Two soldiers walk into the only open gas station in Kostiantinivka, in eastern Ukraine, their faces muddy and their uniforms in tatters. Their weapons hang from their shoulders and before the clientele, all made up of soldiers, they say: “Today they are giving us a great time, they have kept us underground for hours.” The two soldiers will take a coffee – they’re free for the troops – and take off. Kostiantinivka, 15 kilometers from the front, is one of the last Donbas strongholds still under Ukrainian control and on which Russia is intensifying its offensive.
Twenty-five kilometers north of Kostiantinivka, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk are ghost towns where cats, stray dogs and the occasional neighbor roam. Only in the two supermarkets that continue to operate is there human traffic, that of the military who buy food to take to their rooms. Yes, there are police patrols watching and vans or cars transporting soldiers. The Russian Army is close, besieging 40% of the territory of the Donetsk province which is still in the hands of its legitimate Government, that of Ukraine. For many of the civilians who have stayed behind, Vladimir Putin’s troops would be welcome.
Pavlo Kirilenko attended four foreign media last Thursday in a basement of a regional government building in Kramatorsk. Kirilenko, head of the Donetsk military administration, specified that 21% (about 350,000) of the 1.6 million inhabitants who had the territory under his command at the beginning of the war remain. They refuse to leave, there are even those who return, because they want to remain in their land. It doesn’t matter that there is no gas in the province, and that in many neighborhoods there is no water: they do not want to leave their homes. However, Kirilenko admitted, at least half of these 350,000 do not want to leave because they are waiting with open arms for the Russians.
The provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk, which make up Donbas, are, together with Crimea, the Ukrainian regions closest culturally to Russia. In 2014, the capitals of Donetsk and Lugansk were taken over by pro-Russian separatists and Crimea annexed by Russia. The entire Lugansk province fell definitively into the hands of the invader on July 4. The Russian Ministry of Defense hopes to do the same for next September with the part of Donetsk that it has not conquered, which is why last week it announced a resurgence of hostilities.
The reason for this calendar, according to Kirilenko, is that the longer the battle, the more soldiers die. According to the Ukrainian government, 39,000 Russians have fallen in combat; figure that the intelligence services of the United States reduce to less than half. Western security analysis groups such as the Institute for the Study of War rule out that, at its slow rate of advance, Russia could completely take Donbas in the fall.
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Another reason for taking over the entire Donbas is political: Moscow wants referendums on annexation to Russia to be organized in the occupied territories in the autumn. These plebiscitary consultations will not be valid before the international community. Nor will they have the participation of the vast majority of the local population, who have fled. But among those who remain, a significant part will vote with all conviction to stop being Ukrainians. Like a resident of Sloviansk, an older man, who was hurrying home on Thursday afternoon and who refused to answer questions from this newspaper, alleging that the truth would not be explained: “The international media did not tell the truth of what happened in 2014 and you will not do it now, you only tell what the United States wants.
Artillery smoke appears here and there on the Sloviansk skyline. The invader is only six kilometers away. Andrei Boblinka has chosen to stay, along with his mother. In his building, of 80 homes, only six are occupied. This 39-year-old electrician explains that what happened in 2014 is that the pro-European Maidan revolution, the one that removed pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych, turned its back on the reality of Donbas. “I demonstrated against the new government and went to rallies, now I regret it,” explains Boblinka, “if I had known what Russia was going to do now, I would not have participated in it.” The Kremlin used this unrest as a pretext to support the uprising of pro-Russian separatists. Boblinka is convinced that if Putin wanted to, all of Donbas would already be Russian.
Kirilenko confirms that the collaborators of the invader in the province “are a very serious problem, and growing.” Chasiv Yar is a depressed town on the front line, with blocks of flats scattered among abandoned factories and devoured by vegetation. In one of these residential buildings, three Russian precision missiles hit on the 9th, killing 48 people, according to local civil authorities. A neighbor assures that soldiers from a barracks located three kilometers away also slept in the building.
It is common for Ukrainian troops to spend the night distributed in houses for fear of Russian attacks on the barracks. The human rights organization Human Rights Watch criticized last Friday that the Ukrainian defense establishes its positions in residential areas. Kirilenko replies that they have done everything possible to evacuate civilians from the region, but legally they cannot do so by force: “This is a war and we are on the front lines.” One of those people is Nadia, 66, a resident of Chasiv Yar. She continues in the municipality because she has to take care of her father, who is 99 years old. She affirms that she has already got used to the bombings and that she will continue here no matter who is in charge: “My only wish is that they guarantee my pension and that life be like in the Soviet Union, when the factories worked.”
Olga Hishniak is from Kramatorsk and also longs for the USSR: “Here we had factories and companies like the bakery where I worked. But this one closed, and the Russians did not close it, it was the Ukrainians.” “Is this being independent? Is this freedom?” reflects this 63-year-old woman. Asked if she fears the Russian occupation, Ella Hishniak replies: “Why should I fear them? I lived with them until I was 25 years old and I had no problem”.
In Bakhmut, one of the main targets of the Russian offensive in Donetsk, journalists are not welcome. Up to five people reproach EL PAÍS for its presence in the municipality. “People believe that if you are here, the Russians will bombard the city even more,” sums up Iván Goncharenko, 60.
Goncharenko rushes down Gorbatova Street. Behind him there is a tank stationed; In front of it is the municipal soccer stadium, with the stands blown up by the bombs. His main complaint about the war is that he has not been able to keep his job as a beadle in a public school. The Ukrainian school system has stopped face-to-face classes to reduce the risk to children. Goncharenko does not take this into account and assures that if he no longer has a job it is because the military have fired him to occupy the school. His opinion on the war situation is clear: “All Donbas will be Russia, the Ukrainians are already backing down, they have no discipline.”