In eastern Ukraine, some stand against their defenders

In Russian, the word “Molodetz” roughly translates to “good job” or “bravo,” and that’s what 75-year-old Leonid said as he pointed to the work of Russian artillery — the rubble of a bombed-out building on a central street of Lysyhansk in the eastern Ukraine.

“The Ukrainian soldiers, these are evil people, cowards,” added the retired security guard, who, like others, asked that her last name not be used for privacy reasons. “They hide here, and the moment the attack happens, they run away.”

His stance showed that the Ukrainian army is not necessarily fighting on friendly ground in that part of the country, which is now the focus of the Moscow invasion that began in late February.

At the start of the war, Russian planners unleashing forces on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv expected a populace that would celebrate their arrival and greet them as liberators from what the Kremlin baselessly insisted a neo-Nazi regime hold its subjects hostage held.

A woman tries to use her phone at the police station

A woman tries to use her phone at the police station in Lysychansk, Ukraine. The city’s population has shrunk from a pre-war peak of over 100,000 to fewer than 15,000 people.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, hundreds of thousands enlisted to fight the Russians, flooding recruits from the army and Territorial Defense Forces to the point that many had to be turned away at first. Those not carrying weapons worked with agencies or on their own to prepare food, medical supplies, not to mention Molotov cocktails, for the defense of their cities.

In places where the Russians managed to penetrate, such as the Kiev suburbs of Bucha and Irpin, some residents who were not evacuated acted as informants, providing Ukrainian forces with information on the whereabouts and movements of those they identified as “Occupiers” mocked. When Russian troops were forced to retreat, they carried out bloody purges, raping, killing and torturing the unfriendly population in revenge. (Moscow denies that its forces were involved in the killings.

This inhospitable environment likely played a role in the Kremlin changing its calculus and withdrawing from areas around the capital and several other major cities. But even where the Russians have held their ground and attempted to rule, as in the southern province of Kherson, they face a grudging resignation to their rule that occasionally flares up in acts of defiance ranging from protests to sabotage.

Yet in many cities around the eastern Ukrainian region known as Donbass, including Lysychansk and its sister city Severodonetsk, it is the Ukrainian armed forces that are now often grumpy in accepting their presence.

“They are turning Ukraine into a huge military base,” said Tanya, a short woman in black pants, a red blouse and a cap, standing in the back yard of the building where she was taking shelter. As Ukrainian artillery opened up with another salvo somewhere nearby, she glanced at a group of soldiers in the garage of the neighboring building.

Tanya, an accounting systems programmer in her 50s, said she has a reason to hate the Ukrainian government: Some of its militants beat her husband to death at a checkpoint in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists seized parts of the two eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, forming the Donbass.

“Of course we’re worried about them,” she said of the soldiers. “Everybody’s got a gun”

There were others nearby who agreed. One of Tanya’s neighbors, another woman in her 50s, asked if her disabled son could be evacuated – not to safer areas in Ukraine, but to Russian-occupied areas.

And during a visit to the last remaining hospital in Severodonetsk last month, military doctors there said they often treated casualties among residents they viewed as enemies, not Russians.

“They say it was the Ukrainian army that did this to them. They can’t even bring themselves to answer when we say ‘Slava Ukraina’ or Honor of Ukraine,” said Vitaly Mikhailovich, a 32-year-old general surgeon. “It’s hard for us to deal with that attitude when you’re trying to save their lives and they still don’t support their country.”

Such sympathies have occasionally turned into open cooperation, said Luhansk police chief Oleh Hryholov, who said about 50 people were arrested for providing information to the Russians.

A road is covered in debris after a shelling hit a truck near Lysychansk in Ukraine

A road is covered in debris after a shelling hit a truck near Lysychansk in Ukraine.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

That there are some Russian sympathizers in the area is unsurprising, said Lysychansk Police Chief Volodymyr Zolotaryov, 46, a well-groomed man with graying hair.

“The first factor is that the Russian border is so close and many people have relatives and connections on the other side,” he said. He added that coal mines and other industries have historically attracted workers from Russia to settle in the Donbas.

“Of course you have some of the older people thinking about pensions and cheap petrol from Russia.”

As the population of Lysychansk dwindled to fewer than 15,000 people from a pre-war peak of more than 100,000, those who stayed are likely to have pro-Russian leanings. For weeks there has been no electricity, gas, water or phone signal in Lysyhansk and Severodonetsk: although most people in such dire circumstances say they are too poor to go anywhere else, or can’t bring themselves to do so able to leave a loved one, family member or even their pets, it seemed clear that among them there are those who are convinced of Moscow rule.

Residents carry groceries given to them by police officers in Lysychansk, Ukraine.

Residents carry groceries given to them by police officers in Lysychansk, Ukraine.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

“We see these people every day, but we know they would just wait for Russians and support them,” said Vasil, a police officer from western Ukraine guarding a checkpoint on the southern edge of Lysychansk. “Today they speak to us. But tomorrow they will talk to the Russians.”

Pro-Moscow media often run interviews with residents in areas seized by Russian forces, urging them to express their relief at being liberated from Ukrainian usurpers. A video late last month showed a group of people in Severodonetsk celebrating the arrival of the Russians with vodka; a man was playing the guitar.

Some residents harbor resentment towards the Ukrainian military, knowing their presence would likely draw Russian artillery fire. Some complained that Ukrainian soldiers confiscated apartment buildings for their positions, even if they were in a residential area.

At a lookout point on a hill in Lysychansk across from Severodonetsk, where the Russians have almost encircled the Ukrainian defenders, two women came out of one of the houses and shouted to Ukrainian soldiers and journalists to leave. The soldiers cursed at them and asked them to leave; They gave in, but one of them left with a parting shot when told the soldiers’ job was to defend them.

“Our defenders?” she said, nodding toward the obliterated front of a restaurant that had been hit by a shell. “Look how they defend us.” In eastern Ukraine, some stand against their defenders

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