Support for Ukrainian military strong despite Kremlin portraying Russians as liberators
by Askold Krushelnycky, Pervomaisk, March 29 2022
For years Kremlin propaganda has portrayed Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine as sympathetic to Moscow’s ambition to rebuild its empire. When the invaders arrived in Pervomaisk, whose 65,000 inhabitants are largely Russian-speaking, they appeared to be labouring under the same illusion. But the town, 150 miles northeast of the Black Sea port of Odesa, proved to be no pushover.
“Russia had hoped to gain control of Pervomaisk using pro-Russian politicians here to co-ordinate with the Russian forces and gain entry into the town,” Arkadiy Kornatskiy, a self-made millionaire, said. “The Kremlin keeps deceiving itself with its own propaganda. So the idea they would be welcomed into Pervomaisk has also turned out be spectacularly wrong.”
Oleksandr Badera, a retired former police colonel with a reputation for honesty, was asked by the town administration to head the territorial defence forces. One of his jobs is to root out “traitors” in Ukrainian ranks.
Kornatskiy added: “Ordinary people provided information to Badera about suspicious characters.”
For years Ukraine’s main pro-Moscow cheerleader has been the Opposition Platform For Life (OPFL) headed by Putin’s longtime Ukrainian friend and ally, Viktor Medvedchuk. Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter. Medvedchuk is now Ukraine’s most wanted man after fleeing house arrest following the outbreak of war.
In the south of Ukraine, Medvedchuk’s fellow former MP (they have been stripped of parliamentary privileges) and party member, Ilya Kiva, collaborated with Russian forces when they occupied his city of Kherson, on the Black Sea coast, early in the war.
Badera said: “Kiva sent two of his people to Pervomaisk and we found out they were lying low in a hotel controlled by the leader of the OPFL here, Andriy Holovchanskiy. We detained them. I regard them as traitors whose job was to muster support for Russian occupation forces if they managed to take the town and to set up a collaboration administration here.”
Badera said he handed the three over to Ukraine’s SBU intelligence service. Holovchanskiy, a member of the city council, has been released but is being kept under watch. He did not respond to my requests to tell his side of the story.
Kornatskiy, a powerfully built 68-year-old man with Soviet-era military experience, threw himself into organising volunteer units to support the regular Ukrainian military from the first day of the conflict. “The Ukrainian armed forces have increased their efficiency every day of the war. They are outnumbered but we will win if every Ukrainian does their part,” he said.
Kornatskiy and Bandera’s team performs policing duties, keeps an eye on strangers entering the town, provides armed escort to hundreds of lorries delivering humanitarian and military supplies to towns under Russian attack further east such as Mykolaiv and Kharkiv, and helps to run army checkpoints on approaches to the town.
Kornatskiy told me he has toured the area to help organise 12 volunteer units, comprising some 400 people, ready to take up arms. The units can be formed if five or more people volunteer to fight and elect their own commander.
Kornatskiy said the Russians had over-estimated the support they had in Pervomaisk and their plans to capture the town have been checked, although some Russian sympathisers remained and might become active if Kremlin forces looked set to enter.
He said that Ukrainian forces had also been reinforced at another potential river crossing point at the town of Voznesensk, about 50 miles south of Pervomaisk. “The situation’s changed for Putin and Moscow in a way they never imagined — because they don’t understand the Ukrainian character.
“We have been destroying a huge number of their men and material. They don’t understand that we want them to deploy more of their tanks and other equipment to Ukraine so that we can destroy them as well.”
Kornatskiy leases 100,000 acres of Ukraine’s rich soil for producing wheat.
“A long and hard fight against the Russians may still be ahead,” he said. “I haven’t changed the timetable for sowing because I know that what we will plant today, we will harvest and will export it. Odesa and Mykolaiv will not fall.”