Russians 'Rescue' Ukrainians from 'Genocide,' Turn Them into Cannon Fodder

On February 24, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was beginning a "special military operation" with the aim of rescuing residents of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics from an alleged "genocide." Instead, Russia's invasion has made life worse for many of the people it claimed to be liberating.

Since then, while atrocities such as the massacre at Bucha and the demolition of Mariupol have garnered a larger share of international attention, the security situation for residents of the self-proclaimed republics has also deteriorated.

Although reliable statistics remain unavailable, open-source information suggests that the Russian army is attempting to offset its manpower shortage by relying on residents of the self-proclaimed republics to do much of the war's fighting and dying.

On March 28, the Telegram channel published a video purporting to show conscripts from the Donbas in a Russian troop transport vehicle in Ukraine's Sumy region. Although the video could not be independently verified, it presents a credible picture of the lack of enthusiasm of Donbas conscripts for the Russian war effort.

"We're soldiers from the Donbas. We're regular workers, kids, f****** factory workers," various members from the group of uniformed young men said.

"Somehow we ended up on the territory of the Russian Federation with weapons. They took us from 18 years old. They send us into the s***."

"They forced us into this. A whole lot of us have died. What are we doing here?"

"We're simple people. Take us back to the Donbas. We're cannon fodder."

In a video uploaded to the Telegram channel on March 28, young men identifying themselves as conscripts from the Donbas described themselves as "cannon fodder."

Russia itself has not begun a general mobilization of its population. However, military-aged men in the separatist territories have been put in uniform and sent to the front without proper training or adequate equipment. In one well-publicized instance, musicians from the Donetsk Philharmonic were killed in battle after being sent to Kharkiv region.

Nikolaus von Twickel, a Berlin-based analyst of the self-proclaimed people's republics and an editor at the Center for Liberal Modernity think tank, spent several years as part of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission in eastern Ukraine, which according to its website is "the world's largest regional security-oriented intergovernmental organization with observer status at the United Nations." He also co-authored a book, Beyond Frozen Conflict, about Russia's various separatist projects.

"Russia claims that it's only involved in a 'special military operation,' whereas the republics are mobilizing more like it's a full-scale war," von Twickel told Newsweek.

"The fate of civilian men who have been drafted from the republics has been quite awful," von Twickel added. "But we don't yet know quite how awful. With the demise of the OSCE mission, there is no longer any credible observer on the ground. The republics are making themselves into black holes even more so than they were before."

Nikolaus von Twickel retweeted the conscript video on March 28.

Vladislav Shurygin, a Moscow-based military analyst who has seen the war in the Donbas first-hand, confirmed that some of the negative stories are true. However, he argued that the problems have largely disappeared.

"There was corruption in the first weeks," Shurygin told Newsweek. "Conscripts were not properly armed and armored, and incidents like what happened with the orchestra musicians is still a sore topic."

"There are men in the republics who want to flee rather than to fight," Shurygin said, "but not so many that it has interfered with the mobilization. Call-ups have increased the ranks of the republics' armed forces by a factor of three or four. The conscripts' relatives fear for them, but those who have survived are battle-hardened soldiers by now."

Whatever the state of the self-proclaimed people's republics' armies might be, everyday life in the territories has become significantly more precarious in recent months.

For residents of eastern Ukraine, living in a state of war is not entirely new. The United Nations Office of the High Commission of Human Rights estimates that from 2014-2021 fighting between the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists resulted in at least 3,404 civilian deaths. This figure includes victims from both sides of the front line, along with the 298 passengers and crew members who were killed when a Russian anti-aircraft missile shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014.

However, a comparatively small 365 of those 3,404 civilian deaths occurred after the peak of the fighting ended in 2015. A similar proportion of the estimated 4,400 Ukrainian troops and 6,500 separatist forces killed in the conflict also occurred in the period between April 2014 and February 2015.

Observers on both sides of the conflict acknowledge that, for those living along the front lines these days, the situation is worse than ever.

Elderly Woman Donbas Bombing 2-May-2022
An elderly woman sits on her bed with her dog at an apartment damaged by a missile explosion in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, on May 5, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

Analyst von Twickel described the devastation in small towns in the Donbas.

"Volnovakha has practically been flattened," he told Newsweek. "Severodonetsk also is more or less uninhabitable. Kramatorsk and Sloviansk have been hit hard."

Shuyrgin agreed with von Twickel that the war has escalated dramatically.

"Before, there was occasional shooting along the front," Shuyrgin said. "Now it's constant."

As a result, an untold number of residents of the self-proclaimed Donbas republics have fled their homes. An elderly couple, who asked that Newsweek not use their real names in order to protect their identity, are among the refugees from the fighting.

"Vladimir" and "Elena" raised a family in one of the smaller towns not far from Donetsk. They were empty-nesters when the first Russia-Ukraine war broke out eight years ago. but despite their adult children's encouragement to relocate further away from the conflict zone, they remained in their three-room apartment.

The husband and wife have differing opinions on which side was most to blame for the events in 2014, but both clearly remember the dates and locations of artillery exchanges between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian troops trying to retake the country's east.

"Our children will go to school, and your children will sleep in basements,'" Elena recalled the then-president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko saying in a speech in 2014.

"That's all fake," Vladimir countered.

The couple ultimately relocated to a city in government-controlled Ukraine, but for economic reasons, not due to ideological motivations or safety concerns. In November 2014, Poroshenko's government instituted a financial blockade against the occupied territories. Vladimir could no longer collect his coal miner's pension, Elena could no longer withdraw her state company salary from the local ATM, and the couple had little choice but to accept the offer of a relative to help them resettle in Ukraine proper.

However, after almost two years spent living further west, they returned to their home in the Donetsk People's Republic. The frontline fighting had calmed down considerably, Elena's old employer had transitioned over to paying salaries in rubles, and the couple missed the vegetable garden at their summer cottage. Despite some personal apprehension about the pro-Russian ruling authorities, they still just wanted to go back home.

"I missed my garden, I missed my colleagues, and I missed my apartment," Elena explained.

For Elena and Vladimir, life in the unrecognized statelet was tolerable. Neither of them was politically active, and so they didn't think they had much to fear from the new Russia-approved regime, as it seemed that it had more than enough real enemies to keep it busy.

If, the Ukrainian state was involved in a campaign of genocide against people like Vladimir and Elena, as Vladimir Putin now claims, they certainly did not notice.

"The authorities in the territories themselves were terrible," Vladimir said, "but you could live with the situation."

But things worsened last winter.

A few days after they had returned home from a New Year holiday visit to relatives in Kyiv, their son began encouraging them to start making evacuation plans. Russian forces were gathering along the Ukraine borders, and there was talk of a looming war for ultimate control over the Donbas — and possibly beyond.

As February 24 approached, the long-simmering conflict near their home suddenly became very hot, at least as far as outgoing fire was concerned. The Russian-backed separatists bombarded Ukrainian lines in the hopes of provoking a response that could be used to justify Russia's long-planned all-out invasion, but the Ukrainian troops largely held their fire. Buses nevertheless began transporting local residents to Russia free of charge.

"The Russians didn't want local people to see what they were about to do," Elena said.

Elena and Vladimir did not want to be evacuated to Russia, but they did buy tickets to Kyiv with a departure date of February 25. That bus never left.

The war began on February 24. Elena and Vladimir slept in the hallway of their apartment, away from the windows. Elena continued going to work, narrowly being missed by artillery strikes on more than one occasion. After her office was hit overnight, and after the local militias conscripted a 62 year-old colleague, however, the couple decided it was time to go.

They were worried that Vladimir, age 60, might be conscripted.

"They usually don't consider people over 55 to be of military age," Elena said. "But under the circumstances, we couldn't be sure that they wouldn't take him, too."

A neighbor had told them about a bus route through Russia to the Polish border. They paid their fare, rode for three days, and ultimately found refuge with one of their sons living abroad.

But they were still leery about using their real names in this story.

"We want to go back home someday," Vladimir said.

"Only to a different Donbas," Elena added. "One where they don't use people like us as human shields."

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