On the way to Volnovakha the little gears in my mind were struggling to turn. Sleep is the lubricant that keeps the brain from seizing and I was working on about four hours worth last Monday morning.
Volnovahka is small city with less than 30,000 inhabitants in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast. An old train engine set up on display is a giveaway to the city’s main industry: producing rail cars and servicing trains.
But I don’t have any particular fetish for railways or even the typically Soviet-era park in the city centre. Somewhere within striking distance of Volnovakha was a Ukrainian military camp with all that kind of stuff journalists do have a hankering for: photo-ops with tanks and stoic looking troopers wielding Kalashnikov rifles.
Our contact was a city politician, 32-year-old Dimitri Lubinets, from Batkivshchyna, the All-Ukrainian Union or “Fatherland” party, which holds 3 of 36 seats on something like the city council of Volnovakha.
Trying to actually connect with Lubinets felt like meeting up to buy drugs. There was something about a licence plate number and a white van, and some waiting around.
When we at last connected with him he took us into a building near the train engine monument and up a set of steps and into a large room that appeared to serve as an office for his party.
Our driver, Vlad, stayed behind. The three of us – Max, our interpreter, another journalist from Holland, and myself – sat down on a row of seats against the wall and Lubinets sat at a table some strange distance away and the interview began.
The situation with the military in Ukraine is grim. Years of neglect have left it ill-equipped and in no position to resist the superior Russian forces which would likely steam-roll it in short order.
Lubinets says that on March 14 a military convoy trying to pass through the area en route to reinforcing the border was blocked by flag-waving activists, including those from the so-called People’s Militia of Donbass. Some managed to get through, some did not, he said.
Last week the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) detained the leader of the People’s Militia of Donbass. But it’s not clear if there is any connection to the March 14 incident.
There is a groundswell of support for Russia in this region that cannot be dismissed as a few hired hands from across the border. These people are vocal and not afraid to get loud in the street. And this is something Western readers have to grasp.
There are also many people here in favour of a united Ukraine and I’ve met some of them. But the aggressive show of support for Russia seems to intimidate this side into almost complete silence.
According to Lubinets, some of the locals are actually very supportive of the military – bringing soldiers food and juices. Lubinets said he saw one old man use the last 50 Hyrvnia ($5) from his pension to buy food for the military.
Businessmen, he said, are even buying uniforms and optics for the soldiers’ weapons and medicine was being sent from Maidan in Kiev. We finally got escorted to the military encampment and Lubinets and a compatriot of his brought two air filters for the military vehicles, as if to demonstrate why the armed forces have supposedly become known by the moniker of the “people’s army”.
The military encampment looks like a battle map from a video game. A barren and rugged looking piece of the earth by an abandoned gravel pit with some rusting piece of industrial equipment in the background.
As birds chirp incessantly in the background, the 28-year-old captain of a communications brigade, Sergei Pischal, told us the army is growing and explained to us that the army needs better equipment.
A radio tower to connect the military HQ with the border brigades is set up behind him and a couple of men are digging holes in the earth. Yet for a communications brigade, they’re ironically in the dark. The Captain Pischal says they have no access to information from the mass media.
He seems to lack the commanding air you expect from a military officer and seems almost timid but he confirmed that there is a lot of moral-building assistance from the local population.
Last year Ukraine ended mandatory military service and salaries for contract staff were supposed to double in 2014. Yet despite any attempts to improve the forces, it still looks like this lot wouldn’t last half an hour were the Russian army to come rolling through the nearby village.
Supposedly some members of the armed forces have had to buy their own uniforms and the soldiers that we saw did not even all have matching outfits. One soldier was even wearing a surplus German military uniform. Still, Captain Pischal puts on a brave show and sarcastically wishes the Russians “good luck” should they try and invade Ukraine.