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New Battle Looms On Ukraine's Blockade Lines

  • Amos Chapple
  • Viktoria Zhuhan
In Ukraine’s fractured east, nationalists and other activists behind an ongoing blockade of trade with Russia-backed separatists say they are preparing to defy Kyiv once more. RFE/RL visited the blockaders after they announced plans for a new round of "actions" targeting those they say are profiteering from the conflict.

The blockaders' camp at Bakhmut, a town around 30 kilometers from the front lines of the Ukrainian conflict. The blockade began here early this year when activists stepped out in front of a train hauling coal from separatist-held territory to the rest of Ukraine.
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The blockaders' camp at Bakhmut, a town around 30 kilometers from the front lines of the Ukrainian conflict. The blockade began here early this year when activists stepped out in front of a train hauling coal from separatist-held territory to the rest of Ukraine.

The checkpoint alongside the railway lines in Bakhmut. Ukrainian authorities initially opposed the blockade of trains arriving from separatist-held territory, citing an urgent need for high-grade coal for Ukraine's electrical plants. But in March, Kyiv unexpectedly sided with the activists and officially suspended trade with Russia-backed separatists.
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The checkpoint alongside the railway lines in Bakhmut. Ukrainian authorities initially opposed the blockade of trains arriving from separatist-held territory, citing an urgent need for high-grade coal for Ukraine's electrical plants. But in March, Kyiv unexpectedly sided with the activists and officially suspended trade with Russia-backed separatists.

Guards at the entrance to the camp. After apparently forcing Kyiv’s hand in March, the activists now appear emboldened to demand more from a government they see as ineffectual. On May 26, the activists announced plans to begin a new stage of activity "within two weeks," targeting Russian-linked businesses in Ukraine.  
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Guards at the entrance to the camp. After apparently forcing Kyiv’s hand in March, the activists now appear emboldened to demand more from a government they see as ineffectual. On May 26, the activists announced plans to begin a new stage of activity "within two weeks," targeting Russian-linked businesses in Ukraine.


 

Puppies squeal and fight as night falls over the camp. A blockade leader told RFE/RL the activists want the more than 100 Ukrainians currently held prisoner in the separatist regions released before June 11 or their unspecified "action" will commence.
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Puppies squeal and fight as night falls over the camp. A blockade leader told RFE/RL the activists want the more than 100 Ukrainians currently held prisoner in the separatist regions released before June 11 or their unspecified "action" will commence.

A tent in the main base of the blockade camp. A former soldier in this camp told RFE/RL there is deep frustration on the front lines of the current conflict: "The only way to get back the territories we lost was by force. We [ordinary soldiers] were ready to fight, but we sat in our trenches for 18 months waiting for the order from Kyiv and it never came."
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A tent in the main base of the blockade camp. A former soldier in this camp told RFE/RL there is deep frustration on the front lines of the current conflict: "The only way to get back the territories we lost was by force. We [ordinary soldiers] were ready to fight, but we sat in our trenches for 18 months waiting for the order from Kyiv and it never came."

The kitchen in the blockade post. There are now fewer than 20 people in the camp, but a Facebook post calling for activists to prepare for the action had been shared more than 270 times within two hours of being posted on the evening of May 30.  
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The kitchen in the blockade post. There are now fewer than 20 people in the camp, but a Facebook post calling for activists to prepare for the action had been shared more than 270 times within two hours of being posted on the evening of May 30.
 

The camp's shower, supplied with water brought by a local volunteer every couple of days. The blockade resembles the scruffy, well-organized camps that sprang up around the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14, but these activists claim they have no weapons on site.
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The camp's shower, supplied with water brought by a local volunteer every couple of days. The blockade resembles the scruffy, well-organized camps that sprang up around the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14, but these activists claim they have no weapons on site.

The camp’s garden, bustling with herbs and spring onions. Food in the camp is basic: At dinner, RFE/RL was offered a kind of porridge flavored with chunks of salted pig fat.
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The camp’s garden, bustling with herbs and spring onions. Food in the camp is basic: At dinner, RFE/RL was offered a kind of porridge flavored with chunks of salted pig fat.

Blockaders watching television. The activists tap into electrical mains running past their camp but claim to pay for the power they use.  
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Blockaders watching television. The activists tap into electrical mains running past their camp but claim to pay for the power they use.

 

A blockader gathering firewood for the main sleeping tent. The activists declined to reveal details of the coming action, but the leader of the activists told a press conference they would target Russian-owned businesses in "a way no one expects."  
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A blockader gathering firewood for the main sleeping tent. The activists declined to reveal details of the coming action, but the leader of the activists told a press conference they would target Russian-owned businesses in "a way no one expects."
 

Inside the main sleeping tent, looped strings to hang cellphones on dangle above the beds. Distant explosions from the war zone echo through the camp, and lights stay on through the night “for security reasons."
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Inside the main sleeping tent, looped strings to hang cellphones on dangle above the beds. Distant explosions from the war zone echo through the camp, and lights stay on through the night “for security reasons."

Roman, 40, decided to join the blockade after demobilization from the Ukrainian army. When asked about plans to escalate their blockade, an organizer told RFE/RL: "[The Ukrainian authorities] have some vulnerable points -- their illegal income. We’re going to be putting pressure on those points because those are the points that hurt the most. If they don’t fulfill our requirements in two weeks, it’s going to be interesting."​  
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Roman, 40, decided to join the blockade after demobilization from the Ukrainian army.
When asked about plans to escalate their blockade, an organizer told RFE/RL: "[The Ukrainian authorities] have some vulnerable points -- their illegal income. We’re going to be putting pressure on those points because those are the points that hurt the most. If they don’t fulfill our requirements in two weeks, it’s going to be interesting."​

 

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