Separatists, Chemical Plants, and Shelled Buildings: What Donbas Reveals About Putin’s Ukraine Playbook

Ukrainian soldiers of the Kharkiv-1 volunteer police battalion train for combat as the Donbas war rages on, opposing Ukrainian forces to pro-Russia armed groups. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

While Russia’s entrenched combat is new to Americans, it is business as usual for Ukrainians in Donbas.

“We are ready to fight. And this is our message to the world: We are ready to fight for every yard of Ukrainian land. We will fight in cities, towns, and villages. The ground will burn under the feet of Russian aggressors,” Gennadiy Druzenko, a Constitutional Lawyer and co-founder of the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital, tells Paradox, showing off his handgun. “We will kill the aggressor without either hesitation or pity – in our cities, forests, fields, grasslands, rivers, and lakes. If Putin ventures to attack Ukraine, the Ukrainian land this spring will become red with the Russian blood.”

If it weren’t so precarious, the five hundred-mile stretch from Ukraine’s capital Kyiv to the war-ravaged Donbas oblast in the East would almost be idyllic: Abandoned roads and snow-white meadows, sometimes impossible to decipher where land blurs into sky. Situated across the “line of contact” – a three-hundred-mile cleft manned by Ukrainian forces, sits the two enclaves known as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). With a population of roughly four million, these areas have been in a state of perpetual conflict for eight years and have stayed under the control of pro-Russian separatists. Moscow has long denied supporting or arming the occupying groups, but President Vladimir Putin tipped the balance on Monday by “recognizing” the zones as territories independent of Ukraine’s territory without annexing them into Russia, as was the case in Crimea just weeks before fighting broke out there in early 2014.

Donbas, Ukraine sign. Captured by Hollie McKay for Paradox.

The Russian President has deployed tanks armed with so-called peacekeepers, which may or may not bring some respite from the persistent blistering and bombing that has ravaged the area for years without the attention of the international community. As stated by the European Union, Russia amassed over one hundred thousand troops on Ukraine’s borders as early as April 2020, with hardly any protest from Western leaders. However, when joint training exercises were announced in Belarus, one hundred miles from Kyiv, the pressure reached a boiling point.

Those who live in these ostracized areas – neither governed by Ukraine nor Russia – are accustomed to death and destruction. A source close to the Zelensky government in Kyiv tells me that Ukrainians here are “simply used to the shelling.”

Almost everyone you meet espouses a desire for peace, chalking the protracted war up to politics. There are no big-name brands left in the cities, replaced by odd pro-Russian versions of McDonald’s and Nike. The simple sleeper train to Kyiv has long disappeared, with the journey to get in and out an arduous one involving changing vehicles and long routes.

However, in one small slither of an upside, one source pointed out that the elderly can often collect two pensions – one from Kyiv and another from the DNR or LNR leadership. A week ago, Russia shut down the border for even pro-Russians in the region, who typically move back and forth between the republics and Russia with ease, indicating an escalation in military activity.

What exactly happens next is open to interpretation.

According to one well-placed western security analyst, the strategy is likely that Russian troops will – with the LNR and DNR effectively conquered – expand their foothold into the nearby city of Mariupol to establish a transparent land bridge for the entire oblast to be seized by Russia.

Beyond that, defense experts are concerned about the chemical plants in and around the industrial Donbas. Several have already been struck, fortunately avoiding critical storage facilities in recent years. Nevertheless, a hit on the wrong spot, whether intentional or unintentional, is as lethal as taking out fifteen nuclear reactors, destroying the electrical grid, and killing thousands, one on-the-ground source says.

Chemical factory on the outskirts of Donetsk, Donbas. Photo captured by Hollie McKay for Paradox.

And former Deputy Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) Army General Serhiy Kryvonos says Horlivka, a rebel-occupied city in Donbas, represents a greater security risk than the chemical complex.

“There is a huge waste handling facility there, currently under the control of the pro-Russian security forces,”  Kryvonos tells Paradox. “If anything were to hit that plant and lead to the waste entering the water supply, the contamination would be catastrophic.”

Ukrainians have responded to the developments with almost impervious tranquility, moving about their daily lives with hardly any panic or despair. Still, in one Donbas city, Avdiivka, just a few miles south of Donetsk, entire intersections and tall apartment buildings have been destroyed over the years, and open fields littered with explosives.

A nine-story apartment decays in the harsh winter elements, the livelihoods of those living there gutted and shelled. A child’s toy has been burnt into the stripped floor, walls left concave, and furniture bombed into memory.

Decimated apartment in Avdiivka, Donbas, Ukraine. Captured by Hollie McKay for Paradox.

“Our brothers did this to us,” says Andriy Yarovoy, 50, a former Special Forces Non-Commissioned Officer and Volunteer Fighter, tells me sadly as we enter what is left of the gouged building.

Vitaliy Barabash, the head of the military-civilian administration in Avdiivka, tells me that the local government continues frequent training sessions on what to do in the event of a chemical attack or conflict escalating, requiring seamless evacuations.

“I tell everybody the same thing,” Barabash, who was forced to take an administrative role two years ago after a bullet shot by a pro-Russian Chechen seared into his spine in the late Spring of 2014, says with a heavy sigh. “We have been in this war for eight years. So, this is not new for us. But to survive, we have to stand.”

Vitaliy Barabash, the head of the military-civilian administration in Avdiivka, Donbas Ukraine. Photo captured by Hollie McKay for Paradox.

If anyone knows how quickly calm can turn into chaos, it is the people of Kramatorsk, Donbas’ capital, some sixty-five miles away from Donetsk. Those who reside there tell nightmarish stories about the invasion of pro-Russian soldiers in 2014 – recounting kidnapping, street violence, the sight of masked strangers at checkpoints.

“I feel like we are living in the powder barrel, waiting for something,” says a 64-year-old retiree, Tatiana, who shudders at the memory of the 2014 occupation. “In the first moment, I could not believe it. It was something out of a nightmare. We were hiding in our homes, and then we just left the city. Now I have grandchildren, and I cannot leave. I have nowhere to go.”

The human cost of this war has been horrific. As a result of the hostilities since March 2014, more than 14,000 people have died, nearly one quarter of them civilians, and tens of thousands have suffered debilitating injuries. Despite being drastically outnumbered and outgunned, Ukrainians say they are willing to die for their homeland.

In recent weeks, civilians have also joined military preparations by taking part in guerilla training exercises and advocating the importance they place on the right to bear arms.

“The Ukrainian army is calm, composed and ready. On the one hand, the threat to our country is greater than ever; on the other hand – our army is as ready as it has ever been,” Igor Novikov, a former Zelensky advisor and Donbas native, tells Paradox from Kyiv this week. “It’s important to remember that we are home, and we aren’t going anywhere.”

According to Novikov, Ukraine’s Domestic Intelligence (the SBU) has just released audio confirming that the separatists, whom they deem terrorists, “are actively trying to provoke the Ukrainian Forces and to create a pretext for further violence.”

“If anything, I would say that the Russians once again managed to unify Ukraine. It’s business as usual, yet with resolve and determination to protect our homes from any potential invasion,” he adds. “Both our government and our civil society are working in unison to defend our country. But, unfortunately, many here in Ukraine view this as yet another chance to showcase to the world a tragedy that Russia’s aggression brought upon Ukraine and our opportunity to complete our determined journey towards the EU and NATO.”

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