In March of 2014, Russian-backed separatists began to forcibly take control of large areas of east Ukraine. They started riots, invaded government buildings and set up roadblocks. They were opposed to the Ukraine revolution, favouring the ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. With him gone and the country moving towards Europe, the separatists took up arms.
With the help of Russian-supplied firepower such as tanks and Grad missiles, the separatists fought off Ukrainian troops. The insurgency turned into a full-scale war. At that time, the Ukrainians were poorly trained and ill equipped. After nearly three years of conflict, though, they've grown battle hardened and have fought to regain ground. They've pushed the separatists back to their stronghold in the Donbass – a large coal-mining district that borders Russia to the east. Now, however, with the conflict's second official ceasefire underway, both sides are dug in. This has turned the war into a slow but constant battle from the trenches.
As neither side advances, the two self-declared separatist states of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republic are working on gaining legitimacy. They declared independence in 2014 when the conflict started. Despite the violence displacing around 1.7 million people they don't view themselves as separatists, but as liberators, and their politics is infused by nostalgia for Stalinism.
The Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) is the most prominent separatist group, and they've set up a state of the same name. They don't offer up access to the region as often as they used to – and they've banned many journalists – but they let me in. They did so on the condition that I'd be allocated a minder for my stay.
I travelled there with the help of a local fixer. It took around three hours in total from Ukraine-held territory. After driving past the last Ukraine barrier and through a narrow no man's land, we approached the entrance to the Donetsk People's Republic.
Concrete chicanes snaked through checkpoints made out of breeze blocks and rotting sandbags. Militants dressed in a jumble of green combat fatigues were standing around smoking, their rifles slung over their shoulders. There wasn't a set of matching camouflage between them. After border guards checked our accreditation we were waved past the checkpoints and into the heart of the DNR.
The city of Donetsk is pleasant enough. The roads are wide; there's lots of grass. However, all this is undone by the constant presence of gunmen. Militants could be seen roaming around everywhere: at the bus stop, at the cigarette stall, at the cafes. DNR propaganda is scattered around the city centre. The garish blue and yellow of the Ukraine flag has been replaced with the black, blue and red of the separatists'. There's a 20-foot mural of a separatist fighter holding a little boy who's releasing a dove. Lots of the number plates have been replaced with unofficial DNR ones. The nearly-Russian-but-not-Russian flags hang everywhere. The separatists have gone all out, even renaming McDonalds "Don Mac" – as in Donetsk Mac.
We drove to the Ramada, one of only two hotels still open in Donetsk, where I was due to meet the DNR minders. Or "guides", as they called them.
In the restaurant I met Janus Putkonen, the head of the DNR's foreign media communications. He couldn't shake hands properly as his right hand was wrapped in a bandage with a splint. "I was out drinking with some comrades at the sauna," he explained. "We were dancing around and I slipped over and completely crushed my hand."
Janus Putkonen is a big man. He's 42 and stands at about 6'3", with broad shoulders and slicked back hair. He had a small entourage of DNR affiliates with him: Maria, his assistant/translator/girlfriend, a guy with an anvil head who didn't speak and Vittorio Rangeloni, a 24-year-old Italian communist who had spent his life savings of €3,000 to move to the DNR. There is a small stream of European communists moving to Donetsk. Putkonen was one of the first. He's from Finland and doesn't speak Russian or Ukrainian, nor has he tried to learn. He made his way to the DNR shortly after the war started. "I wanted to see what was happening for myself," he said. "I saw that this place was giving power back to the people, so I stayed."
Putkonen eventually became the first foreigner to gain "citizenship" in the DNR. His role there seemed murky. Describing himself as "a Soviet", he now heads up the DNR's official press service, DONi News – a separatist, English-language propaganda outlet. It's anti-Western, anti-facts and completely pro-Russian.
Putkonen displayed contempt for Europe. Stating that while he loved his own country (he had a Finnish flag badge on the lapel of his suit), the government there was his enemy. They'd "failed" him. A former soap actor and journalist, he somehow found a place for himself in a rogue separatist state.
"Tomorrow we will pick you up at 9AM at the front of the hotel," he said. "We'll take you around. We will accommodate you."
He checked his watch, stood up and awkwardly tried to shake hands. "Welcome to the free world," he said. They had to leave. It was nearing the 11PM curfew and they had places to be.
The next day I waited for the DNR minders outside on the steps of the Ramada. Two cars pulled up. Putkonen hopped out of one. He was dressed in combat fatigues with a black cap and sunglasses. Two others followed him. They were also in combat gear but were armed with semi-automatic rifles. Unlike Putkonen, who looked like he was playing dress-up, they held themselves in a way that suggested they were trained. They didn't speak much. Vittorio Rangeloni would join me everywhere. He too was wearing full combat fatigues, with matching knock-off camouflage Air Max 90s; €20 at the Donetsk market, he said.
The first stop on our tour was a small village called Veseloye on the outskirts of Donetsk, where I was told we'd meet locals. There, we met Lubov Pugachenko, a sweet old lady whose house had been shelled. Inside there was a hole in the ceiling where a mortar round had blasted through the roof. The floorboards were splintered and scorched and all the windows had been shattered.
"Gypsies live better than us," she said. "My kitchen was destroyed, too. A huge bomb took the roof off."
Lubov and her husband now live in a small outhouse on the grounds of their destroyed home. The ceilings were low and the rooms were small, but she'd made it cosy enough. In her makeshift kitchen Lubov prepared fruit and a homemade compote drink. "[Before the war] we were like brothers and sisters with the Ukrainians," she explained, "but now we're enemies. We hate them, because they brought the war to us. They started to shoot at us." Janus and Vittorio nodded and grinned.
Lubov had a local DNR newspaper handy on her worktop. On the front was a picture of Alexander Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the DNR. "He's the leader," said Lubov. "He's very good. He's helping us a lot." She took another look at the paper and gasped. "Oh, it isn't Zakharchenko!"
"—It is him, it is him," said Rangeloni, quickly interrupting.
"Is it? He looks so ugly in this picture. You brought me a paper with an ugly picture of him."
Everyone laughed, seemingly ignorant of the fact Lubov had accidentally revealed she was unsure of what Zakharchenko looked like. She'd also let slip that the minders had brought the paper to her.
En route to our next destination I asked Rangeloni if the reaction from Lubov was representative of civilians in the DNR. "Yeah, you could enter into any house and they'd say the same thing," he said. "The DNR is just defending their land. People just want to live in peace with the right to speak Russian, because it's Russian land."
Rangeloni was quite romantic about the DNR. He'd grown up in Italy, with a Russian mother who taught him that the Soviet Union was a great place. He'd been indoctrinated with communism from an early age, and jumped at the chance to move to the DNR once it declared independence. He said he was there to spread the truth of their situation, even if he did constantly deny that the Russians were directly involved.
We travelled next to Donetsk Airport, an important battleground throughout the Ukraine war. As Vittorio said, "Whoever controls Donetsk Airport controls the entrance to the city." Before the second battle for the airport, in September of 2014, and its fall in January 2015, it was the last part of Donetsk still held by Ukrainian forces. Since that particularly brutal round of fighting, it's been in the hands of the separatists.
Donetsk Airport is a wasteland of gnarled metal and crumbling concrete. Bent rebar pokes out of every structure left standing. The ground is littered with shrapnel, bullet casings and rotting insulation. We went there to meet with an infamous group of separatist fighters known as the Sparta Battalion. Their commander was a Russian named "Motorola", who once claimed in a recorded phone conversation with the Kyiv Post to have personally executed 15 Ukrainian prisoners of war. It's believed that Motorola, who did national service with the Russian military, was sent to the DNR to fight after being arrested for joyriding in Rostov, west Russia. Though Motorola wasn't there, his fighters were. They were well disciplined, well armed and hostile. (Two weeks after meeting Motorola's Sparta Battalion, he was killed when a bomb went off in the lift of his apartment block. It's believed his head was blown off in the assassination.)
A young Russian fighter from Volgograd took us on a guided tour of the ruined airport. His name was Sergey Lim. He wore dark combat fatigues with his hood up and his face covered. His body armour was loaded with extra magazines, a radio, a knife and a tourniquet. We passed rusted remains of tanks and APCs, through mounds of rubble and past flights of stairs that had no destination. Everything faded into the grey background of the destruction. Now in his early twenties, Lim claimed to have left his wife and child in Russia to come and fight for the DNR.
"At the moment we have a regular army in the area," he said. "There's no militia here any more. We're a military unit with commanders who give us orders, who provide us with weapons."
Which military was he talking about? He paused. "Everything is official now. We [the DNR] have an army corps."
The Sparta Battalion had Russian Ural trucks parked up, which are predominantly made for and used by the Russian Army.
On the third floor of the "new" airport terminal we had to shimmy across a metal support beam that led across a pit of debris about 15-feet below. Strewn among the concrete debris, a camouflage jacket and a pair of boots could be seen. Lim explained that the rotting corpses of Ukraine soldiers were down there. At the height of the war, the separatists had forced Ukraine POWs to dig out the bodies of their dead friends from the rubble. "The Ukrainians don't bother to collect them," said Lim.
We left the Sparta Battalion at the airport and pressed on to a frontline at Zaitseve. Here, the separatists had dug deep trenches. The fighters were ragtag, young and disorganised. Some wore tracksuits. They sat around picking at the dirt walls of their positions and chain-smoking. Their commander called himself Iron Man, "because my body is so full of shrapnel it sets the metal detector off at the airport".
Poking his head from a position, Iron Man looked through a pair of binoculars. "The Ukrainians will start firing soon. Their positions are about 300 meters away." He handed the binoculars to Rangeloni, who was no longer wearing the flak jacket or helmet he'd been wearing at Donetsk Airport.
After 15 minutes in the trenches, gunfire cracked in the near distance. The hollow boom of mortars could be heard, too. We all ducked. "See, we don't fire back," Iron Man said. "All our rifles are covered in oil because we don't use them."
While both sides are guilty of constantly breaking the ceasefire, OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) – an organisation that monitors the Donbass region – reports that most of the violations are started by the DNR.
The gunfire grew closer. Loud cracks above our heads. "It's them!" Iron Man said. "They're just trying to provoke us." We ran to an abandoned school used by the separatists as a makeshift base. During our 30 minutes pinned down in the school, roughly a dozen DNR militants took shelter there – none of them returned fire. No one seemed particularly bothered. Scrawled on a blackboard in chalk, someone had written "Ukrainians are faggots". With gunfire going off outside, Iron Man rested his rifle on the lid of an old piano and began to play a tune. Everyone laughed and clapped, especially Rangeloni.
On returning to the UK we showed footage of the skirmish in Zaitseve to open source investigators from citizen journalism website Bellingcat, which has contributed to exposing Russia's involvement in the Ukraine conflict from the start, playing a key role in the MH17 investigation. They checked the co-ordinates of the trenches we'd been in and the positions of the Ukrainian lines, and said it was possible that the separatists were actually facing their own positions while claiming the Ukrainian army was firing on them. What's more, in exactly the same spot outside the school, France24 News recently caught the separatists on camera saying they would dress up in Ukrainian uniforms to fool the press. It seems highly likely that not only did the DNR minders set up orchestrated interviews with civilians, but also faked a gunfight.
The separatists aligned with the DNR present themselves as freedom fighters, and while it's true there's some level of support for them, they never provided the chance to see that authentically – everything was set up, and the people running the tour weren't very good at hiding it.
There are mounds of evidence that the DNR is militarily assisted by Russia. Many Russian soldiers have been found fighting there (just without their uniforms), and tanks and heavy artillery has been seen crossing the border. There are also allegations, from Amnesty International and the UN, that that the DNR has committed war crimes, such as torture and extrajudicial killing. They're also, very clearly, limiting freedom of speech.
In the time spent in the DNR, it was never quite apparent what was real and what was just for show. In this respect, the Donetsk People's Republic feels less like liberated land and more like a state being pulled violently behind an iron curtain.
More from VICE: