'Donbas is not Ukraine': in industrial east, hopes for Russian rule

·4-min read

At a market in the industrial town of Lysychansk in east Ukraine -- war-scarred after relentless attacks by Russian forces -- one woman quietly hopes Moscow's army will break through.

"Technically, we're Ukrainian. But Donbas is not Ukraine," Olena confided to AFP, referring to swathes of east Ukraine that Moscow has vowed to capture from Kyiv.

"Ukrainians are the foreigners here -- not Russians," she said, giving a pseudonym, concerned that unpopular opinions like hers could land her "in prison".

Olena's view on the war is not unique in this part of Ukraine where long-standing ties with Russia, nostalgia for the Soviet Union and hopes for a fast end to fighting mean many would welcome a Russian takeover.

For years the Kremlin has accused Ukraine of discriminating against Russian speakers in the Donbas region, which has been partially controlled by pro-Kremlin separatists since 2014.

It says it wants to "liberate" parts of the mining and oil hub still controlled by Kyiv.

Moscow's forces are closing in, pounding Lysychansk and seizing villages around it.

Ukraine's army has put up fierce resistance, slowing Russia's advance, but some wearing blue and yellow patches already feel as if they are in enemy territory.

"Even if we do everything possible to hide our positions, residents here give the other side information about us," a sergeant in the Ukrainian army, Iryna, told AFP.

- Donbas 'had everything' -

Attesting to that, Kyiv's army regularly announces arrests of "saboteurs" in Donbas territory it controls and many among the rank and file said they were suspicious of residents.

Iryna, whose unit recently withdrew from Russian-controlled Kreminna north of Lysychansk, described this tale-telling as "very, very common".

"It comes from people who are supposed to be above suspicion -- even priests," she added.

Some Ukrainian troops and officials hope that the Donbas residents fleeing fighting towards Russia are the ones sympathetic to Moscow.

Still, they worry pro-Russia sentiment is lingering among some who have remained.

"These are people who at best don't mind and at worst are hoping for the arrival of the Russians," Vadim Lyakh, the mayor of Sloviansk in northwestern Donbas, told AFP.

Lyakh, whose city briefly fell to the separatists in 2014, said however that now was not the time to confront the mainly elderly Kremlin-sympathetic residents who long for the Soviet past.

"Now is not the time to quarrel with them," he told AFP.

Language is regularly pointed to as a sticking point in the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas, where Moscow dispatched many ethnic Russians to work after World War II.

But residents said the issues at hand centred on values, identity and the region's economy that was shattered during the Soviet collapse in 1991 and blamed on Kyiv.

Donbas "had everything: coal, salt, chemical industry," said Olena, who worked at an oil refinery in Lysychansk for two decades.

- Communist flags and portraits -

"While the Ukrainians protested on Maidan, we were working!" she said of historic street demonstrations in 2014 that toppled Ukraine's Kremlin-friendly leader.

A Russian takeover of Donbas would restore the struggling region's economic prowess, says Olena, lighting up as she recalls old Soviet glories.

A bunker built for employees of the Ost Chem nitrogen plant in Severodonetsk, across a river from Lysychansk, is filled with regalia from that era.

Communist flags and portraits of Alexei Stakhanov -- a legendary Soviet worker from Donbas hailed by authorities as a model for efficiency -- line its walls.

More than 160 residents of the frontline town have been sheltering in the bunker for two months. Most accuse Ukraine of shelling their town, not Russian forces.

Tamara Dorivientko, a retired English teacher, is reading Jane Austen on her makeshift bed while she waits for the shelling to end.

"Why would I be afraid of the Russians? We lived in the Soviet Union for 70 years," she said. "We're the same."

She says she sympathises with Moscow but also "loves" Ukraine.

"I'd have preferred to stay there," she said, describing it as "a beautiful country with a lot of freedom".

"The decision has been made for us," she told AFP.

Sloviansk mayor Lyakh said there is little Ukrainian authorities can do to counter the pro-Russian sentiment.

"They want the war to end but don't see a problem with Russia's conduct of hostilities," he said.

Hopefully, he said, Russia's destruction of other Ukrainian cities "will make them change their minds".

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