The Battle for Ukraine

View film


James Jones

NARRATOR:  Over the past three months, FRONTLINE’s James Jones has been traveling to Ukraine.  He’s found himself on both sides of the conflict, witnessing the resurgence of hatreds dating back decades between fellow Ukrainians, watching as the former Soviet country veers to the brink of civil war.  It’s provoked one of the biggest confrontations between Russia and the United States since the cold war.

JAMES JONES, FRONTLINE:  It was late February when I came to the capital, Kiev, to Independence Square, where protesters were demanding the ouster of President Victor Yanukovich.  Widely criticized as a corrupt leader, he had rejected a trade deal with the European Union in favor of one with his close ally, Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Twitter #FrontlinePBS

One of the first people I met was Dmytro Holubnychy.  The 16-year-old student told me what he’d experienced a few days before in the square still haunted him.

DMYTRO HOLUBNYCHY:  [through interpreter]  I can’t sleep.  Whenever I try to sleep, smoke appears before my eyes and the image of that man being killed.

JAMES JONES:  Dmytro told how he’d come to the square to join the protesters.  Early on his first morning, fighting broke out with riot police.  Dmytro’s father filmed what happened to him and his son.

[February 20, 2014]

DMYTRO HOLUBNYCHY:  [through interpreter]  I woke up at 6:00, and they told me we were under attack from the riot police.  I didn’t expect my father to come, but he found me and he started filming it all.  I found a wooden shield and told my friend to follow me because he’s smaller than me.  So we started moving forward with the shield and with Molotov cocktails, and this is how we came to Instytutska, to the very front line.

JAMES JONES:  This was the deadliest fighting since the protests began in late November.  Dmytro said there were snipers on the rooftops.

DMYTRO’S FATHER:  [subtitles]  Dmytro, don’t lean out!

DMYTRO HOLUBNYCHY:  [subtitles]  This is what the Ukrainian revolution is like.  Fun, eh?

NARRATOR:  In the middle of the firefight, his mother unexpectedly called.

DMYTRO HOLUBNYCHY:  [through interpreter]  Mom called my dad and asked him what’s up.  He said everything was OK and passed me the phone.  At that moment, I was sure we wouldn’t make it out alive.

DMYTRO’S FATHER:  [subtitles]  Say a few words to your mother.

DMYTRO HOLUBNYCHY:  [subtitles]  Hi, Mom.  I just got up.  Dad and I are having breakfast in the canteen.  Mom, I just want you to know— [sound of gunshots]

PROTESTER:  [subtitles]  Bastard!

DMYTRO HOLUBNYCHY:  [subtitles]  Mom, I love you.  Bye-bye.

Oh, [expletive]  That’s it.  That’s it.  He’s dead.

PROTESTER:  [subtitles]  Careful!

DMYTRO HOLUBNYCHY:  [through interpreter]  I saw many people killed.  I saw awful things there.  Everywhere we walked when we were carrying the wounded was covered in blood.  It was horrible.

PROTESTER:  [subtitles]  He’s shot in the head with a Kalashnikov.

JAMES JONES:  When the shooting was over, President Yanukovich’s forces had killed almost 100 protesters.  The clashes galvanized Yanukovich’s opponents, and within days, he fled across the border to Russia.  He left a country bitterly divided between those Ukrainians who wanted close ties to Russia and nationalists like Dmytro who wanted to break free from Moscow.

[ More on the origins of the crisis]

DMYTRO HOLUBNYCHY:  [through interpreter]  Our neighbors have never understood us.  Throughout history, they’ve always oppressed us Ukrainian people.  They will always do their best to capture us, to annex us.  But the Ukrainians will never give up.

JAMES JONES:  I noticed Dmytro’s scarf displayed the face of an infamous Ukrainian nationalist, Stepan Bandera.  During the Second World War, Bandera initially sided with the Nazis when they attacked the Soviet Union.  He hoped they’d give Ukraine its independence.  But when the Nazis didn’t give him what he wanted, Bandera’s forces fought both the Nazis and the Soviets.

RUSSIAN TV:  [subtitles]  In the Second World War whole divisions of people from western Ukraine called themselves SS Galizien, and they fought on the side of the Third Reich.

JAMES JONES:  Russian TV only highlighted the Ukrainian nationalists’ Nazi past.

RUSSIAN TV:  [subtitles]  Today, guys from the same region are against Russia.  They’re all part of the ultra-nationalist group Right Sector, which is responsible for the fiery and bloody battle with police in Kiev.

JAMES JONES:  Right Sector was one of the groups that led the fight against President Yanukovich’s forces on the day of the shootings.  In the square, I met one of a new generation of Ukrainians attracted to Right Sector’s fervent nationalism and hatred of Russia, 17-year-old Oleg Demchuk.

OLEG DEMCHUK:  [through interpreter]  I’m studying computer science in Kiev.

JAMES JONES:  [subtitles]  You’re a student?

OLEG DEMCHUK:  [through interpreter]  Yeah, I want to be a computer programmer.

JAMES JONES:  [subtitles]  You don’t look like a computer programmer.

OLEG DEMCHUK:  [through interpreter]  We’re all like that here.

JAMES JONES:  Oleg had been involved in some of the most intense fighting that day in the square.

OLEG DEMCHUK:  [through interpreter]  The guys from Right Sector said, “For Ukraine, long live free and glorious Ukraine,” and they ran forward, and we followed them running.  We were few in number.  And then a great many people started running behind us unarmed.  We ran at the riot police to scare them.  People weren’t afraid anymore, but I can’t deny I was scared.  Men kept falling in front of me, killed by bullets.  We stepped over their corpses.

JAMES JONES:  The clashes in the square convinced him to go join Right Sector so he could fight if the Russians tried to invade.

OLEG DEMCHUK:  [through interpreter]  Being a patriot is in my blood.  It’s genetic.  I have to defend my motherland and fight for its great future.  You have to fight, and Right Sector is the organization to do it.  I’m ready to give my life for this struggle.

JAMES JONES:  I followed Oleg to Right Sector’s headquarters in Kiev, where he waited to sign up.

OLEG DEMCHUK:  [subtitles]  Excuse me.  Are you still recruiting people?

JAMES JONES:  Twenty minutes later, he emerged as one of Right Sector’s newest members.

MAN:  [subtitles]  Can I take a picture of you?

WOMAN:  [subtitles]  Thank you for your heroism.

JAMES JONES:  A crowd spontaneously gathered around him.

OLEG DEMCHUK:  [through interpreter]  My great-grandfather fought for Ukrainian independence.  During the Second World War, they fought against the Germans and the Soviets.  Their slogan was, “You will gain a free Ukraine or you will die struggling for it.”  Our war continues.  Not all enemies of Ukraine have been defeated.

WOMAN:  [subtitles]  Glory to the heroes!

OLEG DEMCHUK:  [subtitles]  Eternal glory!

MAN:  [subtitles]  Glory to the nation!

OLEG DEMCHUK:  [subtitles]  Death to our enemies!

JAMES JONES:  I wanted to meet the leader of Right Sector.  Dmytro Yarosh is a hate figure on Russian television, and to many of the millions of Ukrainians who side with Russia.  He’s a neo-Nazi and the most feared man in the country.  He invited me into his heavily-guarded headquarters.

DMYTRO YAROSH:  [through interpreter]  We have a clear attitude towards non-Ukrainians in Ukraine— brotherly to those who stand with us in our struggle for statehood, tolerant of those who live here and do not oppose our fight, hostile to those who do everything to deprive us of our own country.  Putin has repeatedly said that there is no such country as Ukraine, and he does everything to terminate our statehood completely.  Every empire is afraid of guerrilla war.  That’s our way to victory.

JAMES JONES:  It’s words like this that stoke fears among many Russian-speaking Ukrainians and provoked Vladimir Putin.  He would later take over Crimea, a coveted southern region of Ukraine.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian President:  [subtitles]  My dear friends, after a long, hard journey, Crimea is returning to its true home.

JAMES JONES:  Putin’s argument was that he was acting to protect the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine from persecution by Right Sector and other anti-Russian sympathizers.

VLADIMIR PUTIN:  [subtitles]  What worries us most is the rampage of neo-Nazis, nationalists and anti-Semites all over Ukraine, and especially in Kiev.

[March 2014]

JAMES JONES:  I set out from Kiev, towards Eastern Ukraine, where Putin’s words hold sway and where many people think of themselves as more Russian than Ukrainian.  Many of them were angered by the overthrow of President Yanukovich and alarmed by the rise of Right Sector.  I was headed to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, just 25 miles from the Russian border.

[ More on James Jones’s journey]

CROWD:  [subtitles]  Russia!  Russia!  Russia!

JAMES JONES:  I found a city in turmoil, with violence between groups supporting the new national government and those who wanted to break away and become part of Russia.  Right Sector’s anti-Russian sentiment was mirrored here by a hatred of America and yearning for the old Soviet Union.  Many were worried the new government in Kiev would persecute Russian speakers in the east.

1st WOMAN:  [subtitles]  I swear to Putin, I will get down on my knees to ask him to protect Kharkiv from them.  Don’t let the fascists come here!  May God give him health.  Putin will save us.  Russia will defend us.

2nd WOMAN:  [subtitles]  In the Second World War, Britain and America were our allies in the war with fascism.  But now Britain and America support the fascist regime which has seized power.  Enough!

JAMES JONES:  In Kharkiv, I discovered Right Sector’s biggest opponent, a militant group called Stronghold.  Many of its members want parts of Ukraine to break away and join Russia.  They’re known as tough street fighters, and I was told that many have links to organized crime.

I tracked down one of Stronghold’s leaders, who used the cover name Igor and only agreed to talk to me if I concealed his identity.

IGOR:  [through interpreter]  The nationalists took over the country illegally and began to oppress us.  We organized our own militia and we attacked the Kharkiv government building on the 1st of March.

JAMES JONES:  I got hold of this footage showing Igor and his fellow separatists storming the government building, where Ukrainian nationalists opposed to Russia had been holed up.  Igor says he was joined by busloads of Russians who’d come across the border earlier that day.  But it turns out they were doing it for more than pure political beliefs.  Igor boasted that they were being paid to fight.

IGOR:  [through interpreter]  We were recruited as pro-Russian fighters.  We were paid $40 an hour to beat up the Kiev fascists.

JAMES JONES:  [subtitles]  Where does this money come from?

IGOR:  [through interpreter]  Russia.

JAMES JONES:  Russia denies it’s orchestrating events inside Ukraine, but Igor said before operations like this, he and his colleagues met with Russian intelligence agents who were working in the east.

MAN IN CROWD:  [subtitles]  Don’t kill him!  Don’t kill him!

IGOR:  [through interpreter]  The supervisors are from the Russian military and intelligence agencies.

CROWD:  Kharkiv!  Kharkiv!  Kharkiv!

JAMES JONES:  Igor and his militia dragged people from the government building and paraded them on stage.

MAN IN CROWD:  [subtitles]  Scum!

WOMAN IN CROWD:  [subtitles]  It’s our Ukraine!  Why have you come here?

JAMES JONES:  The young men feared they were about to be executed.

SEPARATIST:  [subtitles]  Ask forgiveness, bitches.

YOUNG MAN FROM BUILDING:  [subtitles]  I didn’t want anything.  I just came here to see.  People of Kharkiv, I’m sorry.

SEPARATIST:  [subtitles]  Right Sector?  Where did you get this?  It was in your bag.  On your knees!

YOUNG MAN FROM BUILDING:  [subtitles]  It’s a sticker they were giving out.  Can I just say, Mom, Dad, I love you.

MAN IN CROWD:  [subtitles]  Fascists!

JAMES JONES:  Days later, I watched Stronghold go on the offensive again.  Right Sector had just announced they’d set up an office in the center of Kharkiv.  When the fighters from Stronghold attacked, Right Sector shot two of them dead.

RUSSIAN TELEVISION:  [subtitles]  This is the new headquarters for Right Sector in Kharkiv.

JAMES JONES:  Russian television was soon broadcasting it as evidence of how Right Sector was terrorizing Russian speakers in the east of Ukraine.

RUSSIAN TELEVISION:  [subtitles]  It started with gunfire on Freedom Square and then—

JAMES JONES:  This was the situation everyone feared, fighting between Right Sector and pro-Russia separatists like Stronghold.  The police arrived to hold the two sides apart and avoid more bloodshed.  The town’s mayor, Gennady Kernes, pushed through the police line to try to end the standoff.

GENNADY KERNES, Mayor:  [subtitles]   Stop.  Stay here.  Journalists, stop.

AIDE:  [subtitles]  Gennady, they can shoot you!

MAN:  [subtitles]  Run, run!  Run, run!  They’re shooting!

JAMES JONES:  Few hours later, Gennady Kernes made a deal to allow the Right Sector gunmen to walk away in the hope of restoring peace to the city.  The members of Stronghold were outraged.

MAN IN CROWD:  [subtitles]  What are we waiting for, until squads of [expletive] Right Sector are roaming the streets?

GENNADY KERNES:  [subtitles]  Don’t [expletive] wind up the crowd!  Do you understand me?  I said don’t [expletive] wind up the crowd.  Do you understand me or not?  No one’s afraid of you.  Shut your [expletive] mouth.

MAN IN CROWD:  [subtitles]  I’m a peaceful citizen.  There’s no need to be afraid of me.

JAMES JONES:  A month later, the mayor was gunned down in the street and badly wounded.

In the coming days, separatists roamed Kharkiv, attacking anyone who supported a united Ukraine.  Similar violence was breaking out in cities across the east.  Vladimir Putin warned that he might have to send in his troops, as he had done in Crimea.

VLADIMIR PUTIN:  [subtitles]  We understand what worries the citizens of Ukraine and Russian speakers in the east and the south of the country.  What worries them is this chaos.  And if this chaos starts in the eastern regions and they ask us for help, and we already have a legitimate president, then we reserve the right to use all possible force to protect these citizens.

JAMES JONES:  As I left Ukraine in late March, the government’s control over the East of the country was slipping away.

[May 2014]

Two weeks ago, I was back in Kiev, where the new government was anguishing about whether to send its armed forces into the East.  They were fearful they could provoke a Russian invasion.

I’d arranged to meet a member of the provisional Ukrainian government.  Victoria Sumar had played a prominent role in the protests that had led to the overthrow of President Yanukovich and was now sitting on the National Security and Defense Council.

VICTORIA SUMAR, Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council:  [through interpreter]  Even these people in the east who are armed don’t understand they are puppets.  The question is who is pulling the strings.  The answer to me is completely clear.  It is Vladimir Putin.  When he understood he wasn’t going to get the whole country as a present from President Yanukovich, he understood that he needed to split this country apart.

JAMES JONES:  She showed me how armed men were taking over towns in the east.  She alleged that phone conversations intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence prove that Russia is behind much of the violence.

VICTORIA SUMAR:  [through interpreter]  We know how it works.  First, a group of hired armed Russians occupy a building somewhere in east Ukraine.  Then they pass it to the locals who support them, training and instructing them.  We are constantly monitoring their phone conversations.

JAMES JONES:  That’s what’s happened in the major eastern city of Donetsk, where pro-Russia separatists had even declared their own state.

I bought a train ticket and headed there.  I’d been told that going by road would be too dangerous because gunmen guard the way into the city.  As I arrived, Ukrainian tanks were moving towards the city and a tense standoff was developing between the separatists and the Ukrainian military.

In the main square, armed separatists were guarding their new government’s headquarters.  Among the gunmen were many members of Stronghold.  They’d captured armored vehicles, which flew the Russian flag.  Immediately, I heard they were preparing for a battle with Right Sector.

MAN IN MASK:  [subtitles]  I’m not afraid.  They are strong only in large numbers.  One on one, they are cowards.

JAMES JONES:  They are hostile to Western journalists, but I convinced the separatists to let me come inside their headquarters.  The United Nations has accused armed separatists in the east of torture, assassinations and abductions.

I was introduced to the chairman of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin.  Pushilin once worked in Russia for a company involved in a notorious Ponzi-style scam.  He told me he was planning a referendum that would give his new republic legitimacy.

DENIS PUSHILIN:  [through interpreter]  After the referendum is finished, we will quickly create structures of civil and military power.  Why military?  Because all military other than those created by the Donetsk People’s Republic will be considered occupiers.  Should the aggressor step up their attacks, we will ask Russia to send peace-keeping troops into the region.

JAMES JONES:  But it quickly became clear Pushilin wasn’t the most important man in the room.  Sergei Zdrilyuk interrupted the interview with the chairman and introduced himself as a commander of the separatist forces.  I later discovered he once worked for Ukrainian intelligence but was reportedly fired for working too closely with Russia.  He recently became a Russian citizen.

SERGEI ZDRILYUK:  [through interpreter]  The Soviet Union was the most righteous country.  It was built on communism.  Then America told us we didn’t have enough sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.  And we’ve had all that up to here.

JAMES JONES:  Like many of the separatists, he was focused on the threat of Right Sector and its leader, Dmytro Yarosh.

SERGEI ZDRILYUK:  [through interpreter]  Yarosh is the enemy of Ukraine.  We are not the one who started the civil war.  I’m not worried about my safety.  If I get killed, I’ll be supported by millions of my citizens.  We’re ready to fight until the end.  Personally, I’m going to risk it all.  I’m not a politician, I’m a soldier.

JAMES JONES:  I watched as the promised referendum took place under the gaze of masked gunmen.  The city’s new leaders claimed that almost 90 percent of the voters wanted to break away from Ukraine.  The leaders then asked to become part of Russia.

President Putin didn’t take them up on it, but the message was clear.  There’s a strong pro-Putin force on the ground to keep the area tied to Russia for the foreseeable future.

I traveled out of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and headed back towards the West.  At a checkpoint marking the start of government-controlled territory, I found Oleg Demchuk, the 17-year-old who I’d first met signing up to join Right Sector.

OLEG DEMCHUK:  [through interpreter]  When we were in Kramatorsk, we shot at them and frightened them.  Then we left, and now they’re hunting for nationalists.

JAMES JONES:  He told me he’d received military training at a Right Sector camp in the east and had already seen action in the eastern town of Kramatorsk.  He claimed they’d attacked a building there occupied by separatists.

OLEG DEMCHUK:  [through interpreter]  The storming of the building started when we came out like this.  I had a knife in my right hand, and my pistol was hidden.  We kicked in every door and threw in sound grenades.

We warned them, “Give up.”  We cleared them out, took prisoners.  We killed a lot of them, and they gave up.  Now we’re waiting for a full-on attack on the separatists.  We’re waiting for the election of the new president.  Then they’ll let us, together with the army, free these towns from these bandits who are terrorizing the population of eastern Ukraine.

JAMES JONES:  I went back to see Oleg’s leader, Right Sector’s Dmytro Yarosh.  The U.N. has called for an investigation into the killing of pro-Russian demonstrators.  Still, Yarosh was planning new attacks on the separatists.

DMYTRO YAROSH:  [through interpreter]  Our authorities are acting indecisively.  Two months ago, it was possible to avoid this by taking certain people under control, containing the pro-Russian activity, so that none of this would happen.  Now the situation has picked up momentum.  Weapons have been delivered there, so they have the means to fight.  The situation is getting worse and worse.

JAMES JONES:  In fact, on the day I saw him, Yarosh had sent his Right Sector fighters into the eastern town of Mariupol, alongside the Ukrainian army.  They wanted to take back the police station from the pro-Russian separatists.

DMYTRO YAROSH:  [through interpreter]  This morning, we began the attack, and three of our men have been killed and some were wounded.  It’s a full-blooded fight.  We’ve sent in armored vehicles.

JAMES JONES:  They were accused of firing indiscriminately.  Twenty-one people were killed that day.  I visited the town soon after to find the army and Right Sector had retreated and the separatists were back in control.  The streets were deserted except for barricades and Molotov cocktails.

It seemed to me Right Sector and the Separatists were playing a dangerous game, with both sides using each confrontation to justify more violence and death.

SEPARATIST:  [subtitles]  Go back.

SEPARATIST:  [through interpreter]  Let them come from western Ukraine.  Let them come.  Let them come and they’ll get what they deserve.  They just came and shot at us.  Why the [expletive] would they do that?  They said they wouldn’t touch our region, but they did.  That’s it.  And now our region has risen up.  And now you just try and stop us.  There’s no damn way you’ll stop us.

JAMES JONES:  The protesters who’d come to Independence Square in late February finally got their wish this past weekend, electing a new president, Petro Poroshenko.  He’s promised to unite a divided country.  But I’d seen with each death the hatreds deepen and the politicians lose ever more control of the gunmen on the ground.  Civil war isn’t just a possibility.  In many places, it’s already a reality.

Support Provided By Learn more