Impossible Choices in the Battle for the Donbas

In the weeks since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the leaders of the Donbas have had no easy choices.

Two people sit at a bench in a Donbas town.
Andrii Bashtovyi

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, Pavlo Kyrylenko and Serhiy Gaidai received phone calls from men they believed to be Russians, based on their accents. Kyrylenko and Gaidai, the governors of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, respectively, were being enticed to defect. The pair—the top Ukrainian officials in parts of their country racked for years by conflict with Moscow-backed separatists—were offered the chance to join what the Russians were convinced would be their inevitable victory.

“This was before the phrase ‘Russian warship, go fuck yourself,’” Kyrylenko told me, sitting in the basement of a Donetsk regional-government building while an air-raid siren rang. “I didn’t have such an eloquent way to answer, so I blocked the number.”

That was two months ago, and though both received death threats afterward, the “offer” was so absurd that turning it down was an easy choice, one that would pale in comparison to the life-and-death decisions they have had to make every day since.

Russian forces have in recent days refocused their attention from an attempt at taking Kyiv to trying to control the entirety of the Donbas, the area encompassing Donetsk and Luhansk. (Though the actual cities of Donetsk and Luhansk lie in Russian-controlled territory, the eponymous regions that surround them had been divided about evenly between Ukraine and the so-called People’s Republics.) Since 2014, it has been the site of a back-and-forth conflict that accompanied Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and which has claimed some 13,000 lives, including those of about 3,000 civilians.

An uneasy calm had emerged in the Donbas. Then, early this year, when British and American intelligence indicated that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent, shelling resumed along the 260-mile frontier separating the two sides. The opening days of the war, in February, saw Russian forces take control of most of the region of Luhansk, but not Donetsk. The ongoing siege of Mariupol, a strategic port city in the region of Donetsk, has become the most notorious battle of the conflict so far. The Ukrainian government claims that up to 22,000 people have been killed and that the city, where nearly 500,000 people used to live, continues to be systematically demolished, while Putin has claimed to have “liberated” it.

But with its armed forces having failed to topple the Ukrainian government or take other major cities, Russia has turned back to the Donbas, and has been gathering forces for this new offensive for the past month. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky this week announced that Moscow had begun that new offensive, and whereas the prior Russian push was characterized by a certain level of arrogance, this one is likely to be better planned and organized. As a result, the Donbas—which has already paid the heaviest price of the past eight years of conflict—has yet more pain to come.

Now, for leaders such as Kyrylenko and Gaidai as well as their people, there are no easy choices, only impossible ones.

Pavlo Kyrylenko
Pavlo Kyrylenko (Credit: Andrii Bashtovyi)

For many Western politicians and analysts, the Donbas is less an inviolable part of Ukraine and more an asset to be negotiated, to let Putin save face and end this war. When I spent time with them, both Gaidai and Kyrylenko stuck to the Ukrainian government’s line, that victory for Ukraine amounted to Russian troops returning to the positions they held before this latest invasion was launched. Yet they related that policy with a certain bitterness, noting that part of their homeland would thus remain in Russian hands.

(For Kyrylenko, the cleavage is personal. His parents and elder brother are widely known to live in separatist parts of the Donbas and support Russia. “I do not have any family there,” he told me. “Those people are not my family. Those who stay with me here now, they’re my family. Those people need to answer to the law. They have tried to contact me since then. I have nothing to say to them.”)

Moscow’s propaganda machine has for years tried to portray Ukrainian officials in the Russian-speaking Donbas as imposed on the region by Kyiv, seemingly faraway rulers, sent from a faraway capital. But though Kyrylenko and Gaidai were appointed by Zelensky—himself a native Russian speaker—after he won the presidency in 2019, they are nevertheless locals: Gaidai was born in Severodonetsk, in the Luhansk region, and had been a senior manager at various companies before joining the government; Kyrylenko is from separatist-controlled Donetsk, and was a prosecutor who served in Crimea.

The pair are young—Kyrylenko is 35; Gaidai, 46. (Zelensky is 44.) It typically goes unnoticed that Ukraine is run by people in their 30s and 40s, mirroring the country’s own youthfulness, having gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is the generation that must now grapple with the dire consequences of Putin’s invasion.

When I was with him, Gaidai, wearing a military uniform and holding a gun, recalled how, recently, he had been trying to organize evacuations from parts of Luhansk that had fallen to the Russian military, but many of the buses required were sitting in newly occupied towns. “Yes, we coordinate with the army,” he told me, “but we cannot predict everything and be sure which towns will be taken first.” Every decision, he said, could result in a devastating mistake.

In a similar vein, Kyrylenko related to me how he had initially organized 50 buses to evacuate residents of Mariupol early in the battle for that city, but a Russian air strike destroyed 20 of them at the moment when an evacuation corridor was negotiated. Luckily, he added, no one was inside the vehicles at the time.

The pair look different—Gaidai is stockier, and his beard has turned almost entirely white; Kyrylenko is slighter of build, and remains clean-shaven—yet the intractable challenges they face are essentially the same: where to deploy limited resources, what areas to defend, whom to save.

These decisions are made more complex by what Kyrylenko and other Ukrainian officials (to say nothing of Western leaders and human-rights groups) see as flagrant violations of the basic rules of war by Russia, including the targeting of hospitals, civilian convoys, and warehouses holding food.

Gaidai told me that in the early stages of the war, Ukrainian troops withdrew from parts of the Luhansk region to avoid encirclement, concentrating instead on areas that they could capably defend and that held strategic significance. The decision initially appeared to have spared civilians unnecessary suffering—villages from which they fell back were not shelled. But then news emerged of alleged Russian atrocities in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, as well as other formerly Russian-occupied areas where local authorities were abducted and tortured, hundreds of civilians were executed, or killed while trying to escape, and cases of rape were recorded.

But if withdrawing from heavily settled areas doesn’t necessarily protect civilians, neither does staying and fighting. Mariupol offers clear evidence of the Russian military’s willingness to decimate an entire city holding out against an onslaught. Kyrylenko said he now worried that Russia would seek to subject the entirety of Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk to a “greater Mariupol” strategy, to “target all possible routes for the supply of food and ammunition, encircle the region, and don’t let people out.”

In the same way, ordinary residents of Ukraine-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk themselves face a litany of terrible everyday choices, forced to decide between abandoning their homes and fleeing for safety. In Severodonetsk, I met Milena and her 4-year-old daughter, Lilia. The pair were standing in the doorway of a residential building, frozen with fear. Nearby, an evacuation bus waited, a crowd gathering in a queue outside it. Milena and Lilia were terrified both of the bus filling up before they could board and of walking into the open to reach the vehicle. Then, as if on cue, we heard the sound of shelling. “Run, run!” Lilia shouted, pulling me into the doorway, shivering.

That unwillingness to budge, triggered by fear, is commonplace. Gaidai told me of elderly residents on the verge of evacuating who suddenly refused to move after seeing the destruction inflicted upon their neighbors’ homes. “They are paralyzed, afraid to leave their bomb shelters, where they have spent weeks, even if a humanitarian headquarters is a block away,” he said. Local police are tasked with going house to house to encourage people to leave, but in many cases, it takes family members pleading with them to finally get  these residents to depart. Officials in the Donbas have told me of volunteers who were killed by shelling while trying to persuade a town’s residents to evacuate.

Gaidai and Kyrylenko have made repeated calls—in interviews, on Facebook, in person—for the 2.5 million residents of the Ukraine-controlled part of the Donbas to leave, yet I met many who either did not know where to go or felt unsafe leaving their homes for the unknown. The risks of evacuation, safer though it may be than staying, were underlined by a Russian strike on a train station in Kramatorsk, in Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk, where evacuees were congregating; 57 died, and more than 100 were wounded. Just days earlier, Kyrylenko and Gaidai had asked me not to specify the sites from which civilians were departing, afraid that they would be targeted.

Not everyone stays out of fear. Some stay out of duty. Among those I spoke with in the Donbas was Roman Vodyanyk, the head of the biggest—and, at present, only—hospital in Severodonetsk, who has argued that he and his staff must be the last to evacuate. There will always be people who do not want to leave, he reasons with the soldiers who have asked him to move to safety, and medics such as him will have to remain to help them.

Serhiy Gaidai
Serhiy Gaidai (Credit: Andrii Bashtovyi)

While reporting on a war in your own country, you do the same things you otherwise would. As a journalist, I have sought to hold those in power accountable and ask the questions that the public wants answered. Yet this conflict is also something bigger—it is existential. In my travels throughout the Donbas, I have grappled with the worry that this may be my last visit, that any interview with someone may be my final conversation with them. Will the town I am in survive? Will the person I am sitting next to remain?

So on this trip, while talking with people—Ukrainian officials among them—boundaries broke down, and in the end, we sought to support each other. From time to time, particularly after atrocities in Bucha or Mariupol were reported, I would ask how they were holding up. Kyrylenko was matter-of-fact when I checked in on him, focusing on the task at hand. “The war is not a place for heroism,” he told me, “but doing what you are supposed to. Concentrate on tasks you can accomplish.” Despite his military background, his mind was not on the battle, but on the people of the Donbas. “Make decisions thinking that only people who are alive matter. It’s about defending the region, but not ’til the last man,” he said. “In the end, I am a governor of people, not of tombstones.”

Military strategists write about how the terrain and the weaponry available will affect the battle. The Donbas is mostly open countryside, giving both parties room to maneuver. Russian tanks will be able to traverse the land, but Ukrainians are dug into trenches, from which they fire the anti-tank weapons supplied to them by the West. Yet war is also about difficult choices, which may cost many lives. Saving Ukrainians cannot be achieved solely by retreating.

I have been coming to the Donbas for the past eight years—not just to report, but to attend festivals, concerts, and conferences, and to train local media. Over that period, I have occasionally lost sight of just how remarkable this region is, of what has been built in that time.

Gaidai told me he had overseen the reconstruction of the swimming pool where his mother had taught him to swim, in Severodonetsk; the pool was shelled by Russian forces. “Was that swimming pool guilty of anything?” he asked plaintively, tears in his eyes. “These bastards are shelling everything: hospitals, kindergartens.”

Kyiv’s strategy after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the sponsoring of the separatist “republics” has been to build up infrastructure and life in Ukraine-controlled areas, to demonstrate that life could be better in territories it governed. This became an even bigger priority for Zelensky, who believed that these efforts offered a way to end the conflict. Roads, schools, and hospitals were all developed. Still, it always felt as though Ukraine could do more.

Only when I saw a park and a café that had been shelled in Severodonetsk did I truly appreciate how much had been accomplished. In interviews with Ukrainian officials, Western journalists sometimes ask why the government doesn’t cede Mariupol, why it doesn’t just surrender, to escape the death and destruction, to end this war.

Kyiv has insisted that it will not countenance conceding the Donbas, that the fight for Mariupol will go on, and that the defenders of the city will not surrender. Yet there is a deeper reason. The Russian regiment that served in Bucha has received medals of commendation from Moscow. If those soldiers acted that way there, and were rewarded, why would they behave any differently elsewhere in Ukraine, particularly in the Donbas, where people have for so long had to stand in open opposition to Russia and demonstrate their loyalty to the Ukrainian state? In fact, the coming battles in the Donbas may well be even more brutal: Russian forces earlier planned to occupy areas before advancing, but now that it is clear they cannot control the population, they are opting for long-distance artillery, essentially demolishing entire towns and then moving on.

Why must we have to give up all that we have built over these past years—not just the physical places and infrastructure, but the sense of identity, of being Ukrainian—because a neighboring state has violently assaulted us? It feels as though the Kremlin is exacting punishment on an entire country simply because of who we are, and who we choose to be. To ask us to surrender and be subjugated because we have been threatened with death—that, too, presents an impossible choice.