roughly two dozen in all, concealed in black body bags. They were some of the victims of the Malaysia Airlines crash that took nearly 300 lives on Thursday, and as the driver moved his makeshift hearse into position alongside them, he came within a couple feet of driving over one of the bodies before a few of his buddies yelled for him to stop.

Whatever hopes remained of a thorough and professional investigation of the crash ebbed away on Saturday evening as the workers began to lift the bodies into the bed of the truck, stacking them on top of one another. They all refused to say where the victims were being taken. They refused to say whether the flight recorders had been found among the debris, which was scattered over an area several kilometers in diameter. “Just let us work!” one of them snapped at a TIME reporter. “We’ve been here for three days, sleeping three hours a night in the fields with the corpses all around us.”

But that hardship probably pales in comparison to the suffering the victims’ relatives are experiencing. So far no relatives of the victims have been to the crash site, which lies inside the region of eastern Ukraine that is controlled by pro-Russian separatist militias. Their fighters, who are widely suspected of shooting down the plane in the first place, possibly by mistake, have refused even to allow a group of European observers to fully inspect the crash site.

“Unfortunately the task was made very difficult,” said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, which sent a delegation on Thursday to monitor the wreckage and the condition of the victims’ remains. “Upon arrival at the site,” he added during a press conference on Friday, “we encountered armed personnel who acted in a very impolite and unprofessional manner. Some of them even looked slightly intoxicated.” One of the gunmen fired shots into the air, Bociurkiw said, and the observer mission left after about an hour.

The OSCE observers’ access was not much better on Saturday, when the local workers – who were dressed in the uniforms of emergency personnel – waited until the foreign observers were gone before they began loading the dead into the trucks. Outrage over the apparent disrespect for the dead, the obvious contamination of the crime scene, and the lack of access for relatives, has poured in from around the world. But it seems to make little difference to the rebel commanders, who turned two regions of eastern Ukraine into lawless breakaway republics about three months ago. Every arm of the Ukrainian government – from traffic police to coroners – have effectively abandoned these territories to the rebels.

Even accessing the site on Saturday from the nearby city of Donetsk required passing through at least four rebel checkpoints, where haggard and stone-faced gunmen peered into the passing cars, checked the documents of their passengers and sometimes rummaged through the trunks and cabins in search of weapons. Many of the fighters are poorly trained and mishandle their weapons, switching off the safety switches on their Kalashnikovs and holding their fingers on the triggers as they interrogate motorists and passersby.

Numerous cases of kidnapping and violence have occurred at the rebel checkpoints over the past few months, so the Ukrainian government has discouraged the victims’ relatives to pass through these regions. “Our efforts to arrange the procedures [at the crash site] in a proper way are being impeded by the terrorists,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry said in a statement to the victims’ families on Friday. The ministry offered to put the relatives up at hotels in nearby cities outside of rebel control, where they would have to endure the agony of waiting to see the victims’ bodies.

It is impossible to say with certainty how long that wait would be, but with every day that passes, the rebel fighters who control the crash site have more time to tamper with the evidence of what actually happened over the skies of eastern Ukraine on Thursday afternoon. Unless their commanders are forced, pressured or convinced to allow outside investigators to access the wreckage and the remains of the victims, there may never be closure in the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

TIME Ukraine

Rebels Control the Crash Site Of Downed Malaysia Plane

The site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash is seen near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014.
The site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash is seen near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

MH17 crashed in territory controlled by the rebels. They're looking for the flight recorders and say they'll send them to Moscow

The Malaysia Airlines flight apparently shot down on Thursday over eastern Ukraine crashed in a kind of no man’s land. The central government withdrew from that patch of territory months ago, leaving it to the bands of separatist fighters who now represent the only figures of authority around the crash site. One of their first orders of business, their leaders say, will be to recover the flight recorders from flight MH17 and hand them over to their allies in Moscow. “High-class experts work there,” Andrei Purgin, one of the top rebel commanders, told local media hours after the crash. “They will be able to establish the cause of the catastrophe for sure.”

But that plan may not sit well with the families of the passengers – nearly 300 of them are feared dead – nor with the foreign governments whose citizens have perished in the crash. Since the armed rebellion began in eastern Ukraine this spring, Moscow has been accused of aiding the rebel fighters, providing them with weapons, volunteers and political cover, while the Russian media has cast them as heroes and Russian patriots. The crash of flight MH17 has left the rebel leaders scrambling to deny all involvement in shooting it down, and now they may be in control of important sources of evidence that might help determine the cause of the disaster. Without the permission of the rebels, it would be impossible for any outsiders even to recover the remains of the victims.

So far the militants claim to be guarding the site. But Sergei Kavtaradze, a spokesman for the self-proclaimed separatist government, said that the wreckage could be bombed from the air at any moment. “We have received intelligence that an explosive rocket strike could hit the crash site very soon in order to alter the scene and destroy clues,” he told Russia’s leading news agency, RIA Novosti. “We call on the international community to help pressure the Ukrainian side, so that all military actions around the fallen plane stop.”

The Ukrainian government, for its part, has condemned the downing of the plane as a “terrorist attack” and called for an urgent investigation, with President Petro Poroshenko urging the International Civil Aviation Organization and foreign governments to send delegations to help. “All possible search and rescue operations are being carried out,” he said in a statement on his website.

But it is not clear what operations he meant. The town of Torez, where flight MH17 reportedly fell, is deep in the heart of rebel territory, and the Ukrainian authorities cannot even reach it without first forcing the separatist fighters to retreat from the area. At the recent pace of fighting, that could take days if not weeks, allowing the rebel commanders plenty of time to remove the flight recorders and otherwise manipulate the crash site.

The simplest solution, like so much about the conflict in eastern Ukraine, would seem to wind through Moscow, which could encourage the separatist leaders to allow investigators to access the scene. But until then, it will remain under the control of the very people who may have caused the tragedy in the first place.

TIME Ukraine

Exclusive: Separatist Leader Says Rebels Did Not Shoot Down Flight MH17

Rebels in eastern Ukraine tell TIME's Simon Shuster they lack the firepower to have shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Their recent record of surface-to-air attacks suggests otherwise

The pro-Russia separatist leader was not in a mood to discuss the downing of a passenger plane over eastern Ukraine on Thursday. He had heard about it on the news – 280 passengers and 15 crew on a Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur – possibly shot out of the sky with a missile or some other projectile over the war-ravaged region of Donetsk.

Ukrainian officials had already laid the blame on the separatist rebels in that region. So who was responsible? Oleg Tsarev, one of the leaders of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, said the rebels did not shoot the plane down. “We don’t have weapons that can take down a plane from that altitude,” he told TIME, minutes after news of the crash broke.

But only three weeks ago they had plenty of those weapons. At the end of June, the Russian state media had congratulated the rebels on their latest military acquisition – a set of Russian-made BUK missile launchers seized from a Ukrainian air force base. “The Donetsk resistance fighters have captured an anti-aircraft military station,” declared the Kremlin’s main television network Vesti, which has been cheering on the rebel fighters since the war in eastern Ukraine began this spring. “The skies above Donetsk will now be protected by the BUK surface-to-air missile complex,” said the headline on the channel’s website.

The rebels quickly seemed to put their new rockets to work. The downing of Ukrainian military aircraft has become almost commonplace in recent days. An AN-26 military transport plane was shot down on Monday over eastern Ukraine, and the rebel leaders confirmed the same day that they had taken its four crew members hostage after they had ejected to safety. In the two days that followed, another two Ukrainian military aircraft, both of them SU-25 fighter jets, were reportedly shot down by the rebels. And Russian media trumpeted another rebel strike late on Thursday afternoon, claiming that a Ukrainian AN-24 had gone down over the town of Torez.

That was just a few hours before reports first emerged in the Russian media that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 had been shot down over the town of Torez, just near the Russian border with Ukraine. The Ukrainian government and the rebel leaders immediately began trading blame. But the separatists’ claims that they lacked the firepower to shoot down that plane rang hollow. Asked about the BUK missiles that the rebels acquired in June – and apparently used successfully since then against the Ukrainian military – Tsarev said, “I have no more information for you,” and hung up the phone.


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