STANYTSIA LUHANSKA, Ukraine – People pass through a barren checkpoint dragging wheeled suitcases along muddy sidewalks, crossing one of the most obvious political boundaries in Europe today.
In the pale winter sun on Sunday afternoon, 17-year-old Gleb Yegorov made his way to Ukraine after traversing a half-mile buffer zone and then crossing a pedestrian bridge over a ravine. Artillery roared in the distance.
Behind him is the Russian-backed breakaway region known as the Luhansk People’s Republic, which he says he is fleeing to avoid draft. He said, he barely spoke, after an eight-hour interrogation on the breakaway side of the crosswalk, and would never return.
“There is no future for me there,” he said. “They send the boys to the front and don’t think about it if they die.”
For years, the Luhansk People’s Republic and its breakaway Ukrainian territory, the Donetsk People’s Republic, were largely ignored. They were just two oddly small, Stalinist political entities whose internal politics were too esoteric to receive much attention from the outside world.
But now that the biggest war in Europe in decades is likely to affect them, it sometimes seems like Luhansk and Donetsk are all anyone is thinking about.
With Ukraine besieged by Russian forces, Western governments warn that Moscow could use the two Russian-backed republics as the stage for a “false flag” attack on civilians. ethnic Russians – and then used that as an excuse when they stormed across the border.
The split between these small states and Ukraine is reminiscent of the Berlin Wall – that is, division not by language or ethnicity but by Cold War-style politics. On one side of the roughly 250-mile front is Ukraine, a Western-looking country hungry for integration with European democracies. On the other hand, about 3.5 million people live in virtual police states.
The worry is that these territories will become the setting for a disaster, whether orchestrated or accidental, that could lead to broader violence. For example, a stray shell could hit a residential building or there could be a terrorist attack on fleeing refugees. Either way, Ukraine will be blamed and Russia will have an excuse to invade.
Russia, despite repeated accusations from the West, says it has no intention of aggression and that it just wants its legitimate geopolitical interests to be respected.
On Sunday evening, the Ukrainian military released a statement saying Russian-backed separatists in the Luhansk region had shelled their capital city “with the aim of placing the blame on the Ukrainian army.” .
“In the absence of any aggression from the Ukrainian defenders, it is the occupiers who are blowing up the infrastructure in the occupied territories and firing chaotically at the towns,” he said. declare speak. Russian news agencies reported on artillery attacks in the area. There were no reports of casualties.
While attacking one’s side to blame the enemy might seem particularly sinister, this isn’t the first time it has happened in the two lands’ eight-year history.
Analysts have suspected many violent events as false flag attacks. And insider violence by Russia’s security services or local proxies has been an integral aspect of the republic’s history for many years, according to Ukrainian intelligence agencies and public statements. Testimony of the comrades of a number of people killed.
In recent days, both sides along the eastern Ukrainian front have made ominous predictions of a mass casualty event somewhere in the mining and agricultural villages – and they are blaming even before it happened.
The commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, Valery Zaluzhny, warned in a statement over the weekend: “The Russian military and special services are preparing a terrorist attack, whose victims must be the peaceful inhabitants. “The enemy is trying to use this as a justification to bring in the Russian Army as a ‘peacekeeper’.”
On Sunday, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry released a statement saying that the information ministry in the Donetsk People’s Republic was preparing in advance for film crews at sites believed to be impending drone attacks. Ukrainian driver. It said: “The purpose of such actions is to make the Ukrainian military evil.
Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of Luhansk said its security service – known as the MGB, a version of the name used by the KGB in the Soviet Union – detected a car bomb that was controlled by waves radio along the route the bus carrying evacuees passed. This claim cannot be independently verified.
Increasing tensions, the people’s republics said they plan to evacuate 700,000 women and children because the Ukrainian Army plans to attack. Western governments have scoffed at the idea that Ukraine would launch an offensive like Russia has amassed, by the most recent American estimate, 190,000 troops near their borders.
Residents of the separatist regions who fled to Russia have completely different views on the escalating violence along the front lines, accusing Ukraine of shelling their own towns.
The Ukrainian soldiers “were standing just six miles away from us, and we could hear them very well,” said Lyudmila N. Zueva, 63, as she entered Russia at the Matveev Kurgan border over the weekend.
These regions disintegrated in 2014, and after they entered these deep regions of Eastern Europe was to travel into a realm seemingly separate from the contemporary world. Buoy bridges have been built beside the blown-up highways that follow the path of half-abandoned towns and the sprawling ruins of crumbling factories. In the air, no commercial aircraft were seen. Flights ended in 2014 after a civilian airliner was shot down.
What happens in the republic is something of a black box.
Getting opportunities for international journalists can be a challenge. And only one international team, a weak mission monitoring organization for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has observers on the ground. And gaining access to areas reserved for international journalists can be challenging.
But some information has emerged.
Military and civilian leadership occurred between Russian nationals suspected of having ties to intelligence agencies and local Ukrainians with modest backgrounds, and it was ended by a series of incidents. violent purge. At various points, senior positions have been filled by the owner of a dog behavior school, a man who played the role of Santa Claus at a shopping mall, who ran a Ponzi and a famous organized crime boss.
As they were pushed aside and replaced, separatist leaders blamed the Ukrainian military for assassinations and ambushes that officials in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, say was purely a matter of fact. homegrown.
Perhaps the most prominent murder was that of the President of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, who died in a restaurant bombing in 2018 that each side pinned above the other.
But other bloody episodes have occurred before that, among them one in which several separatist paramilitary commanders and their supporters were killed in ambushes in 2015. Victims of an attack is a man named Alexei B. Mozgovoi, a pro-Russian warlord nicknamed “The Brain” whose five bodyguards proved unhelpful. Mr. Mozgovoi’s press secretary was also killed.
One of his teammates, Pavel L. Dryomov, had a video addressed to Russian President Putin, blaming the pro-Russian camp for the violence between the countries.
“Is this why we intervened? This is why we die? ” he asks.
Mr. Dryomov was soon killed as well. Luhansk People’s Republic blames Ukrainian special forces.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry estimated 200 people died in the purges and said Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, organized the attacks.
The politics of the land are a mixture of Russian imperialism and nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Hammer and sickle flags are often flown. In government offices, officials hang portraits of Stalin and icons of Orthodox Christianity.
“When it all started again after that, I felt disconnected from reality,” said Maria Paseka, who left the Luhansk People’s Republic and switched to the government-controlled faction last August. “The puzzles don’t match. It feels like everyone around me has been told something I didn’t know about.”
In Ukraine, Ms. Paseka admits, “there are things that need improvement, like the government, wages, prices, standard of living. But it’s clear to me where I live now and we’re moving to Europe, not back to prehistoric Russia.”
Last week, the new leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, ordered the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of women and children seen as a particularly ominous signal.
Mr. Pushilin, the man behind Mr. Zakharchenko’s assassination, said he anticipated a Ukrainian attack that would kill civilians.
While thousands of people boarded buses and fled to Russia, some took the opportunity to flee the West, crossing Ukraine at a single operational checkpoint: a pedestrian bridge and a stretch of sidewalk about an hour long. miles here, where there is usually a cease-fire. observed to allow civilians to cross.
On Saturday, Natalia Kasheyeva, 33, a lawyer, rolled up a yellow Day-Glo suitcase while leading her two daughters she was sending to their maternal grandparents to stay away from the violence.
“You feel pressure,” she said of life in the Luhansk People’s Republic.
Mr Yegorov, who left to escape the draft, his green eyes narrowing in the late afternoon sunlight, said he had lived with his grandfather but would now live with his mother in Kyiv. He said he saw right through what he called the pseudo-politics of the Communist renaissance of the leadership.
“Nobody I know,” he said, “wants to fight for the Luhansk People’s Republic.”
Maria Varennikova Reporting contributions from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Ivan Nechepurenko from the Matveev Kurgan border post in Russia.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/20/world/europe/ukraine-russia-separatists.html If the fire of war in Ukraine, these 2 odd little pieces of land can become a spark