This has been a time when normal life continues while men arm themselves and begin to prepare for combat. It is that strange pre-war moment when the possible future overlaps with the present. Rebels make Molotov cocktails a stone’s throw from roadside shops selling garden gnomes. A halted Ukrainian army convoy is surrounded by locals who mill around chatting to the soldiers. The line of armored vehicles is split by a train coming from a Russian holiday resort; it goes through Ukraine because that is the way the Soviet-era track goes. It blows its horn to get crowds out of the way as it passes on its way to Moscow. People wave to the passengers who peer out, wondering what is going on.Very strange. And in such times, people normally marginal to politics can step forward and drive events in unpredictable ways.
In late April, traveling in eastern Ukraine, I was in the midst of its phony war. Threats were flying, ultimatums were delivered, and jets screamed low over the countryside. Trees were felled to block back roads, tires were piled up to build barricades, and men from backwater towns strutted with their guns, their lives suddenly seeming to have purpose. . . . But who exactly were the people inside the Donetsk building and in another seized building in the town of Luhansk? That remained unclear. A skeptical reporter summed them up as the “Republic of Random Dudes.”