How the Donbas War Turned Rostov Into One of Russia’s Biggest Crime Centers
8 September, 2018

Russian police with dogs patrol the streets of Rostov-on Don. Photo credit: EPA/SERGEI CHIRIKOV

A security official from Rostov-on-Don speaks on how becoming neighbours with the occupied territories turned the region into one of Russia’s most crime-ridden.

Editor’s Note: The following is a translation of an article by Novaya Gazeta, Hromadske’s partner.

Four years have passed since the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics formed in eastern Ukraine. By August 2014, the representatives of the so-called "republics", whose appointments were announced on the premises of the Donetsk and Luhansk regional administrations, established a foothold in the main industrial centers of the two regions. Although they still did not hold any real power at that point. Ukrainian regional administrations and municipalities sped up routine affairs. For example, in August 2014, under an artillery cannon, the Donetsk mayor's office ceremoniously opened bicycle paths promised years earlier for the Euro-2012 football cup.

READ MORE: Surviving the Deadly Battle of Ilovaisk

The changes began after the Battle of Ilovaisk, where Russian military fought alongside the separatists. It was the bloodiest episode of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which claimed the lives of about 700 people, according to the combined data of both sides. The occupied territories began accelerating the creation of their own power structures, which took the seizing existing Ukrainian institutions. Most of the staff at these institutions, including the Security Service, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, kept their positions, changing only flags and portraits in the offices.

A group of unknown threw to Ukrainian Consulate building bricks and tomatoes in Rostov-on Don.. Рhoto credit: EPA/ARKADY BUDNITSKY

The formation of the republics was actively aided by their closest neighbor – Russia’s Rostov region, which in recent years has served as a support system and base for separatists. It was through this territory that military, equipment and provisions were sent to Donetsk and Luhansk. It was also where they would retreat to rest and receive treatment for their wounds. Many remained in Russia, taking the weapons with them. It quickly became clear that being neighbors with the republics was not without problems. Since 2014, crime has been growing steadily in the Rostov region. If in 2013 the region was ranked 14th when it came the country’s crime rate, then in 2014 and 2015 it had climbed to 9th place, in 2016 – to 8th place. In 2017, it was in 6th place. In the first half of 2017, the number of serious crimes in the region rose by 66.2 percent.

Novaya Gazeta spoke with a recently retired, high-ranking regional security official about the peculiarities of being neighbors with the occupied territories. The name of the source has been omitted at his request.

“The situation was resolved according to wartime laws – through execution”

In the beginning, when the republics were being formed, many were enthusiastic about the process. But almost immediately, it became clear that all of us living along Ukraine’s border were in for an eventful time. In Rostov, police understood this immediately after we broke off contact with our colleagues from the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. This connection was historic, we were friends across the border, omitting the federal chiefs – this practice developed during the Soviet era. For example, the head of Rostov headquarters always visited Donetsk for Police Day and congratulated colleagues on the occasion. And the chief of Donetsk headquarters visited us on the day of the police officer. These were not private visits. People came on buses, officers' orchestras and choirs would also make the trip, bringing gifts. We maintained contact during the week and interacted when questions about work arose. If we needed to catch criminals hiding on the other side of the border, to transport them, to find someone, and so on, we could work together. But when the unrest started in Donetsk and Luhansk, all communication was lost very quickly. The local militia leadership quickly disappeared somewhere and a new one appeared. This was in 2014.

Photo credit: RIA novosti

We decided to get to know them. The cops seemed like normal guys. Except they weren’t able to do or influence anything, even within the scope of their responsibilities. Because there were armed people everywhere, it was a rule of force. We exchanged contacts, met with them, and the guys began to complain about how lawless the local armed groups were. They told us about one call-out to an apartment in Donetsk, a robbery. When the squad got there, they saw that the fighters from the so-called Oplot battalion were already at the scene. The suspects were on the floor, shot dead by the Oplot moments earlier. Stuff was scattered all over the floor.

READ MORE: Occupied Donetsk Leader Zakharchenko Killed in Explosion

The militia take all the valuables from the apartment “for republic use” and tell the police that "the situation was resolved according to wartime laws. And you: clean up and file the paperwork."

And it’s not clear who the criminal was here when the robbery occurred. As for reports concerning car high-jackings, these cases were never even registered by the “DPR police.” In 2014 and 2015, all these hijackings turned out to be "confiscations" for the needs of the republics. When they told us this, it became clear what went on in the country after October 1917.

Pro-russian men in military uniform, Donetsk. Photo credit:

It’s interesting that, upon returning from the meeting with the “DPR” police, our officers were taken in for questioning at Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and seriously grilled. They were ordered not to go there anymore and forget the way there in general. It looked as though they thought that the trip meant that the police tried to steal their area of responsibility and interest. Naturally, the FSB wanted to get the most out of the situation in the region. Besides, the creation of the so-called DPR and LPR in itself was and remains superfluous to the Russian state. All commercial ties to between the region and Ukraine had been cut, and it was no interest to us. The Russian economy does not need any of these goods.

Neither metal, nor coal – Russia allegedly buys this for itself and, sells it to Ukraine in fact. The only difference is that now the chain has gotten longer and is full of FSB officers.

READ MORE: Donbas: The New Exclusion Zone

Any kind of business transgressions go through them. A lot of Rostov businessmen tried to go to Donbas – some of them with their goods, some wanted to open a business. However, only a few succeeded, those that agreed to share their profits.

But we observed what was going on and dealt with the consequences. For example, as soon as the the military action started, we had an influx of criminals and local prostitutes.

New thieves pushed out the old ones and scattered around the area. While the old thieves weren’t dealt with nicely: the rogues, drug dealers and thieves were forced to flee and rush to the Rostov region.

The prostitutes fled afterward, but only for economic reasons. In and around warzones, “clients” prefer not to pay to have pleasure. As a result, our cities became subject to the unprecedented. The Taganrog and Rostov girls moaned about the competition and begged for these places to stop being a dumping ground for Ukrainian girls. Wives of police officers would not stop calling their husbands during duty and not let them even go fishing. For a couple of months, it was a complete mess, but it was clear that this was temporary; these “refugees” only considered our region to be a transit point. And when it was clear that the conflict in Donbas would continue for a long time, both the girls and the thieves moved further away, to central Russia. They say that Ukraine’s ousted President Viktor Yanukovych no longer lives in Rostov either, and has now moved to Moscow.

Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych speaks during a press conference in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, 11 March 2014. Photo credit:

There was an incident in the village Matveev Kurgan, where two 20-year-olds with Ukrainian passports were arrested trying to steal a car. They were taken to the police department and questioned: Where are you from? They replied: We’re from Donbas. “Why did you come here?” “There’s no work at home. We fought [in the conflict] to begin with, we stole cars, and now everything has been stolen and there’s no war.” “And now where are you going?” “To Moscow, to earn.”

READ MORE: Four Years After Yanukovych Ouster, How's Asset Recovery Going in Ukraine?

“The task was to make the return to Russia for those who actively took part in the war impossible”

There are no decent jobs in either of the republics, if you don’t count serving in their armies. Before 2016, a lot of Russians went there to fight and earn money, but then there was a wave of people returning. Both Russians and locals are coming to us to find work. It has almost completely changed since before, when people went to Donbas for romanticized reasons. These romantics have lost interest. Over the past couple of years, there have been initiatives set by the higher authorities that make it harder for those who have been active participants in the events in eastern Ukraine to return to Russia. And this became particularly evident last year, before the football championships. The FSB simply sent a lot of the ideologists, well-known citizens, and especially those who experienced problems with the government, back to the “DPR” and “LPR.”

People were told about the criminal punishment for mercenarism and were strongly urged not to return to Russia. But, nevertheless, some managed to break their way through back home.

Refugees from Eastern Ukraine receive humanitarian aid at a refugee compound in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, 12 June 2014. Photo credit: EPA/ARKADY BUDNITSKY

There was one instance, when cossacks drove across the border in a stolen car by ramming through the barriers at the Russian checkpoint. Border guards chased them for a few kilometers and when the cossacks refused to stop, they then open fired on them until they did. There has been a host of similar incidents. What’s more, it’s particularly surprising that Russians are being harassed within the “DPR” and “LPR” themselves. Criminal cases have been opened, they’re being  incarcerated, they’re set up in especially incomprehensible ways.

READ MORE: Town of Abandoned Rails and Spilled Blood: Inside Separatist Ilovaisk

For example, last year, a veteran militiaman surnamed Drygval was convicted from a third go in one of our district courts [in Rostov.] Being an idealist, he went to fight and set up a new Russian government in Donbas in 2014. However, seeing the outright chaos and the kind of criminal hierarchy that had developed there, he grew disheartened with each day. He started to speak out, express his dissatisfaction at the regime and sound off about the local leaders. They finally could not take it any longer; they put a bag over his, carried him and his things to the border, pointed a gun at him and told him to go to the Russian checkpoint. Our border guards met him there, started to question him and found a grenade in his bag.

The militiaman explained the situation: “they planted it there, the damned counterrevolutionaries, I wouldn’t be so stupid!” And it made sense. But a weapon is a weapon, they open a case and it’s taken to court. The judge rules on an acquittal, which does not happen often. But Rostov changed it’s decision and sent for consideration again. The case is taken by a second judge, but they also shrug their shoulders and say “I can’t condemn the innocent, there is no motive!” He rules on acquittal, but Rostov repeals it again! The third court understood everything, finally. It finds Drygval guilty and releases him as he has already served his time in pre-trial detention. The conclusion is simple: the government does need rebel-idealists – neither their own, or others’.

Everyone agrees that the people there need help. However, in our situation, we see the opposite. We see that the region is socially and economically deteriorating. Over the last couple of years, things have quietened down, some semblance of order has been imposed, but people are fleeing, complaining of poverty, hopelessness, saying that everything has depreciated. This has also reflected on our citizens in quite an amusing way. For example, many Rostovites jumped at the chance to buy cheap property in the neighboring region. They ran off to Donetsk to buy up flats for peanuts in the hope of making money off them once the war was over. They say that, in 2015, a refurbished, three-bedroom flat in Donetsk city center could have been bought for 20-25 thousand dollars. Now you’d be lucky to sell it for 10.

/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov and Sofia Fedeczko