SHCHASTYA, Ukraine — Nastya meets me holding her three-month-old son in a town called Happiness near the frontline. Just over a checkpoint to the south is Nastya’s hometown, Luhansk, now the capital of the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic” created by Russia-supported separatists in the spring of 2014. Happiness (Shchastya in Ukrainian) used to be a part of the city.
I was here exactly seven years ago, right before the signing of the Minsk Accords, the U.N.-backed agreement that was supposed to — but did not — end the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The area was under siege then. It took hours to drive there and soldiers did not allow us to step out of our military convoy. “Back then, we woke up guessing: What has been destroyed tonight? Heating, electricity, gas?” Nastya recalls. (Rolling Stone is only using her first name for her safety.) The heavy shelling has stopped, but skirmishes and bloodshed are still common.
On this bright, frosty morning, Ukrainian soldiers chat while guarding a new administrative center built right on the checkpoint, complete with ATMs and a vaccination center. The original purpose was to show to residents living under occupation that Ukraine still provides services and offers better living standards, contrary to what Russian propaganda says. The plan didn’t quite pan out, as the separatists have kept their side of the checkpoint closed for the past two years, citing Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Nastya is a social worker providing psychological help to people who have been traumatized by the war, and now by the pandemic. She was 23 when the Kremlin occupied Crimea and staged anti-Ukrainian protests in the Donbas region, which eventually led to the war. The pretext was to counter an alleged “coup” in Kyiv, which is how Moscow framed the anti-corruption demonstrations that toppled the authoritarian pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych (originally from Eastern Ukraine) in the winter of 2013-2014. As a student, Nastya organized pro-Ukrainian rallies, and traveled to Western Ukraine to make Luhansk residents see that Russia’s messaging about aggressive nationalists was all lies. For their activism, she and her friends were met with violent threats. Her hometown soon became so dangerous that she needed to escape. She planned to return in two weeks, but never came back. Not even to the funeral of her father four years later.
While Nastya is playing with her baby, Volodymyr Tiurin, a deputy head of the Military Civic Administration of Schastya, joins the conversation. He explains that residents are calm because “they know what war is, and that’s precisely the reason why they are not panicking.” They know the protocol. “The war is not an apocalypse,” he says, “but an ugly routine.”
Nastya is a member of an informal Sviatohirsk group, which gathers residents from both occupied and non-occupied Donbas. Its members, often politically opposed, started meeting up four years ago to co-author a book of testimonies from victims on both sides of the conflict. The group has just finished a survey that documents concerns and fears about the reconciliation process — such as how to deal with war criminals and the hard work of reuniting a country that has suffered eight years of war.
Over a million people have left the region because of the fighting. Up to four million remain in the non-government-controlled territories, making the frozen conflict in Donbas the largest in the post-Soviet territory. Ukrainian, international, and even independent Russian media cannot work safely there. Any form of dissent is effectively banned. A few hundred people have been detained. Some remain in captivity. Dozens have been killed.
At first, Nastya hesitated to join the reconciliation group since she is a hardliner. “Russia bears full responsibility, separatists should be punished,” she says. But eventually she decided to test her own “boundaries” and join, in the hope that one day Russia would leave the region and former neighbors would be able to learn how to live together again. “So my grandkids can ask me whether I did what was depended of me,” she says.
As tensions in the region have heated, Moscow has said its goal is to make Ukraine “implement the Minsk Accords.” Kyiv, as well as its Western allies, insist Ukraine is doing its part. But the Kremlin has demanded Ukrainian authorities have direct talks with the separatist leaders. This would be a total political victory for Russia, and for Ukraine not just humiliation after the death of 4,600 Ukrainian soldiers, but an acknowledgement that Putin could use force whenever he wants to destabilize the country — or worse. Yet, for now, any agreement seems out of reach, as it’s impossible to strike a deal with leaders who are not effectively in charge. Members of the Ukrainian delegation report that whenever a deal is reached with the separatists on even a minor issue, so-called “representatives of the Donbas” suddenly change their mind after receiving a phone call, almost certainly from Moscow.
The latest national poll (which does not include the non-government-controlled territories) indicates that 64 percent of Ukrainians believe the state should not make a compromise for peace unless it’s with Ukrainian conditions. By this they mean not giving up Crimea and the Donbas. The urge to see the country reunited remains strong. Most Ukrainians welcome residents from the occupied region who did not commit war crimes.
The idea of “enforcing Minsk” with Russian troops waiting to invade if their demands aren’t met, or even if they are met, and then accusing Ukraine of provocation regardless, is unfair and cruel to the people. Sticking to the letter of the original conditions of the accords — as the Kremlin desires — will only serve as a Trojan Horse offer to Ukrainian society, allowing Russia to influence all the levers of government in the region.
However, walking away from the Minsk Accords risks destroying benefits of what they did achieve: a fragile ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weaponry, and the hope of prisoner exchange and an eventual return of Ukraine’s control over its border.
The major dispute is the demand to hold local elections in the non-government-controlled territories. Ukraine and Western powers insist that these elections should take place according to international standards, without armed groups and Russian troops on the ground. By contrast, Putin argues that local elections should precede, not follow, demilitarization and restoration of Ukraine’s control over the border.
If Minsk is implemented under the threat of Russian guns, the fear is that Moscow will install warlords, some allegedly responsible for war crimes, into power. The feeling on the Ukrainian side is that the agreements may empower the people who would block pro-democratic development, as well as cooperation with the EU and NATO, bringing back Ukraine to the Russian sphere of influence.
I called the Russia-controlled zone to talk to Nikita (his name has been changed due to security concerns for anyone talking to the press). We met a few years ago in person when he was in Kyiv. He is 21 now, and his outlook is bleak. “My generation was thrown to the trash, maybe kids younger than me would have the chance for a normal life in 10 to 20 years,” he says. Nikita has no expectations that his participation in the reconciliation group will lead to something impactful. Yet he is happy about the opportunity to communicate with pro-Ukrainian activists to represent his side. There’s a common fear among civilians in non-government-controlled territories that their fellow Ukranians on the other side consider them traitors and that they will be persecuted if Ukraine is ever reunited.
Nikita hardly remembers how it all started. He was 13. He spent his teens living with constant shelling. Curfew was introduced then and is still in place. He is currently in Donetsk, where, as he insists, nobody (including himself) believes that a Russian offensive will happen. Since the first build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border last spring, local Telegram channels and Russian propagandist pundits have been repeating that it was the Ukrainian government mobilizing to overrun Donbas by force with U.S. support. More recently, the narrative has changed: the US is now accused of “pulling its proxy Ukraine into war.”
Over the years, Nikita’s disappointment with Ukraine has only grown. Despite the Ukrainian government pursuing engagement with the population of the occupied Donbas, Nikita hardly mentions this. Enrolling in a Ukrainian university was too complicated, whereas in Russia he was granted a scholarship at a prestigious university. It’s faster to go to Moscow than to Mariupol, a seaside town in the south. The drive, which used to take only 40 minutes, will now take an entire day because of all the checkpoints. According to him, the economic situation in the region is “way better than in Ukraine.” Still, “he feels like a foreigner.” Many young people like Nikita are moving to Russia because there are no jobs in the self-proclaimed “republics.”
Moscow has distributed Russian passports to at least 700,000 residents of Donbas. Nikita says he will “get a proper education to go back to work in his beloved Donetsk and maybe become a local politician.” He has little respect for current pro-Russia separatist authorities who allegedly misuse the funds provided by the Kremlin, but he does not find Russia’s demands on Ukraine to be problematic.
“I am a Ukrainian citizen, Vladimir Aleksandrovich [Zelensky] is my president,” he says. “And if we’re considered hostages kept by terrorists, what’s wrong about talking to terrorists to save your own people? What is at stake? Is it pride? I think the U.S. would talk to terrorists to avoid 9/11.”
Ruslan Markovych, another member of the Sviatohirsk group, admits Ukraine did not have any option other than signing the Minsk Accords, as it stopped the bloodshed. “The problem was that Ukraine didn’t know either how to wage the war or how to negotiate,” he says.
Ruslan is 48 years old. Since 2006 he has been a local MP in Chasiv Yar, a town with less than 10,000 residents near the contact line and “lucky to remain under the government’s control.” Today, the town hosts the headquarters of the General Staff of the Joint Forces Operation, the official name attributed to the military operations of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Donbas. The contact line runs for 421 kilometers. Unlike in other towns along the front, in Chasiv Yar there are a higher number of people in uniform and heavy weaponry being deployed. The town is also the base for a military hospital with two new mobile hospital tents sent by the United States.
Ruslan used to be a businessman. In the most turbulent times, he helped the army. Now, he advises local authorities in the Donbas on how to implement decentralization reform. It allows communities to keep taxes locally and manage their own budget without interference from other levels of government. The demand for bigger local powers and “not giving Donbas money to Kyiv” was exploited by pro-Kremlin separatists to promote secessionist sentiment. Self-governance for the Donbas is a key point in the Minsk Accords, but the Kremlin demands Ukraine hand over even more power to the region.
To show the mood in his native town in the face of a possible Russian invasion, Ruslan gathers “the most active citizens” — a soldier (born in Chasiv Yar), a farmer, a museum director, a teacher and school graduates. We meet in the Soviet House of Culture. In front of the building there is an awkward gold-painted monument honoring locals who fought in the Soviet Afghan War.
“People say that ‘we’re safer here than in Kyiv,” he says. “For eight years the frontline has become more fortified than the country’s border with Russia,” and “we stopped the Russians when we were fighting in slippers when the Ukrainian army was not equipped.”
“Two of my brothers moved to Russia 15 years ago for work,” Ruslan’s wife, Maryna, tells me. “I am a doctor and when my salary was ridiculously small, I used to sayI’d move to Russia. But I have never wanted Russia to be here.”
Everyone I talked to agrees that the lack of decent jobs makes people vulnerable and not loyal to the state. This industrial region became a rust belt even before the collapse of the USSR, and the war destroyed whatever industry was left. One famous local plant is owned by the richest person in Ukraine and yet it is about to go bankrupt. Before the war, most residents used to go to Russia for work. After Ukraine obtained a visa-free regime with the EU, even pro-Russian supporters now work in Poland. But the most sought-after job is the army, which offers a minimum salary of $400 per month. This is the best pay in town.
I ask a local farmer what his contingency plans are in case of a new invasion.
“What should I do? I am a farmer,” Ruslan’s friend Oleksander says. “My crops grow as far as the separation line. The last two years were finally successful, but it’ll be impossible to gather harvest, as there would be fighting in my fields. So the only way is to take a gun and fight.”
This crowd is the most active and patriotic when we speak about Ukrainian identity and history. At the same time they talk to their families on the other side of Donbas and in Russia on a daily basis, yet with one rule: no discussions of politics. Although they tend to believe that “the occupied territories are lost,” some still “carry the keys from their flats in Donetsk and Luhansk in their bags.” Ruslan is the most stubborn. He thinks it’s hard to reconcile with those in the occupied Donbas, as they will drag Ukraine back to Russia. Still he is the one engaging in talks with guys like Nikita and ready to deal with their grievances, if genuine, from “real people, yet not Moscow puppets.”
This winter, in collaboration with the Arena Program and the Kharkiv Institute of Sociology, the Public Interest Journalism Lab (which I run) conducted surveys on media consumption trends in the non-government-controlled Donbas. For security reasons, we did not ask political questions. Our results show that older respondents tend to consume Russian state TV but still feel a connection to Ukraine. Younger respondents exhibit more liberal attitudes but have essentially no strong connection to Ukraine. What they have in common is a general feeling of being abandoned and forgotten by all sides. The number one wish is to restore peace and normality.
“Elections under guns, when the Russian proxies are in the Ukrainian parliament it is creating an active fifth column,” Nastya says just before I leave the town of Happiness. “And, you know, if there was an election, I would run [for office] back home in Luhansk when we look over the checkpoint…”
“Would you?” I ask.
She pauses for a moment and glimpses at her three-month-old son and says. “My husband would definitely mind, but I would definitely run,” she says. “Yet, would I even be allowed? Who would guarantee my security?”
Time is no longer on Ukraine’s side. The distance between people is growing, the region is being absorbed and threatened by Russia, and the conflict in the Donbas could be used as a pretext for a bigger war.
A day after I left the region, the Russian Parliament voted to call for Putin to recognize the sovereignty of a “breakaway republic.” For the seventh anniversary of the Minsk Accords (on Feb. 17th), Moscow called the UN Security Council devoted to the implementation of the agreement to accuse Ukraine of not honoring the Accords. For the entire day, multiple artillery attacks took place all along the frontline, with over 30 towns affected on Ukraine’s side. The next day, the separatist leaders, with support from Moscow, announced a mass evacuation of Donbas residents under their control to Russia, claiming Ukraine will start a war — which Kyiv has denied. Whatever happens in the weeks to come, the threat of constant violence and destruction will almost certainly be the new normal for life in Ukraine.
Nataliya Gumenyuk – is a Ukrainian author and journalist specializing in foreign affairs and conflict reporting. She is CEO and co-founder of The Public Interest Journalism, which aims to popularize best practices for public interest journalism in the digital age. Gumenyuk is the author of the book The Lost Island. The Tales From The Occupied Crimea (2020), based on six years of reporting from the annexed peninsula. In 2015, she published the book Maidan Tahrir. In Search Of The Lost Revolution, a collection of reportages from the Middle East researching what happens to societies after the revolution.