That’s us in Kramatorsk (my interlocutor shows a photo of armed men near the buildings of Kramatorsk police station)
I was there yesterday. But there were no arms at that time.
That was not yesterday, that was during our first assault. There was a real shooting. But we had an objective – avoid bloodshed. On the third floor they began to shoot at our guys, so our guys put them down… I mean not killed, but suppressed with fire. They squatted and we came in.
It sounds terrible. But yesterday in Kramatorsk there were no weapons. Even policemen stood and smoked with your guys. Are they on your side too?
Well, they have no other options. They are living here, and if, God forbid, any of them were to go against us… pffff! (smile)
Aren’t you afraid of sanctions from the EU and US sides? If you proclaim the Donetsk Republic, reaction from the West will follow.
The West is far, Russia is near.
But, for example, credit cards can be blocked regardless of what’s far and what’s near.
Not a problem. We have our own bankers to make deals with. That’s a technical question and could be solved with consent of the interested parties. Do you understand? If necessary, we’ll do what we have to do. The main thing is to have common essentials.
Do you have it?
Our adversaries like comrade Akhmetov (the biggest oligarch of Donbas region), Taruta (acting governor), and others are trying to break it. They are sending their agents to our men to scatter our backbone from inside. Then everything falls apart, men began to eat each other. But here, in Sloviansk, we don’t allow this to happen. We laid out our hand and said: if you’re with us, good, if you’re against us – well, you understand…
No, I don’t. What with them?
The liquidation will occur.
How do you think?!
Even among common people, even if it’s just one in a hundred, there can be those who stand for other beliefs! What do you plan to do with them?
Come on! There are no more than 40 such people here!
And what, these 40 people should be destroyed?
There are always apes. People go to the zoo to see them. Let’s say they will be a separate coalition, but we will control them.
I’ll tell you how operative work is done. You light the lantern and wait for butterflies to come. But if they want to fly away – you have flypaper. Or you can just strike them with swatter.
You’re saying terrible things.
Why? That’s the harsh truth of life. Isn’t it more terrible when our guys are tortured, their bellies are ripped open, and later their bodies are found in a river? And I must visit the morgues to see whether they’re ours or not. I see: seems to be ours, but cannot say for sure. And later I’m told that it was Vladimir Rybak from Horlivka. The identification isn’t over yet, so I cannot publish this information, but by all indications, it’s him.
Translator’s note: Later the identification was finished – one of the two bodies, found in the river, really belongs not to one of the militia, but to Vladimir Rybak, MP of Horlivka and opponent of the rebels. Later, the Security Service of Ukraine published a recording of several phone calls where a man with a voice similar to Ponomariov’s discussed Rybak’s abduction and the need to get rid of the body.
That’s terrible too. And whose is the other body?
Seems to be his driver. Did you ever see dead people?
No. Some harsh man didn’t let me in the morgue, saying it was closed.
Listen, better film the amenities and landscapes of our city. And leave this mud for someone else. It will be better for you. It’s bad to try earning some financial dividends or fame on such cases. When you’re filming death, you became a participant in it. And when you’re making that death public – it’s even worse. It causes people to panic and that’s what our enemy needs. That is why I forbid everybody…
OK, stop it. The next question is not about bodies, but about Ukraine’s presidential election, planned for May 25th.
There won’t be any elections.
In the Donbas region, or just in Sloviansk?
Nowhere. Trust me. Nowhere.
You won’t allow it or someone else won’t? Explain, please.
We will take all necessary measures to ruin the elections in the southeast region.
Where’s the border of these measures?
We can take some prisoner and hang him by the balls. Literally.
Oh my God, how scary are the things you’re talking about…
No-no, trust me. I’m kind man, really kind. But sometimes my kindness is seen as a weakness, and this is a mistake. I love my children, my mom…
Do you have children?
I have a son, 26 years old. And I will be 49 on the second of May.
And your wife?
I’ve been officially divorced since 1995.
It’s better for me to be alone. By the way, I haven’t only lived in Sloviansk. I last lived in Kyiv for 6 years. Left it three years ago.
Mom was here alone.
If it’s not a secret, what was your profession?
In my youth, I got an education as a builder. Later, when my brother died… He was a member of the realtor union, had many estates in Kyiv, we had a good business center building project… But when he died, everything fell apart.
I don’t think I can ask it…
He was knocked down by a car. And after that everything was ruined. The construction market in Kyiv fell with the crisis. I got used to modest living and now I give what I earn to my mother and son. I don’t need much, because many things in my life come without money.
“We hope Russia will hear us”
I see the ribbon of Saint George on your jacket. What does it mean to you?
It’s in memory of my grandfather, the war, our ancestors who gave their lives for our freedom. And because Russia is our ally in our struggle, we have also their flag and their symbols (shows the flag of Russian Federation on his table – Gazeta.Ru) – I’m not shy about it. Let them fear us!
And what help do you get from Russia?
Well, that’s good support. Moral support. We still haven’t gotten any barrel or coin from there, to be frank. Still using what we’ve got here, pulling in the help of local businessmen. It’s normal. We understand that war is this kind of business. Many businessmen volunteered to help. Tomorrow I probably will gather all the businessmen of Sloviansk who are eager to help. I already had a talk with bankers, particularly with bankers from Kramatorsk, whom I visited with Whip.
You mean local Privatbank? (translator’s note: the owner of Privatbank strongly opposes the rebels)
Yes. Privatbank from Kramatorsk.
And what is “Whip?”
The name of a pistol. That’s kind of a guys’ joke.
In the press conference in Sloviansk you asked Putin to commit peacekeeping forces, to give you weapons and supplies. Now you’re talking about friendly relations and collaboration. What contacts are possible?
If there will be contacts, there will be contacts. We’re hoping to be heard.
“Donetsk Republic will use the ruble”
How are you building coordination with other rebel cities of Donbas?
It’s already built. It’s personal contacts, acquaintances, friendship, no papers or signings.
Are there mayors, like you? Some key persons in each point?
Why do you think all this started in Sloviansk? Because in all of Donetsk Oblast, among all the cities, Sloviansk was the best!
What do you want to say to the people of Western Ukraine?
(Long pause) Give up! (Laugh)
What language will be the state language in Donetsk Republic?
Without Ukrainian at all?
Not a problem – some people will talk in it, sing their songs…
Is Yanukovych still president?
What do you plan to do with people who are still loyal to Kyiv and consider themselves part of Ukraine?
Let them stay, but…
…let them keep a low profile and behave themselves quietly.
What do you want to say to Obama, who says that the rebels obey Moscow’s orders?
Hey, shut your mouth, Obama.
What currency will be used in the DNR?
Ruble. Russian ruble.
Give your prognosis – the situation won’t be stable for long.
So what will follow? What are the possible means of solving this conflict?
We will live. Our executive committee is working. What’s the difference between Sloviansk and other towns? We don’t have to tell people what to do next. Everyone knows what to do. They feel it in their guts.
So you’re thinking that the town can live in this state as long as necessary?
I’m sorry, but haven’t two weeks already passed since the start of all this? Yes? I’m not counting days, they’re like one long movie for me. There were periods when I slept three hours in five days. I’m sitting in the meeting, they tell me “Don’t sleep!” and I tell them “I see you even with closed eyes.”
What do you think about the data of some surveys that indicates that people of the Donbas region want to stay in Ukraine?
Who? I’ve told you about Sloviansk – there are only 40 persons with such views. All the others are hired goons. (silent laugh)
With which candidate in the Ukraine presidential elections would you like to speak?
With no one.
It’s hard for Russian journalists to get to Ukraine now. Do you plan some symmetrical response?
Here you go – we have already seized one American. We need captives. We need a bargaining chip. Many of our comrades are jailed. They seize them, take them to Kyiv, torture them. We are doing the same. I mean taking them prisoner.
So you still hold Simon Ostrovsky here? His parents, who called you on Tuesday during the press conference, shouldn’t be waiting for their son right now.
Let them do what they want. We’re on our territory.
[Editor's note: at the time of publication, Simon Ostrovsky has been freed.]
Nelya Shtepa (official mayor of Sloviansk) is among the captives?
There is a criminal charge against her, she’s accused of separatism. We decided to put her under protection to protect her from arrest. And because her house is situated far from town and we cannot keep our men there, it’s easier to keep her here. She has good conditions, shower, toilet, she is visited by her hairdresser and relatives, and she has warm clothes… Everything is normal.
I don’t want to offend you but it seems you have combat experience: you lack two fingers on your left hand.
That was just a violation of safety measures. There is no proof of my participation in any special operations.
But you’ve said in a press conference that you took part in spec ops.
Yes, in spec ops of different kinds. So what? There are no traces.
There is not much information about you at all.
The last question: you’ve said what you want to tell Obama. But what do you want to say to Putin?
Vladimir Vladimirovich, I’m grateful for your moral support. I can’t hear your words, but even at this distance I understand that your soul is with us. We shouldn’t speak long. We’ll manage everything.