On March 25, the deputy chief of the Russian military declared that the main emphasis of Russia’s brutal one-month-old Ukraine invasion would now be in the east, where it would seek “the liberation” of the Donbas. To many Western observers, the aim of the statement was clear: with the Russian offensives around Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other major Ukrainian cities virtually stalled and Russian forces absorbing heavy losses, Moscow needed a way to reclaim the mission. Focusing on the Donbas—where it has long been commanding, arming, and reinforcing separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces—was a convenient way to do so. 

But from the outset of the war, the east has held a special place of importance for Russian President Vladimir Putin. After eight years of fighting in the area, expanding the Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” to the edges of each province has become an ideological imperative for the Russian leader. The Donbas has high rates of Russian language use relative to the rest of Ukraine, and when Moscow began its covert invasion of the country in 2014, residents provided significant support. In elections since then, the area has backed Russian-sympathetic parties. If there was any part of Ukraine that Moscow might have been able to swiftly bring into its fold, it would seem to be there.

Russian forces have certainly tried to quickly seize the area. Since launching its invasion, Russia has moved aggressively and from multiple sides, surging out of the Crimean Peninsula in the south to take the Sea of Azov coastline, descending from the north through the Sloboda Ukraine region, and pushing west across the Seversky Donets River from Luhansk’s separatist territory. Thousands of Donbas residents have been killed in Russian attacks, especially in the besieged city of Mariupol. Major cities have been reduced to ruin.

But any assumptions that Russian forces might have an easier time in eastern Ukraine were mistaken. Despite the aggressive assault, Moscow has not taken full control of the region’s major urban areas: Kramatorsk, Mariupol, and Severodonetsk. Its northern and southern invasion forces still have several lines of Ukrainian defenses and a few hundred kilometers of territory to cross before they can unite, and the army is fighting hard to prevent Russia from succeeding. And even in the places that have fallen, Russia has struggled to assert its dominance. There has been limited vocal support from locals; indeed, many have turned out to protest the occupation, staring down arrest, violence, and even forced relocations.

The unexpected combination of military and civil resistance in the east has put the entirety of Russia’s war strategy in question. If the country can’t take and hold eastern Ukraine, it is extremely unlikely it will succeed anywhere else.

CITY OF STEEL

Since the start of the war, Russian forces have made the seizure of Mariupol a major objective. The city, the largest in the government-controlled part of the Donbas, has enormous strategic importance. It is located next to the land bridge to Crimea. Its vast metallurgical plants have been a major source of Ukrainian GDP. And the city has enormous cultural importance. Mariupol’s population is overwhelmingly Russian-speaking, and in November 2020, a poll showed that a remarkable 83.4 percent of respondents believed Russians and Ukrainians were one people.

But at the same time, Kyiv has poured millions into the city since 2014 in an attempt to change attitudes and showcase the benefits of being part of Ukraine. The Ukrainian government beautifully restored the downtown, erected new service centers, and revitalized the city’s public transportation system. The idea that the city’s residents might feel warmer about Kyiv, however, was lost on Russia’s military and media. Indeed, from the start of the war, the media crowed about a showdown with Ukrainian fascists in the city, referring to its Azov Battalion—a special military unit with deep links to the extreme right. Putin’s military planners assumed that, once attacked, Ukrainian forces in Mariupol would lay down their arms, Russian soldiers would be greeted as saviors, and the Azov fighters would be killed in battle or captured and then tried by military tribunal.

Instead, Ukrainian forces have ferociously fought back, inflicting some of the highest casualty numbers Russia has faced anywhere in the country. Disoriented by reality, Russian forces have lashed out at the city with mass artillery, plane strikes, and naval shelling. Mariupol’s government estimates that 90 percent of the city’s buildings are damaged or destroyed, from its charming tsarist-era downtown to the endless neighborhoods of Soviet apartment blocks to the massive steel plant on the city’s coast. The city administration claims at least 5,000 civilians are dead, with more beneath the rubble.

Disoriented by reality, Russian forces have lashed out at Mariupol.

Russia may hope that shellshocked survivors will blame their plight not on Russia’s bombardment but on the Ukrainian military and Azov Battalion’s refusal to surrender. I have heard one fleeing resident express this opinion. But more common is white-hot rage at Russia. Consider, for instance, Oleksandr Shkatula, who ran a popular artisan cheese business in Mariupol. Shkatula set up his shop after leaving behind a restaurant near Russian-occupied Donetsk due to fighting in 2014. When the Russian military blasted Mariupol’s power supply, he cooked outdoor meals for his neighbors until the bombing became too intense. Then, he and his family packed up and hitchhiked out of the shattered city and gradually made their way to government-controlled territory. “Four hours in a car and all we saw were ruins,” he told me. At checkpoints, Russian soldiers gave his children cookies, “as if it was not they who had been torturing them with hunger,” he said. “Our suffering will stick in their throat and choke them.” Shkatula is a lifelong Russian speaker, but since the invasion began on February 24, he says he has only spoken Ukrainian.

The city’s large Greek minority provides another good barometer for how residents feel about the city’s destruction. Although it is politically diverse, the Azov Greek community has a long tradition of sympathy toward Russia, thanks to Moscow’s tsarist-era protection from the Turks. Seeking to capitalize on this historic relationship, Russian state television recently broadcast a group of Greek locals hiding in a basement praising the Russian army, which had seized control of their suburban town. “The Russians haven’t killed anyone here,” one of the locals said. “They never shoot at civilians.” But testimony from a different bomb shelter suggests that historic sympathies will not outlive the bloodbath. Hiding from Russian bombardment, the president of the Federation of Greek Societies of Ukraine wrote an appeal that appeared in the Greek newspaper Skai, in which she listed off the unique Greek villages around Mariupol that were leveled by Russian airstrikes. She called Russia’s actions “overt and obvious terrorism,” as well as “the genocide of the Ukrainian people and the genocide of its Greeks of Ukraine by the Russian Federation.”

MAKING ENEMIES

In the government-controlled parts of Luhansk, Moscow also expected to have a relatively easy time. Before the invasion, the area consistently offered electoral majorities for the pro-Russian Opposition Platform For Life party, led by Putin confidant and current fugitive Viktor Medvedchuk. It also has a long, thinly guarded border with Russia to the north and a large concentration of Russian and separatist forces stationed in the “People’s Republic” to its south. Both political culture and geography seemed to give Russia a built-in advantage.

At first, Moscow’s forces did find success. Troops poured across the borders, and in the sparsely populated north part of the province, small groups of Russian tanks and soldiers hold county governments with minimal force. This has helped the military as it attempts to encircle the urban conglomerate of Lysychansk, Rubizhne, and Severodonetsk, which has a combined population of roughly 300,000. Heavy artillery from the separatist region has blasted away at Ukrainian defenses to the south, nearly destroying several depressed coal mining towns in the process.  

But once again, Russia’s plans ran into determined locals. Dogged Ukrainian soldiers have torched multiple tank columns at the entrances to Severodonetsk. Russian forces moved into Rubizhne, but they have taken heavy casualties and have been able to seize just half of the city. And even in fully conquered localities, there has been little of the outright collaboration that Russian forces counted on. Across towns in northern Luhansk, residents have flooded into the streets waving blue and yellow flags, blocked troop convoys, and chanted pro-Ukrainian slogans at Russian soldiers and their separatist proxies. In occupied Starobilsk, protesters even tore down and burned a separatist People’s Republic flag in full view of Russian occupying forces. Vadym Gaev, the mayor of Novopskov—an idyllic town near the Russian border—said that Russian soldiers had scoured the local government for a quisling who would run it and could only find one taker: a young woman who worked in the tax map office.

What has made conquering and occupying Luhansk so difficult? In short, Russian and separatist forces quickly encountered the region’s bedrock Ukrainian identity, laid by centuries of migration from the country’s central heartland. The main languages of northern Luhansk are Ukrainian and a surzhyk version of Ukrainian mixed with Russian. When protesters do speak straight Russian, it is often to lacerate occupiers with streams of obscenities. More recently, pro-Ukrainian refugees from the separatist-held parts of Luhansk have moved into government-controlled regions, strengthening the area’s support for Kyiv. And even locals sympathetic to Russia have seen how badly Moscow has botched socioeconomic management of the separatist territories over the past eight years, blunting any support they might have shown to Russia’s soldiers today.

Russia’s plans have run into determined locals.

Facing such unexpected resistance, Russian forces have resorted to the same tactic they used in Mariupol and elsewhere: indiscriminate violence. Russian ground forces and aircraft have pounded Severodonetsk and surrounding cities, killing scores of residents. The city was my home for the past six years, and through the screen of my smartphone, I have watched in horror as a familiar storefront, a children’s clinic, a church, and a neighbor’s house have been reduced to craters and blackened ruins.

Even in towns and cities that Russian forces have successfully occupied, they have continued their campaign of terror against the local population. Oleksii Artiuikh, the editor of the local news website Tribun, told me that he has received daily testimonies in Rubizhne of Russian soldiers allegedly ransacking apartments, stealing cars, and raping women. In Novopskov, occupying troops have opened fire on pro-Ukrainian protesters, wounding at least three. Russian forces have also been arresting protest organizers, interrogating residents, and disappearing activists.

That has not stopped Moscow from attempting to play up the benefits of occupation, which include forgiving utility debts and renewing rail connections with Russia, something the Kremlin has denied residents of separatist regions for the past eight years. But for the most part, the “benefits” are forced cultural changes and lower wages. Russian forces are ordering schools to speak only Russian and swap out the Ukrainian curriculum for the separatist one, which results in a diploma recognized only in Russia. They are changing street names back to the Soviet names that were used before Ukraine’s 2014 decommunization law. They are replacing the Ukrainian hryvnia with the sanctioned Russian ruble. One source in occupied Starobilsk told me that between the currency swap and pay cuts, doctors at the town’s hospital will see their salaries fall by two-thirds.

This is a dark forewarning of what might come. The northern Luhansk region is the largest swath of territory that Russia has occupied since the start of its February invasion, and its fate suggests that incorporation into the “Luhansk People’s Republic” means secret police terror, Russian chauvinism, Soviet cargo cultism, and economic degradation. It could even be on a scale worse than what residents of the breakaway regions have experienced thus far. Russia will now have a much larger occupied territory to administer than it did before, and it will need to do so with vastly reduced resources, thanks to crippling sanctions and canceled oil and gas contracts. It may well turn to more repression to maintain control and further curtail basic services. It is no wonder that so many Ukrainians have responded to occupation with defiance.

WIN OR LOSE

As the terrible destruction of Mariupol, Volnovakha, Severodonetsk, Rubizhne, and other eastern cities shows, Putin is determined to subjugate the Donbas even if that means slaughtering ostensibly pro-Russian eastern Ukrainians and torching what remains of Russia’s soft power in the region. He has staked his credibility on the Donbas and seems determined to rule its smoking ruins rather than admit the insane folly of his war of choice and retreat.

But the response from eastern Ukraine has been remarkable. Its military has mounted a far more robust defense than Russia could have imagined, and its residents have bravely protested their occupiers. The imperial narrative Moscow used to sell the war to the Russian public simply will not take root in Ukrainian soil. A group of Russian propagandists from a pro-Kremlin media outlet, for example, recently visited an occupied district of Mariupol and were shocked by the enraged responses of local Russian-speaking women to the sound of continuous Russian shelling. “Our Mariupol just blossomed, we built new roads, new parks,” they said. “Metallurgy was developing, and then you Russians came to ‘liberate’ us!”

The coming weeks will determine if Ukraine’s defiance and the West’s determination to gird it with arms are enough to stop Putin’s ruthless move on the Donbas. But it has already baldly exposed Russia’s revanchist fantasy that repressed Ukrainians were yearning for fraternal liberation. Whatever happens on the battlefield, Moscow has lost forever its cultural sway and beachhead in the bilingual, multinational, and yet now unambiguously Ukrainian east.

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  • BRIAN MILAKOVSKY is a consultant specializing in economic development and resilience in Ukraine. Until January 2022, he lived in Severodonetsk, Ukraine.
  • More By Brian Milakovsky