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Ten years ago, Donbas  An OSCE observer reconstructs his experience on the ground in Luhansk at the outset of Russia’s war

Source: Meduza

Ten years ago, Donbas  An OSCE observer reconstructs his experience on the ground in Luhansk at the outset of Russia’s war

Source: Meduza
Monitors for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine patrolling near Yasynuvata-Avdiivka, Donetsk region. May 2016.
Monitors for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine patrolling near Yasynuvata-Avdiivka, Donetsk region. May 2016.
Evgeny Maloletka / OSCE

International civil servant Andrea Cellino led the first team of civilian observers deployed to the city of Luhansk in April 2014, as part of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. Tasked with reporting on the deteriorating security situation and promoting dialogue between the Ukrainian authorities and armed “separatist” groups, Cellino and his team soon found themselves working in a war zone. But even then, Russia’s takeover of Donbas didn’t feel inevitable, he says. With this year marking the tenth anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Cellino went back through his original reports for the OSCE to reconstruct his experience on the ground. Though we now know terms like “separatist” don’t accurately describe Russia’s proxy forces in Ukraine’s east, we have preserved the language used at the time. What follows is not meant to be a comprehensive account of the war’s origins. Instead, it offers a window into the granular yet often limited perspective of someone in the thick of a crisis spinning out of control. 

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
Andrea Cellino (left) and other OSCE monitors verify a temporary truce they arranged in Trokhizbenka, Luhansk region. November 23, 2014.
Evgeniy Maloletka / OSCE

Early one morning in April 2014, I took a flight from Kyiv to Donetsk, then a local train to Luhansk to join the team of OSCE monitors I had been assigned to lead. My first weeks with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine would be nothing short of dramatic, coinciding with the emergence of Russia-backed “separatist” movements in Ukraine’s two easternmost regions, Luhansk and Donetsk, and the beginning of Kyiv’s military campaign against them. 

The OSCE’s 57 participating states created the SMM on March 21, 2014, at the Ukrainian government’s request. I was seconded to the monitoring mission by Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Tasked with monitoring and reporting on the political and security situation across the entire country in the wake of the Maidan Revolution and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the mission would soon be operating from a war zone.

Because of the mission’s hurried launch, a lack of material support complicated the work of my team of 10 monitors (soon to be increased to 20), who started deploying to Luhansk in early April. We operated without an office, using rented private apartments to meet. We had to share laptops and a limited number of cars — mostly borrowed from other OSCE missions. Two interpreters who could also provide administrative support were hired locally. There was no professional security officer attached to the team until the end of June.  

On April 6, under the leadership of my deputy Gaël Guichard, an experienced Russia and Ukraine specialist, the team witnessed a crowd of up to 5,000 people take over the local office of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). This happened despite the presence of some 400 police officers, including riot units guarding the building’s entrance. The building housed an armory that allegedly contained more than 1,000 pieces of weaponry. In the days that followed, the occupiers built three rows of barricades, with tires and razor wire. Armed men presided over the building, filtering bystanders and checking IDs. 

Pro-Russian demonstrators during the storming of the SBU headquarters in Luhansk
Igor Golovniov / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images
Pro-Russian militants occupy the regional administration building in Luhansk. April 29, 2014.
Alex Inoy / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
Luhansk. April 9, 2014.
Alex Inoy / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

During those early weeks, several militant groups were active in Luhansk, including both anti-Maidan or “federalist” militias opposed to the government in Kyiv and pro-Maidan or “union” partisans. The latter included moderate pro-Western activists as well as far-right groups affiliated with the Right Sector movement, a coalition that would soon become a political party. The regional administration was still loyal to Kyiv, although members of the Party of Regions — ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian party — retained a majority of seats in the regional council. 

On April 12, an armed group led by Igor Girkin — a retired FSB intelligence colonel known as “Strelkov” — attacked Sloviansk, a city in the Donetsk region, and occupied key administrative buildings, including the local SBU office. The next day, Ukraine’s Acting President, Oleksandr Turchynov, announced the start of an “anti-terrorist operation” against pro-Russian separatists. These events are widely considered as the start of the war in Donbas. 

A Russia-backed militiaman stands guard outside the seized government building in Donetsk. April 15, 2014.
Pierre Crom / Getty Images
Russia-backed fighters gather outside the seized administration building in Sloviansk before leaving for the frontline. April 18, 2014.
Pierre Crom / Getty Images
Residents drive past a burned out vehicle after fighting between Russia-backed fighters and Ukrainian forces in Sloviansk. April 20, 2014.
Pierre Crom / Getty Images
Chapter I


By the time I arrived in Luhansk on April 17, the OSCE team had already met with two representatives of the SBU building’s occupiers. According to them, the occupation wasn’t aimed at promoting “separatism,” but at “protecting the rights of Luhansk citizens.” They were critical of the government in Kyiv and the regional administration in Luhansk, which they deemed “illegitimate,” but they didn’t clearly articulate their objectives. Pro-Maidan activists, including moderates and right-wing factions, expressed similar dissatisfaction toward the national government, my colleagues reported, suggesting that the OSCE could try and launch a local dialogue to avoid an escalation of the situation. 

The Geneva Statement, a document issued by top diplomats from several countries (including Russia), reinforced this idea. 

In the days that followed, my team worked relentlessly to convince local political groups and activists, as well as the OSCE leadership in Kyiv and Vienna, that launching a comprehensive dialogue was the right way to address local grievances and try to defuse tensions. Gaël, who had led the team before my arrival, had established all of the necessary local contacts and gotten most of them on board. The political and social situation in Luhansk, which at that moment was somewhat calmer than in Donetsk, seemed to allow for some margin of maneuver. 

A pro-Ukrainian rally in Luhansk. April 15, 2014.
Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

On April 21, a day after a Right Sector paramilitary unit attacked the separatists in Sloviansk on Kyiv’s orders, the SBU building occupiers declared Soviet veteran and former mining manager Valery Bolotov the “people’s governor” of Luhansk. They then issued an ultimatum to the government in Kyiv, demanding amnesty for “all political prisoners,” the restoration of Russian as an official language, and a status referendum for the Luhansk region. A deadline for Kyiv to fulfill these demands was set for April 29, at 2:00 p.m. local time. However, the militants had already called a “referendum” for May 11. According to leaflets distributed across town, the referendum question would be: “Do you support the act of state self-rule of the Luhansk People’s Republic?”

On April 24, rumors of Russian troops crossing Ukraine’s eastern border put our team on alert for 24 hours. This, as well as news that members of a pro-Ukraine paramilitary group had been detained in Shchastya (a small countryside town that hosted a police training center) and handed over to the Luhansk SBU building’s occupiers, further heightened tensions. By contrast, the streets and squares of Luhansk were increasingly quiet, especially at night, and activists from all sides reduced the frequency of their public gatherings. 

Two days later, we sat down over coffee with the head of the local SBU branch, an officer from Lviv who’d been appointed shortly after the occupation. He admitted to being in regular contact with the SBU building’s occupiers and confirmed our sense that not all of them could be considered “separatists” or even “pro-Russia.” At the same time, he believed they were receiving financial help from “Ukrainian oligarchs” and “from abroad.” Nevertheless, he remained convinced that the situation could still be resolved peacefully. 

Chapter II

The deadline

The night before the April 29 deadline, Gaël and I, together with two colleagues, were allowed inside the SBU building to meet with the occupiers’ leadership. In total darkness, a young militant guided us through the barricades. Armed men in camouflage guarding the entrance of the Soviet-style building led us through a glass door and downstairs, through a poorly lit corridor and then out again, to a separate, smaller building. In a large room on the first floor, four men were sitting around a table. At the back of the room, behind a desk and a computer screen, sat Valery Bolotov. A large map of the Luhansk region covered the entire wall behind him.

The men introduced themselves as the leadership of the “south-east army” (SEA). In response to our questions, Bolotov said the occupation’s aim was “to protect the rights” of Luhansk citizens, to remove the current government (which they considered “illegitimate”), and to achieve “the right of self-determination.” One of his associates added that the ultimatum “could be lifted” if Kyiv appointed a new governor, police chief, and regional prosecutor. (None of these conditions were included among their earlier demands). 

While they “welcomed” the OSCE’s role in fostering dialogue, they said it was too late, as the ultimatum’s deadline was hours away. The SEA leaders also claimed they had been trying to “prevent violence” in the region, and warned that they would “stop their preventive efforts” once the deadline expired. To me, this sounded like a threat.  

At the end of the meeting, we inquired about reports that pro-Ukraine activists were being held in the SBU building. A few minutes later, Temur Yuldashev, the commander of the paramilitary unit detained in Shchastya, was brought to the meeting room. His face was bruised and swollen; he said locals in Shchastya had beaten him and that he was being held as a “human shield” in case the SBU building came under attack. The occupiers did not offer any clarifications but assured us that Yuldashev would be released soon. (Yuldashev managed to escape captivity after 35 days.)

The following day, one hour after the ultimatum’s deadline, hundreds of demonstrators stormed the regional government and prosecutor’s office buildings in Luhansk. Shortly afterwards, we saw Ukrainian police officers leaving the government building with their weapons and anti-riot gear. Members of my team were able to enter both buildings later in the day, and found several offices ransacked, with broken windows; staff said equipment had been stolen, including computers. 

Hours later, gunmen seized a regional TV station so a representative of the “Free Luhansk Republic” could give a live statement. “I ask you not to panic, everything will be fine. We’re preparing a referendum, which will take place on May 11,” he told viewers. “Everything is under control.”

Pro-Russian demonstrators occupy the regional government building in Luhansk and lower the Ukrainian flag. April 29, 2014.
Alex Inoy / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
Armed men stand inside the seized regional prosecutor’s office building in Luhansk. April 30, 2014.
Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
Residents walk through the barricaded area around the SBU building in Luhansk. April 30, 2014.
Scott Olson / Getty Images


The following days were extremely confusing, and my small team had a hard time tracking the fast succession of events, news, and rumors in the region. The city itself remained superficially calm, with the population going about their normal lives. Yet under the surface, Luhansk appeared caught in a whirlwind of dramatic events: anti-government forces made several unsuccessful attempts at capturing the regional police headquarters; a prominent pro-Kyiv lawyer was injured in a shooting; on May 1, hundreds of people rallied outside the newly occupied regional government building to celebrate Labor Day, chanting “Russia, Russia” and holding red Soviet flags. 

Pro-Ukraine activists with their yellow-and-blue Ukrainian or E.U. flags had all but disappeared from public spaces. When Bolotov announced a region-wide “state of emergency” on May 3, he also told all Ukrainian security forces to leave the region and declared a ban on the activities of all political parties and civil society organizations. 

Although security concerns prevented us from regularly monitoring the situation outside of the city, developments in several smaller centers corroborated the sense of chaos and confusion across the region, which Bolotov’s “army” did not fully control. We learned from local sources of attempts to take over administration buildings in the smaller towns of Pervomaisk, Sverdlovsk (now Dovzhansk), and Rubizhne, which local authorities averted through negotiations with the insurgents. 

More significantly, other armed groups had become active in the region’s south. The “Cossack National Guard” led by ataman (commander) Nikolay Kozitsyn, which gathered self-styled descendants of the Don Cossack tradition, had occupied the local government building in the city of Antratsyt. In Sverdlovsk, another self-styled Cossack, Aleksey Mozgovoy, led the Prizrak (“Ghost”) brigade, a smaller militia loosely connected with Kozitsyn’s group. Both declared themselves in opposition to the Ukrainian government, but independent from the SEA.

In the days preceding the “referendum,” we learned (via the Luhansk region’s Acting Governor Iryna Verihina and local police officers, who hoped to avoid the highly divisive and illegal vote) that dialogue between Kyiv and the SEA was ongoing. But the “referendum” went ahead, despite warnings from Kyiv that the government would not recognize the results. 

An armed pro-Russian voter holds a ballot during the “referendum” on self-rule in Luhansk. May 11, 2014.
Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

My team observed the vote from outside a few polling stations in the city and in nearby towns, as the OSCE head of mission had instructed us to avoid any involvement that could lend legitimacy to the process. Residents did not appear to be queuing or rushing to cast their vote on the very ambiguously formulated question on “the act of self-rule of the Luhansk People’s Republic.” In any case, Bolotov’s right-hand man Aleksey Karyakin had confirmed to us that the “referendum” was really “about separatism.” 

The following day, Bolotov’s camp announced that the voter turnout had been 75 percent (more than 1.3 million people), 96 percent of whom had voted in favor of “self-rule” and 3.8 percent against. Bolotov then declared the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) an independent state. 

Our understanding at the time was that while people who went to the polling stations generally shared anti-government sentiments, they did not necessarily support integration with Russia. An independent poll conducted in Ukraine’s southeast in April 2014 indicated that anti-government and even separatist sentiments were prevalent in the Luhansk region, but a majority of people generally opposed joining the Russian Federation. The ambiguity of the “referendum” question had purposefully exploited these feelings.

There didn’t seem to be a plan for the days after the vote. On May 13, Bolotov was shot; an LNR spokesman said the “assassination attempt” occurred while the “people’s governor” was on his way to “negotiations over the future of Luhansk.” The spokesman added that Bolotov was recovering in a private clinic. A few days later, Ukrainian border guards arrested Bolotov as he attempted to cross back into the country from Russia. 

While armed men from the SEA soon managed to liberate Bolotov in a shootout, the whole episode made it apparent that separatist forces weren’t in full control or on the same page. The regional police chief confirmed this to our team: though Ukrainian authorities could still enforce law and order in the northern districts, he said, various irregular groups were fighting for the control of the rest of the Luhansk region.

Self-proclaimed “people’s governor” Valery Bolotov (center) gives a speech at a rally after the “referendum” in Luhansk. May 12, 2014.
Aleksey Koyalev / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
Chapter Iv


On top of the internal rivalries among separatist groups, the leadership of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” was beginning to feel the pressure of the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ offensive. News of clashes in the neighboring region of Donetsk, in particular around Sloviansk, prompted the LNR leaders to consolidate their positions.

On May 18, a makeshift “parliament” promoted Bolotov to “head of the republic,” named Karyakin “parliamentary speaker,” and approved a “provisional constitution” in haste. That same day, the SEA took over the regional police headquarters and installed a “people’s interior minister.” On May 22, Bolotov declared “martial law,” announced a military mobilization, and appealed to Russia to send in “peacekeeping troops.”

With hindsight, it’s clear that Botolov’s trip to Russia was a turning point. However, comments in our reports from that time didn’t seem to indicate that Russian influence was particularly strong, nor that Moscow’s agents were very active in the region. This could have been due to the total uncertainty on the ground as different forces vied for control. Or perhaps the Kremlin still wasn’t certain on which horse to bet.

That said, my team’s reports on meetings with the armed groups in the region’s south revealed some evidence of Russian interference. Both Mozgovoy’s militia and Kozitsyn’s “Cossack National Guard” displayed Russian gear or mentioned links with Russia. In particular, the former displayed propaganda material from Russia’s far-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), while the latter admitted having close links with Russian Cossack groups. Kozitsyn’s militia also boasted a well-stocked pool of military vehicles, suspiciously modern for a local armed group. 

Both groups declared themselves “separatists” but also claimed they supported an autonomous Luhansk maintaining good relations with both Ukraine and Russia. Although, if this were not possible, they would prefer to be “linked with Russia,” they said. 


‘We have to prove Putin wrong’ Human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oleksandra Matviichuk on pursuing justice for Ukraine in wartime


‘We have to prove Putin wrong’ Human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oleksandra Matviichuk on pursuing justice for Ukraine in wartime

On May 22, the commander of the Ukrainian army’s 24th battalion informed us that Ukrainian troops were attempting to retake the town of Rubizhne, north of Luhansk, to ensure that voting could take place in Ukraine’s snap presidential election scheduled for May 25.

Campaigning for the presidential election, which was in full swing across the country, was but a distant echo in Luhansk. After Bolotov imposed “martial law,” many of the city’s shops, cafes, and banks remained closed. The number of people and cars in the streets noticeably decreased. Some train links to and from Kyiv and Kharkiv were suspended.

On May 24, the Russian state-controlled media outlet RT announced that the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” had agreed to form a “Novorossiya union” as a result of the recent “referenda on independence from Ukraine.” It also reported that delegates from eight Ukrainian regions had signed “a manifesto vowing self-determination and protection of people from ‘Nazi gangs’ terror.’” The LNR leadership denied reaching a deal on establishing “Novorossiya,” explaining that the two “republics” had simply signed a cooperation agreement. 

The following day, a Sunday, most Luhansk and Donetsk residents could not vote in the Ukrainian presidential election. Despite the Ukrainian army’s efforts to liberate areas north of both cities, it had been impossible for the authorities to administer the vote.

The Ukrainian army resumed its offensive on May 27, focusing on Rubizhne and the area north of the industrial town of Sievierodonetsk, having possibly identified weaknesses among the separatist forces. That same day, Bolotov publicly announced that the LNR had sent forces north, as well as to Sloviansk and Donetsk, to assist the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” 

News of Ukrainian military advances sowed increasing divisions within the separatist camp. Many armed groups outside Luhansk city were not only acting independently of the LNR leadership, but also questioning and opposing it, as they considered it “too soft” vis-à-vis Kyiv. In response, LNR leaders resorted to stronger repression of opponents and journalists within the city.

Ukrainian Internal Troops guard the Interior Ministry building in Luhansk. May 18, 2014.
Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
A man paints the colors of the Ukrainian flag on a lamp post in Dobropillya, Donetsk region. May 21, 2014.
Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images
A view from the occupied regional government building in Luhansk in the aftermath of the bombing. June 3, 2014.
Janos Chiala / NurPhoto / Corbis / Getty Images
Chapter V


On May 29, the sound of distant gunfire and explosions woke me up just before dawn. The fighting had reached Luhansk: skirmishes between separatist forces and the Ukrainian National Guard were ongoing about three kilometers (less than two miles) from the city center. We later learned that over the past 24 hours, the SEA had been trying to capture a National Guard base. Unable to observe directly for fear of ending up in the middle of armed clashes, we had to rely on media reports.

But that day, our attention and concerns turned to another development: one of our teams that had gone to observe the situation in Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk was missing. The four monitors and one interpreter, who traveled in two separate cars, were not responding to our calls. We soon learned that armed men had detained them in Sievierodonetsk. 

We came to believe that a group affiliated with Kozitsyn’s Cossacks had taken the monitors as human shields, to discourage a Ukrainian attack on the so-called “triangle” between Rubizhne, Sievierodonetsk, and Lysychansk, where chemical plants and research centers stocked large quantities of possibly hazardous materials. Our efforts to negotiate with the LNR leadership for their release had no effect, demonstrating how deeply the divisions and rivalries among “separatist” groups were affecting the security of Luhansk.

The situation continued to deteriorate, with ongoing fighting in some southern areas of the city and its surroundings. Separatist forces attacked National Guard facilities, mostly to seize weapons; on June 2, Ukrainian border guards also came under attack from separatists and “other forces” coming across the border with Russia. That afternoon, the Ukrainian air force carried out a missile strike on the occupied regional administration building in the center of Luhansk, killing at least eight people. Many residents started fleeing the region, most of them using the remaining train connections.

An elderly woman stands in a crowd of refugees near a bus. Izyum, Kharkiv region. June 13, 2014.
Sergii Kharchenko / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

In agreement with the OSCE leadership, my team evacuated from Luhansk between June 1 and 3. Fifteen monitors were relocated to Kharkiv, where the mission provided psychological assistance and started working to reorganize monitoring in the Luhansk region, focusing initially on the north. I remained in Luhansk together with two colleagues and one interpreter, to report on the latest developments, support efforts to liberate our colleagues, and ensure communication with the separatist forces.

In Kyiv on June 7, Petro Poroshenko was sworn in as the new democratically elected president of Ukraine.

The four OSCE monitors from my team were released on June 28 after a month of detention, psychologically drained but in good health. 

* * *

Reflecting on that early period of the OSCE mission to Luhansk and re-reading our reports from that time, it’s difficult not to sense a missed opportunity. In the spring of 2014, “separatist” movements were active in many Ukrainian cities. Russia covertly supported anti-Maidan activists in Odesa, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, and Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro), but none of these movements succeeded in creating institutions and those cities remained firmly under Kyiv’s control. Could the same have been possible in Luhansk? 

True, room for negotiations was very limited, but many of the political forces active in the region strongly indicated their willingness to discuss solutions with the government other than a runaway “republic.” Were they all speaking in good faith? It’s hard to say with absolute certainty. Some analysts have argued that perhaps a government in Kyiv fully empowered by a vote could have negotiated and avoided the separatist developments in Luhansk. On the other hand, the strength and violence of the insurgency in Donetsk influenced Kyiv’s attitude, convincing it to take a tough stance in Luhansk, too. 

As historian Serhii Plokhy points out in The Russo-Ukrainian War, the de facto Russian takeover of Donbas occurred during the “interregnum” between Yanukovych’s ouster in February and Poroshenko’s election as president in May. “Historically speaking,” Plokhy writes, “interregnums are the most dangerous periods in the life of states, provoking predatory actions of neighboring states that would use the opportunity offered by the lack of universally recognized rules to seize a rival’s territory.”

Ukrainian soldiers hold their positions on the edge of the so-called “security zone” in Donbas. November 15, 2014.
Sergii Kharchenko / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

The confusion on the ground in those early weeks, with different armed groups fighting for control of the Luhansk region, did not favor a clear understanding of the situation, thus hampering an effective strategy from the OSCE and the rest of the international community. What happened in Crimea a few weeks earlier (and in Donetsk simultaneously) perhaps led to the general conviction that there wasn’t any room to negotiate in Luhansk.

After the “referendum,” the Ukrainian offensive intensified and Russia gradually imposed its course, creating proxy institutions and installing “officials,” infiltrating the region with its agents, and exploiting popular anti-government sentiment with its propaganda. But I still believe that it was not meant to be so from the start. 

Hello, I’m Eilish Hart, the editor of The Beet. Thanks for taking the time to read our work! Our newsletter delivers underreported stories like this one to subscribers every Thursday. Like all of Meduza’s reporting, it’s free to read, but relies on support from readers like you. Please consider donating to our crowdfunding campaign.

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Story by Andrea Cellino for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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