SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — A hot July day, and the neighbors and children of a half-ruined five-story building on Bulvarnaya Avenue gathered around a bench for a long discussion of their daily fears.
Locals seemed to have consensus on who’s at war: the U.S. and Russia over control of Ukraine, they all agreed. But even now, three months past the day the first shell fell on Slovyansk, they still had trouble comprehending why their green, sleepy hometown still was trapped in this conflict.
Residents of the bombed building remembered how in April, local and Russian-assigned rebel commanders chose to set up the capital for their forces in this town.
The people of the Donbass, the country’s gritty industrial region in the east, were not naive. They realized that gas pipelines crossing the border with Russia and the shale gas fields near Slovyansk — with a potential reserve of about 3 trillion cubic meters of gas — were the cause of constant tension between Russia and Ukraine.
But with pipes in their backyards or running right next to their homes, with their feet firmly on ground that stands over a vast shale deposit, they knew the struggle was not really over Ukraine itself. They were in the middle of a war about energy.
Depending on the political winds blowing between Kiev and Moscow, the Russian gas giant Gazprom cut off natural gas to Ukraine or turned it on again. The shale gas is an important potential source for Ukraine and possibly southeastern Europe. If it proves possible to tap, Ukraine hopes this supply would undercut Gazprom’s monopoly, a move that could change Europe’s energy map and its political contours as well.
That’s how, in this region, shale gas became a political and nationalistic issue as well as an economic one. A visitor to the Donbass in February or March wouldn’t have heard fear of war but fear of fracking, with residents fearful their land would be destroyed.
Something worse than fracking
Some experts speculate that Gazprom could have fanned those fears.
“Since recently, Gazprom bosses have been worried about shale gas production in Europe and financed propaganda campaigns against the evil of shale gas,” said Mikhail Krutikhin, a senior energy expert at RusEnergy, a Moscow-based consulting firm.
The campaign was effective.
But after Flight MH17 fell from the sky packed with innocent passengers from around the world, the fear of something bigger than a local Russian-Ukrainian conflict gripped many hearts.
“If you asked me last month, I would tell you right away that gas was the real reason for our hate for Kiev and for this war,’’ said Ivan Vailyevich, a pensioner from the building on Bulvarnaya Avenue when recalled how he participated in mass street protests in February and March.
“We’d kill and die but never allow production of shale gas here,” he said. “That would poison our land.” Now he doesn’t know what to say. “After our house was bombed this month, we realized that shale gas was not as scary as shells.”
Oksana, a young shop assistant selling swimsuits at a department store on a corner of Lenin Avenue, said that she and her family became scared of “foreigners coming” to drill for shale gas in Slovyansk after then-President Viktor Yanukovych signed an agreement with Royal Dutch Shell in January 2013.
Kiev’s plan was to set up a joint venture with Shell and drill for shale gas around Slovyansk to eventually produce 8 billion to 11 billion cubic meters of gas yearly — nearly 20 percent of what Ukrainian consumers need. (Later that year, a similar $10 billion deal was reached with Chevron for exploration in western Ukraine.)
For activists of the self-proclaimed Donestk People’s Republic, any potential Western presence in the Donbass could be used to spark anger, such as when Hunter Biden, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s son, joined the board of Ukraine’s largest private gas company.
Videos of the “natural catastrophe” caused by shale production in Pennsylvania gave birth to increasing concerns among the Internet users in the Donbass. In one of the most popular horror videos, an Italian politician, Giulietto Chiesa, predicted that Shell and Chevron shale drilling would eventually cause the expulsion of Slovyansk’s population of about 116,000. The rumor was passed along, increasing people’s anger with Kiev.
On top of the “fascist junta” and the “Russia haters” in Kiev, people in the Donbass now dreaded the contracts signed with Shell and Chevron for producing shale gas. At the time, they appeared to be one of the best shale bets in Europe.
Even after Yanukovych was ousted and the new government promised to revisit all his business deals, many people in the Donbass believed the shale exploration would go ahead. The same people also believed that Europe didn’t care about potentially destructive shale production in Ukraine or whether the people in a region so opposed to Kiev would have water that stinks or gas bursting out their taps.
On June 20, Denis Pushilin, then an official in the Donestk People’s Republic, declared that the “USA unfolded significant activity” in Slovyansk to make money on shale gas and promised that under his authority, nobody would ever allow “dangerous for the ecology” shale gas development in the Donbass.
With the republic often changing its leaders and agendas, Pushilin soon vanished, and anti-shale-gas demonstrations stopped.
“Gas paranoia stopped as soon as Pushilin left the Donetsk People’s Republic. It must have been a well-organized campaign that manipulated with people’s minds,” a Donetsk entrepreneur and civil society organizer, Enrike Menendes, said in an interview about the causes of the war and the future of eastern Ukraine.
Gas pipes, locals believed, were a reason behind the daily fighting over Amvrosyevka, since a Gazprom main line from Siberia to Europe that runs right outside the home of the Ivanovs, 16 kilometers from the border with Russia, passes around the corner from a Ukrainian checkpoint that is attacked by rebels continually.
The Ivanovs were torn by fear and ideologies. The father, Igor, is Russian but sympathized with the Maidan revolution. The mother, Tatyana, is Ukrainian and loved Putin. She felt especially proud of Russia on Victory Day, May 9.
The war caught them in the middle of the strawberry harvest and a redecoration project at their daughter Yulia’s house. By the beginning of July, constant fighting pushed the family to move to the basement.
“We don’t support anybody. All we want is to stay alive. Please make the world understand that,” Igor said.
Back on the avenue
Shale gas stopped being the talk of Slovyansk, but the fear of war did not. Even after Ukrainian military forces pushed rebels and their commander, a former senior officer of the Russian Federal Security Service, Igor Strelkov, out of Slovyansk in July, many people continued to talk of Kiev officials’ going after everybody involved with the separatists.
“They could easily deport the population of Slovyansk, poison the drinking water and our natural resorts on the lakes. We’ll fight for as long as we live to free our Slovyansk of Ukrainian occupants,” Denis Shpakovsky promised in an interview in Donetsk earlier this month.
After retreating from Slovyansk, Shpakovsky, 31, served in Strelkov’s security force at a prison in Donetsk. On the day Ukrainian troops moved on Slovyansk, he had to evacuate eight members of his family, including his 10-year-old daughter, Dasha, to the Russian city of Rostov.
Even several days after losing Slovyansk to “enemies, Americans and Ukrainians” he had tears in his eyes as he described how his family lived in the basement of his garage, hiding from shelling.
Almost every resident of the Donbass now has a war story to tell. On Bulvarnaya Avenue, it was almost dark. The noise of a heavy military airplane made everybody in the yard pause and look up at the sky. A round-faced woman, Anna, said she was still afraid of the war. She wondered how soon Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama could agree to make peace. Neighbors questioned whether they should fix the broken glass in their windows or wait, in case more bombs and shells fall on their town.
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