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Imagine this episode of the TV show Newsroom. It’s 2 p.m. and a dozen armed men, some wearing black balaclavas, others just covering their faces with surgical masks, enter the TV network’s headquarters and calmly walk up the stairs. They enter the newsroom and hand the news director a printed letter saying the network is now controlled by forces loyal to a foreign government. The reporters lock themselves in a few rooms at the back of the newsroom and continue to work, while gunmen relax in chairs in the hallways. The police come, but do nothing. The network calls government officials, but they, too, are powerless to respond. It would be a fantastic episode that could only unfold in a nation where any semblance of law and order was lost. But this is no work of fiction. It’s exactly what happened Thursday here in the city of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine.
A prominent TV station was taken over by pro-Russian militiamen. When we arrived there, about an hour later, the armed men looked amazingly calm. One of them was playing a video game on his cellphone as he guarded the door to the newsroom. They didn’t even try to stop us from filming inside the station. They refused to talk to us at all.
We walked right past them and into the office of news director Yuriy Sugak. On his desk was the letter, informing him he’d been replaced by a man he’d never heard of.
“Based on a military situation,” the letter read, “and considering the recommendation of the committee of television and radio, the council of deputies of the Donetsk People's Republic decided to take over control and editorial policies of TV company Donbass from today until further notice. The authority for this action lies with Rizhkov A.A., who is the authorized representative of the committee of television and radio.”
The letter was signed by “the head of the council of Donetsk People's Republic Makovich V.E.”
The Donetsk People's Republic is the self-declared pro-Russian government that wants to break away from Ukraine.
News director Sugak didn’t know what to do. He kept the staff working, pretending nothing was going on in the rest of the building. But what might happen when they left the newsroom to go home? Would they be arrested by the militiaman and never seen again? Would they be allowed to leave and not return the next morning? Should they pack their desks? The team had no idea. The building had been guarded by police officers, but they put up no resistance when the armed men walked in. They didn’t leave the building either. They just sat in their chairs and looked on, knowing, presumably, that if they drew their own weapons, they’d be starting a fight they’d likely lose. The militias have proven to be effective fighters and many Ukrainians believe they are directed by Russia.
Thursday, we watched one further step in the slow takeover of Eastern Ukraine. Other buildings in other cities have fallen in much the same way. The Ukrainian military is fighting back. It launches frequent “counter-terrorism” operations to drive out the pro-Russian militias, but these have had mixed results. Ukraine is gradually losing control of its East, one building - and one TV station - at a time.