My friend Vlad met me just as my train pulled into Donetsk station this spring. He’d called ahead and wanted to know not just what time I was arriving, but which car of the train I was on.

Vlad grabbed me by the elbow as soon as I stepped off and walked me briskly toward the parking lot. “Don’t speak English!” he whispered in Russian with uncharacteristic fierceness. “There are people looking for you.”

Thus began my most recent trip to the Donetsk People’s Republic, which has been thrust to the front pages this week by suspicions the Russian-backed rebels shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

Vlad told me that my name and photograph – borrowed from my Twitter profile – had been posted on the Russian social network VKontakte, on a members-only page affiliated with one of the angrier wings of the Moscow-backed separatists controlling the region. Along with several other foreign journalists, I was named as a kidnapping target, someone the rebels hoped to snatch, hold and later exchange for comrades who had been captured by the Ukrainian army.

I believed Vlad because he had fear in his eyes (which are normally mirthful, even while living amid the absurdity of the Donetsk People’s Republic), and because he himself had been held as a prisoner for three days and two nights inside the city’s regional administration building, which since April had been repurposed as the nerve centre of the armed pro-Russian uprising.

But when we reached my hotel, there was an envelope waiting for me at the front desk. Inside was a flimsy piece of paper with “Donetsk People’s Republic Accreditation Certificate” written across the top in bold type. The rebels’ official stamp – a rising blue sun over crossed mining hammers – had been applied that morning.

So was I a wanted man, or a reporter who was officially welcomed by the Donetsk People’s Republic?

Checkpoints, crude and unsettling

I spent the next week trying and failing to find out, in large part because the pro-Russian rebels who have taken over Donetsk and neighbouring Lugansk were never the unified entity they’re too often portrayed as in the media. There are three or more different types of separatists – often distrustful of each other – held together only by anger at February’s revolution in Kiev (which saw Donetsk native Viktor Yanukovych deposed by pro-Western crowds) and a shared belief that eastern Ukraine would be better off as part of Russia.

In the city of Donetsk, the rebellion has long had an almost surreal feel to it, as political forces that had always floated on the fringe of Ukrainian politics seized the administration building and declared themselves the “people’s government.” At first, most of the residents the rebels professed to govern simply gave the administration building – surrounded by newly built walls of tires, razor wire and handmade posters decrying the “Nazi” government in Kiev – a wide berth, and went about their lives as best as they could.

Those inside the headquarters were ideologues, including people who had written turgid essays and books about how the Donbass (a term that includes both Donetsk and Lugansk) was never meant to be part of Ukraine, and how the region’s destiny was to be once more joined with Russia, as it was before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

You could interview those trying to establish a Donetsk People’s Republic in the morning inside their increasingly squalid headquarters, and then go for lunch a few hundred metres away at the posh Donbass Palace hotel, where the pro-Kiev Governor, billionaire Serhiy Taruta, would still give occasional press conferences under the chandeliers. Donetsk’s raucous nightclubs and karaoke bars kept the party going, as if eastern Ukraine’s burgeoning civil war was happening somewhere else entirely.

But a short drive away, in the mining belt that surrounds Donetsk, the uprising felt very real. In Horlivka, a city of broken roads and shuttered coal mines, the residents I met were supporting the Donetsk People’s Republic out of sheer desperation. A Ukraine that signed trade deals accepting European Union standards, they feared, would be a Ukraine that closed the few coal mines and aging factories that were still open in eastern Ukraine. These were the rank-and-file of the Donetsk People’s Republic: locals hoping the revolt would take them not just into union with Russia – the only market that still buys what eastern Ukraine produces – but back in time to something like the USSR.

And then there was Slavyansk, the city that was the de facto military headquarters of the Donetsk People’s Republic until earlier this month, when the rebels deserted Slavyansk in order to concentrate their military resources in and around the city of Donetsk. Slavyansk was the city that Western journalists got nervous about travelling to, a place of kidnappings, disappearances and random gunfire.

The crude checkpoints between these places were the most unsettling locations of all. You would drive up to a wall of tires, and masked men with Kalashnikovs would stop and search your car. Often they seemed bored, or drunk. Sometimes they’d suddenly turn hostile. Were they from the main Donbass People’s Militia, who might then be impressed with your press credentials? Or the harder-core Russian Orthodox Army? Most feared of all were the mercenaries – Russians and even Chechens – who poured into the Donetsk People’s Republic as the conflict dragged on.

Putin’s goal: disorder

The allegations of Russian involvement in the Donetsk People’s Republic were always easy to prove but hard to quantify. Some of the masked men acknowledged they had come from Russia to join the fight. Their rapidly growing arsenal – including Soviet-era tanks that were filmed driving into rebel-held Ukraine from Russia last month and, we now know, mobile anti-aircraft batteries – also pointed to the rebellion’s foreign sponsor.

But this was not Crimea, where well-trained Russian troops – masked, and with the insignia taken off their uniforms – were on the ground even before the peninsula’s controversial March 16 referendum on joining Russia. As surreal as Crimea was, there was a sense that the Kremlin was ultimately in charge of the situation, anxious and able to maintain a semblance of order while it captured what it saw as lost Russian lands.

President Vladimir Putin’s goal in Donetsk, I’ve always believed, was only to create disorder. He wasn’t seeking to annex the region as he did Crimea, he was looking to create an angry mini-state inside Ukraine, akin to the breakaway Trans-Dniester region of Moldova. The conflict Mr. Putin nurtured would be Moscow’s way of maintaining influence over Kiev, and making sure Ukraine’s applications to join the European Union and NATO never looked very attractive.

But, as we can see now, remote control isn’t enough control when you’re talking about masked men with heavy weaponry.

Masked men with guns

Desperate to figure out if I was in any real danger during my visit, I called a young man named Alexander who worked as something of a foreign media liaison for the Donetsk People’s Republic. Alexander was from the first category of separatists. He had been a Russian literature student at Donetsk National University before all this began, and Alexander told me he had gone to the first “anti-Maidan” (opposed to the February revolution in Kiev) demonstrations “out of curiosity.” But he says he had always seen Ukraine as a “Frankenstein monster” of a country, an unnatural creation that was doomed to break apart.

When the anti-Maidan protesters swept in and took over Donetsk’s regional administration building on April 7, Alexander followed the crowd inside. Then, when the foreign media arrived and started asking questions, he suddenly discovered a role. He was the only one inside the building who spoke any English, so he was thrust in front of the television cameras, tasked with explaining the Donetsk People’s Republic to a confused world.

We met at a coffee shop halfway between my hotel and the separatist headquarters so I could ask him about the kidnap threat. I wanted to know: Was I safe in Donetsk?

Alexander’s answer told me something about the Donetsk People’s Republic that the rest of the world has learned over awful hours and days following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. He told me I had nothing to fear from the leadership of the Donetsk People’s Republic. If they had a problem with me or my reporting, they wouldn’t have accredited me.

But when I asked him if should feel comfortable travelling through checkpoints, or visiting Slavyansk, Alexander sighed. He clearly didn’t want to feel guilty later for saying yes. “I can’t speak for all the groups,” he said finally.

In other words, there were masked men out there in the Donetsk People’s Republic with guns – and anti-aircraft weapons – and no one was in charge any more.

LONDON — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Jul. 21 2014, 8:29 PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Jul. 21 2014, 8:36 PM EDT