In the Trenches of Donbass, the Bitter Cold Erases All Thoughts of Politics
Separatist fighters are disillusioned, but far from giving up
by NORMA COSTELLO
In the trenches of Zaytsevo in eastern Ukraine, shell casings from Kalashnikovs lie scattered on the muddy banks. “We fight when we want to,” explains Zhenya, a 31-year-old separatist fighter from Lugansk. “Whenever we feel angry.”
Despite plummeting temperatures, the war in eastern Ukraine shows no sign of ending. Just 200 meters of abandoned farmland separate soldiers from the NATO-backed Ukrainian army and fighters from the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic.
The war — which began in April 2014 — has been viewed by the West as a Russian attempt to annex territory in a country drifting westward. But separatists in Donbass claim they were targeted by heavy artillery at the beginning of the conflict. They say they no longer trust the Kiev government.
On the front line, tired soldiers man positions in near-freezing temperatures. Another long winter looms. Violations of the obsolete Minsk agreement intensify on a daily basis.
“Minsk!” separatist colonel Zhelezniy — his nickname is “Iron Maiden” — scoffs as we survey Ukrainian positions on the horizon.
“The Minsk Agreement doesn’t exist,” Zhelezniy continues. “We are the only ones who ever followed it. They started that thing because they thought we could march to Kiev and they got scared.”
Zhelezniy jokes as Zhenya stares contemplatively at the horizon. “We’re going to have to dig deeper trenches — look at the size of that bastard,” the colonel laughs, gesturing at the stocky Zhenya.
This will be the soldiers’ third winter in the trenches. Their fatigue is palpable as they trudge through the wet leaves to their positions. Small stoves provide the only heat.
This new cold war shows no signs of abating. Fighting is escalating south of Donetsk city center. These separatist fighters — a motley crew of locals, Russian soldiers and foreign volunteers — have in recent months evolved into a more disciplined fighting unit. With the Kremlin’s help, of course.
Most of the separatists I spoke to are former Ukrainian army. For the most part they come from Donetsk and neighboring Lugansk. Many are now fighting against the same men who trained them.
The Russian army maintains a discreet presence in Donetsk, fighting without insignia alongside the locals. “NATO is a criminal organization full of bastards,” Zhelezniy tells as we move deeper into the trenches. “You should leave NATO.”
Vladimir Sychov, a former Soviet army soldier, says he joined the separatists at the start of the war. “Ukrainians came here at the start of the war with artillery and we just had sticks,” Sychov explains. “Now we’ve had time to become more sophisticated. We’re growing stronger every day.”
At a bombed-out school that’s now a separatist base, children’s paintings lie scattered on the ground, covered in dust and shards of glass. We spot a copy of the Ukrainian anthem in the rubble. “Look,” Zhenya says, pointing at the sheet of paper. “They bombed their own anthem.”
A man carrying a framed Orthodox icon appears. He says his name is Sergey Bogarov. He asks the soldiers if they want to kiss the icon.
Bogarov is traveling with a weird delegation of Russian “journalists.” He says he didn’t bring food or coal for the soldiers, as praying is more important. He later pushes the icon in front of me to show how it is “alive and crying.” My fixer warns me not to get caught on camera by the Russian visitors.
While Bogarov rambles on about jumping out of planes and falling down coal mines only to be saved by the icon, Iron Maiden pulls me aside to lecture me on how NATO propaganda has brainwashed me. But I seem like a good woman, he adds, so I shouldn’t smoke or I won’t be able to have sex any more.
Bored with me, he moves on to a group of Italian war-tourists talking about “Ukrainian fascist bastards” and “NATO criminals.”
The tour, organized by the rather bizarre “news agency” Doni News, is populated by a group of Italian men. They quiz me on who I write for before warning me that they speak perfect English and can understand everything I ask the soldiers.
The soldiers themselves seem unimpressed with the Italians and wander away from the propaganda lecture, keen to explain to me the winter conditions in the trenches.
“Everything freezes here,” one fighter explains, shivering as he talks. “In winter it hits negative-30 [degrees Celsius]. Every day we have to dig the trenches, but I guess we’re ready. We are prepared to stay for 10 more winters.”
Despite the separatists’ bravado, the onset of winter and the death of popular Russian commander Motorola will undoubtedly take its toll on the breakaway army. I get the distinct impression that many fighters have grown weary of the empty propaganda that many say lit the fuse for this war.
As Russian president Vladimir Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel discuss a possible negotiated end to the conflict, the people of Donbass find themselves in a precarious situation. Tabloid headlines scream “Russian invasion,” but the reality is more complex. The Donetsk People’s Republic is a small factor in a much larger political squabble between the Kremlin and NATO powers.
For soldiers facing another winter in the trenches, politics are far from their minds. Back in the trenches, Zhenya — whose family fled to Ukraine proper — looks out across the front line at the emblems of his former army and quietly muses.
“We aren’t fighting for governments, we’re fighting for families and homes,” he says. “Then in the middle of this chaos, politicians will negotiate and they will share their money whatever way suits them.”