Russian Invasion of Ukraine: How Two Funerals Reveal the Identity Struggle in the Current War

The tuba played The Last Post. And the guns fired at him as they let him down. Far away, the artillery fired its own unrelenting salute.

Ergeant Igor Levitsky was 33 when he was killed by a Russian missile last week, and his funeral in his hometown of Slavyansk was crowded with locals and comrades.

“He was a loving father. A wonderful man,” his father Alexander said after the guns had stopped and the mourners had left.

Located at a major rail and road junction in northern Donetsk Oblast, Slavyansk is one of the main targets of Russia’s Donbass offensive.

The front line is little more than 20 miles away, and the muffled, distant rumble of howitzer and missile duels can be clearly heard from downtown.

But this city has both symbolic and strategic importance.

Eight years ago, on another spring day, The Telegraph watched another guard of honor fire over the graves of young men from that town.

These men had died fighting for the other side – killed in a shootout after they allied themselves with a “separatist” Russian warlord who took control of the city in April 2014.

Two funerals eight years apart illustrate the identity struggle at the heart of the current war. Still, Russian-speaking men from this part of Ukraine are fighting on different sides.

“It all started here,” said Alexander Levitsky, Sergeant Levitsky’s father. “People understand that. People thought: “Oh, the Russians will come, we will have this Russian world”. But the proof was in Donetsk. Donetsk showed how it would be. There has been a curfew there since 2014.”

He asked: “Is this a normal way of life?” just one of the draconian measures of the police state of the Donetsk People’s Republic. “It was a big human-subject experiment, and it worked,” he said of the locals who bought the Separatist myth.

It’s an argument often heard in Donbass. Donetsk, the region’s capital still controlled by the “separatist” republic, has been largely closed to Western journalists since 2015, making reporting on conditions there difficult.

About two-thirds of the city’s population is thought to have migrated before 2014. Donbass residents who crossed the line of control to visit relatives before the war called Donbass a “ghost town”.

The Ministry for State Security of the “Republic”, MGB for short, operates a police state with secret prisons in which suspects can be held indefinitely.

The city of Slavyansk has done pretty well. After 2014, the frontline retreated more than 40 miles over the horizon.

Businesses have returned, streets have been cleaned up and houses – well, most – have been rebuilt.

A combination of foreign aid, Ukrainian reconstruction initiatives, and a number of wealthy international organizations too shy to move closer to the front lines yielded healthy revenues.

Still, it wasn’t difficult to find latent pro-Russian sympathies in eastern Ukraine even on the eve of the current war.

In a front-line village of the Donetsk region, a Ukrainian soldier told the story The Telegraph Just prior to the invasion, he believed “half the locals were separatists.”

On the third day of the war, a woman in Kharkiv told the story The Telegraph There is “quite a lot of truth” in Vladimir Putin’s claim that Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a drug addict and that Ukraine is ruled by Nazis.

The Kremlin’s war plan seems to have assumed – disastrously wrong – that these sentiments would be represented by a silent majority that would salute the invaders as liberators.

Putin’s mistake, says Nikita Rosenko, a deputy on the Kharkiv city council who once represented a pro-Russian opposition party, was to confuse pragmatism with ideology.

“I thought we should have good relations with Russia. They are our neighbors, we have close ties, we should trade and be friends,” he said. “It’s not the same as thinking that Ukraine is not a country.”

A wiser Russian ruler might have chosen to encourage this latent goodwill.

The invasion, Mr. Rozhenko says, destroyed it for generations to come.

One day it can only be repaired “if Russia can get rid of Putin. But the crime of this war must be publicly acknowledged.”

Alexander Levitsky puts it differently: “Putin lies when he says that he comes to save people. He wants to separate us artificially. He does not realize that we are one people, no matter what language we speak.”

Mayor Vadim Lyakh rejects the suggestion that a battle for Slaviansk would represent special symbolism for both sides of the war. Several Russian-speaking cities have already resisted Putin’s invasion, he points out. And a repeat of the 2014 fight seems less likely now than it did a few weeks ago.

When Russia launched its Donbass offensive in April, local leaders desperately begged locals to evacuate and warned that cities like Slavyansk would soon become battlefields.

“But the front line has barely moved in two months. They didn’t expect the capabilities of our army,” Mr Lyakh said.

“I wouldn’t call it safe here, but it’s stable. We’re out of range of their artillery, so the gas, electricity, and water are still working. The banks work and pensions can be paid.”

But not everyone is so confident.

In Semyonovka, a hamlet a few kilometers outside of Slavyansk that was largely destroyed in 2014, many of the rebuilt houses are already abandoned.

Those who stayed behind, says a local resident, know from experience how bad it gets when the war approaches.

“I have potatoes, tomatoes, grapes. There will be no humanitarian aid and we will rely on our own reserves,” said Alexander, whose vegetable garden lies behind a shrapnel-torn fence eight years ago. “It’s going to be a lot worse than last time.”

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022] Russian Invasion of Ukraine: How Two Funerals Reveal the Identity Struggle in the Current War

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