Geopolitics

A Mayor Shot, Ukraine's Flag Gone: Inside The Russian Takeover

A Ukrainian commando moves on separatist barricades in Sloviansk, eastern Ukraine.
A Ukrainian commando moves on separatist barricades in Sloviansk, eastern Ukraine.
Florian Hassel

KOSTIANTYNIVKA It was still early on Monday morning in the east Ukrainian city of Kostiantynivka when the city administration and police station were visited by 20 weapons-bearing men wearing camouflage uniforms. Within a few minutes they had control of the seat of power in this city of 95,000 people, and it wasn’t long before they had erected a wall of sand bags, taken down the Ukrainian flag, and hoisted the black, blue and red flag of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.”

Those who had been leading the city up to that point were either sent home or asked to stay for “constructive talks,” as the commander of the armed men later put it. “We came to guard the building and prepare the referendum,” he told Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Modeled on the Crimean referendum, there will be a May 11 referendum in certain parts of east Ukraine to determine whether they become Russian. The interim government in Kiev calls the referendum illegal. Or as the commanding officer in Kostiantynivka put it, the government in Kiev is made up of “fascists who have burned people alive or cut their heads off.”

The commander said he came “from the region” and wanted to “defend the homeland against the fascists.” But those familiar with the “green men” who occupied Crimea will recognize the men now controlling Kostiantynivka. They are Russian special forces, who come complete with green camouflage uniforms, modern Russian sub-machine guns and bazookas on their backs.

Once they have the sand bag wall set up, trucks come carrying concrete blocks to fortify the building further.

Made to pay

On this same Monday in Kharkiv — the second-largest city in eastern Ukraine, after Donetsk — pro-Kiev Mayor Hennadiy Kernes was shot in the back by unknown perpetrators as he rode his bike.

Back in Kostiantynivka, by the entrance to the municipal building, two loud speakers are set up to play Russian military music and patriotic songs. They draw a few curious onlookers. Two tables are also installed so that men can sign up for service in “people’s front” road blocks. The separatists are setting up checkpoints on ever more eastern Ukrainian roads to prevent Kiev’s interim government from winning back the growing number of separatist-held areas in the region.

A few hundred meters from the municipal building in Kostiantynivka a particularly colorful checkpoint is being erected with six bright flags flying, including the red flag of Moscow that features Saint George the dragon slayer. Vladimir Kostiljov, a heavyset man with an imposing belly and white mustache, is signing up for service at a checkpoint. “I have to help defend the Donetsk Basin region,” the 63-year-old former locksmith says. “Until recently we had ex-President Viktor Yanukovych in power, a bandit who stole all he could and then made a run for it. Now in Kiev there are more bandits in power, only they don’t only steal. They also kill.”

Kostiljov, who receives the equivalent of 95 euros a month in pension, says he would be fine with Russian “peace troops” marching in and taking over the region. “In Crimea, Putin has already raised salaries and pensions, and I want to live better too. And to do that I’m prepared, if I have to, to go down fighting.”

Pro-Russians have no mandate

Enthusiasm is not otherwise great for the Russian special forces at the municipal building. There are only a few dozen onlookers, and by noon just 29 volunteers have signed up for “people’s front” service. Despite Russian propaganda to the contrary, there is no majority in eastern Ukraine that favors annexation to Russia. A Foundation for Democratic Initiatives poll showed that only a third of Ukrainians favor becoming part of Russia.

According to the survey, only 24% in Luhansk and Odessa supported annexation. Even in the cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk, which have more than a million inhabitants, there were at most a couple of thousand pro-Russian demonstrators in the streets, and often just as many demonstrating for a sovereign Ukraine. But majority opinion is one thing, and building up power bases is another, and not just in Kostiantynivka.

In Sloviansk, self-appointed Mayor Vjacheslav Ponomarjov and the city council officially voted Monday for the referendum. Here too there are soldiers equipped with the new “ratnik” combat uniform that so far has only been issued to members of Russian special forces. In Luhansk separatists called for a “People’s Republic of Luhansk” and let it be known that if there should be any “aggressive dealings” from Kiev they would turn to Russia and its “peace troops.”

In Kharkiv, hospitalized mayor Kernes is fighting for his life. Elected in 2010, he appeared in past weeks to be pro-Russia but increasingly had begun supporting the interim Kiev government.

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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