SEVERODONETSK, Ukraine — The husky, well-armed guards stood powerless as the agitated 64-year-old paced back and forth, spewing a stream of obscenities while inspecting a cargo truck full of food.
They'd fumbled their task — to block shipments of goods to Ukraine's separatist insurgents — and now they had to face the man himself: Hennadiy Moskal, the feisty governor of the Luhansk region.
One of the guards attempted to explain. But he might as well have stayed quiet.
"Why don't you f--king allow people to deliver bread to the [local] stores?" Gov. Moskal shouted. "This sh-t is just f--king rolling along [to the separatists]."
(Warning: This video contains graphic language in Russian.)
The whole scene was typical Moskal.
This foul-mouthed boss rarely makes international headlines, even though his region has been gripped by a yearlong war between government forces and Russia-backed rebels.
But within Ukraine, he has long been known for his salty language and prickly attitude. And for getting things done.
Moskal attracts both criticism and praise for his tough management style — and, more recently, his uncompromising stance against the Moscow-backed insurgency on his doorstep.
"Maybe it doesn't fit into the generally acceptable norms of communication," he told GlobalPost of his infamous flair, "but nevertheless, it brings results."
Installed last September as governor of the Luhansk region, Moskal is a career police official who's also served gubernatorial stints here in the east and in western Ukraine, his home region.
Unlike the new breed of young, fresh-faced politicians who came up after last year's pro-democracy revolution, he's a shrewd bureaucrat who has survived Ukraine's notoriously cutthroat political landscape.
Moskal can often be found spouting off at journalists — "You and your station can go f--k yourselves," he once told a TV reporter — or deriding his esteemed colleagues for any number of perceived transgressions.
But he's also an experienced crisis manager, analysts say. That's needed to restore order in this politically volatile and economically depressed coal-mining region, where pro-Russian sentiments remain prevalent.
"He knows the rules of the game in Ukrainian politics," says Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv-based political expert. "He also understands that he's in a region and in a situation where it's necessary to take responsibility onto oneself."
The fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 6,400 and left over a million displaced, according to United Nations numbers.
Earlier this year, President Petro Poroshenko signed a law turning parts of the government-controlled areas of Ukraine's two rebellious regions — Donetsk and Luhansk — into "military-civil administrations."
That means Moskal, a commanding figure who often speaks in a peculiar mix of Russian and Ukrainian, balances day-to-day administrative tasks with ensuring security in the heavily militarized region.
The area is flooded with security forces, and police maintain checkpoints around cities near the front. That helps keep things stable, Moskal told GlobalPost during a recent interview in his office, located in the region's dusty provisional capital.
"They don't even steal cell phones here in Severodonetsk," he said.
A casing from a Grad rocket, allegedly fired by rebel forces onto Ukrainian territory, sits in Moskal's office under photos of the governor visiting war-torn neighborhoods. | (Dan Peleschuk/Courtesy GlobalPost)
But the governor also says his style is well-received among locals, who he claims yearn for a straight-talker and a strong hand. Analysts say that's part of the Soviet mentality, which still pervades the industrialized region.
"How it's perceived elsewhere, in other regions, is completely uninteresting to me," said Moskal. "The main thing is that it's welcomed here."
Even before the war, Luhansk was plagued by economic malaise, its landscape pockmarked with decrepit apartment blocks and rotting factories.
Artillery barrages were the last thing it needed.
Moskal says part of his job is to rebuild neighborhoods hit by the war. He visits the front line every weekend — where government troops and rebels still regularly exchange fire — to inspect the damage and chat with locals.
But anyone who challenges him, or suggests government forces are to blame for the conflict, is likely to get the following treatment:
(Warning: This video contains graphic language in Russian.)
Moskal's colleagues heap praise on him for fighting an uphill battle.
Olena Grigorenko, the deputy head of a nearby district, says Moskal is "the best thing that's happened to us in the past year."
"I know what my work is like, and so I can imagine how many problems he faces every day," she said. "But he chooses the main one, and that's the line of demarcation [between Ukrainian troops and rebel forces]."
Yet it's also what has drawn the most controversy.
Because of what Moskal describes as persistent separatist attacks on civilians, he has closed all but one crossing point, making it difficult for people to leave the rebel-held area.
His office said recently that insurgents have now blocked it off.
He has also cracked down on deliveries of alleged contraband and other cargo across the lines, enforcing a virtual blockade.
More recently, Moskal even ordered officials to temporarily halt the water supply to rebel territory in retaliation for shelling and a cut in electricity to parts of the Ukrainian side.
"There's a Ukrainian saying," he said, describing his stern warning to the separatists after shelling damaged water pipes in Ukraine-controlled territory. "Don't spit into the well from which you'll have to drink later," he said.
Some worry these moves will only contribute to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the region and sabotage the battle for hearts and minds.
But he dismisses the criticism, saying he's responsible only for the region under his control.
Everything else, he insists, is the rebels' problem.
"They're behaving like barbarians, and we're supposed to behave like angels?" Moskal said angrily. "I don't understand this."
Despite his controversial style, though, there are signs the hard-nosed governor is keeping his bosses happy.
Recently, President Poroshenko replaced the governor of Donetsk because of what experts say was his inability to run his own show more like Moskal.
"If you demonstrate strength, you'll be respected," said Fesenko, the political analyst.
"You'll be reckoned with, both by your own people and by others."