In times of war, except in cases of extreme tragedy, the plight of the civilian is often ignored. The devastating shooting down of flight MH17 served only to cruelly to remind us that the civilian costs in war are often just as great as the military ones. I'm very grateful to Rultes, a member of one of the internet's most undervalued websites, Reddit, who has been living in Eastern Ukraine throughout the crisis and following an insightful public question and answer session, agreed to answer some further questions. His answers, both from the initial 'Ask me anything' session and my further questions paint a picture of a the separatist movement as thugs, firmly under Russian control and a sense of crisis looming large within the rebel held areas.
The basic amenities we take for granted in the Western world, access to food, capital and freedom to travel have been severely depleted in Eastern Ukraine. The food shortages are 'bearable but it starting to show' with stores unable to recieve deliveries and people stocking up on emergency food. In bank branches, 'some senior managerial stuff are being held hostage by the rebels' by the supposedly liberating separatists, while running water is available for only a few hours a day. Rultes is keen to stress that there is no full blown crisis, that the shift only really started when rebels moved into his town, but is in no doubt that there is 'a general public that is in panic.'
On the rebels troops themselves, when I asked him to describe them he suggsted that 'some are idealists, some are misfits and convicts and some are just blind and stupid people.' The ideology behind them, forged in Russian propaganda and controlled by Russian order has created a movement that is no longer merely anti-Kiev but anti-Europe. 'They hate West and all things Western. Except, maybe, tracksuits.' The Russian involvement, he has no doubt, changed things. There may have been emnity towards Kiev before but it was 'critical but passive,' something that has been exploited by Moscow's propaganda and military involvement.
He is in no doubt of the Russian involvement in organising and arming the rebels, suggesting that overall tactical control of the movement is currently at about 30% Moscow, 70% Russians on the ground, such as Commander Strelkov (described by Rultes in pretty clear terms as'a former Russian officer with a combat experience' ). The access to heavy weaponry from the beginning of the conflict and the continued provision of sophisticated weapons systems, (such as the BUK rumoured to have taken down MH17) are, as much suspected, not a set of mere local patriots but retired or even active members of the Russian army within the rank and file of the "rebels".
Things show little sign of improving for the civilian population if the conflict continues, Rultes highlighted in the question and answer session that separatists have been kidnapping locals and forcing them to fight or work in the trenches. 'It happened and it happens.' Fuelled by potent Russian propaganda, he fears that many of the civilian population will fall for Putin's seductive promises which I personally can only see as coming draped over the barrel of an AK47. Whatever the outcome, it is clear the deep divisions that have been inflamed will hurt whatever Ukrainian state emerges.
What is so interesting for me was his refusal to describe the conflict as a civil war, as we have done much in the West, instead labelling it as a proxy war between Ukraine and Russia. As he grimly commented, 'the only escalation that is now possible is that Russia will just go all-in and just invade us.' Whether Putin will be allowed to take that step by the international community is difficult to say, but the reality does sting. And if that happened, Rultes has told me he would be leaving the country!