War and Peace in the Lugansk People’s Republic: Fort Russ’ Popov visits frontline – Part 1


June 20, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

By Eduard Popov for Fort Russ – translated by J. Arnoldski –

Eduard Popov, born in 1973 in Konstantinovka, Donetsk region, is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia in Rostov-on-Don. From 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don. He has actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass and has been a guest contributor to various Donbass media, such as the Lugansk-based Cossack Media Group. Popov has been Fort Russ’ guest analyst since June, 2016.

From June 10th to 14th, I visited the Lugansk People’s Republic. My trip was made possible thanks to the generous invitation and cooperation afforded by my partners from Cossack Media Group. My five-day stay allowed me to see numerous episodes of military and civilian life in the unrecognized republic. As a matter of course, my trip around the LPR was full of meetings with people from different social groups – businessmen, soldiers, and ordinary civilians – thanks to whom I acquired new knowledge as to the situation on the front and the republic’s economic system and social policies. Most importantly, I had the opportunity to get closer to the psychological state of the people who have for more than three years already withstood the Kiev junta’s attempts to subjugate them. 

Among other places, I visited the border towns of Stakhanov and Pervomaysk, which allowed me to capture on camera the destruction wreaked by Ukrainian artillery bombardments and the restoration and public services work underway. Fort Russ and I will work to publish such firsthand glimpses into the life of war-torn Donbass in a manner that does not endanger the lives and families on the ground (more on this below). 

To start, I believe that the average American reader is probably unaware of the fact that approximately half of the former Lugansk region of Ukraine belonged to the Don Cossack region before the revolution of 1917, i.e., it was Russian Cossack territory. Only in 1922 were these lands gifted to the Soviet Ukrainian government by Lenin. While anything having to do with the “totalitarian Soviet Union” is taboo in contemporary Ukraine, Ukrainian authorities have no desire to relinquish those territorial gains acquired by Ukraine during the Soviet period including Crimea, Donbass, all of Novorossiya, Galicia, Volynia, Bukovina, and Transcarpathia (Carpathian Rus), i.e., more than half of modern Ukraine’s territory. This fact alone serves to show that calling the Donbass militias “separatists” is incorrect. The real separatist is Ukraine itself which established itself as a “nation” only within the framework of the USSR.

Thanks to the assistance of my friends from Lugansk, I also managed to fulfill my dream of visiting the trenches on the frontline where the demarcation line has been set. At some points, the Lugansk People’s Republic and Ukraine are separated only by a narrow few hundred meters.  

For the sake of convenience, I will divide my firsthand account of the situation in Lugansk into two sections: the military-political and socio-economic. 

The military-political situation in and around the LPR

My trip took place shortly after the battles around the village of Zhelobok in the Slavyanoserbsk district of the LPR which broke out on June 7th. In some Russian media, the news of the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ offensive on Zhelobok was treated somewhat sensationally. Articles were published with headlines such as “BREAKING! UAF goes on the offensive against Donbass republics.” However, I can confirm that the battle around Zhelobok was local in nature. 

In the republic, people treated this offensive as at once merely another “reconnaissance-via-battle” move and an adventure on the part of the Kiev government. The result of this adventure was 18 dead Ukrainian troops and several dozen injured, which has been confirmed by reports of the LPR’s People’s Militia (which fulfills the function of a ministry of defense). The Ukrainian government is trying to destroy the people of Donbass, but does not spare the lives of its own troops in the process. The fact that the armed forces of the unrecognized Lugansk People’s Republics gave the UAF fiery hell at Zhelobok was confirmed by my interviews with some Ukrainian troops who survived the fighting and defied the Ukrainian censor which forbids talking about losses. 

I also managed to talk about Ukrainian-censored realities with commanders and ordinary soldiers of the LPR’s People’s Militia. I was lucky enough to take pictures with some of them but, unfortunately, I cannot share the photos, the soldiers’ names, or their military units, since the majority of LPR soldiers are from the territories that are currently under Ukrainian occupation. They still have family on the other side, and these soldiers live in constant fear of reprisals against their families if their faces and names are revealed. Otherwise, for military reasons, I have to avoid directly referencing some of the towns that I visited, as well as the bases and foreword positions of the People’s Militia. I can say, however, that in addition to other units, I was fortunate to meet with the soldiers of the M.I. Platov 6th Cossack Regiment, whose first commander was the legendary Pavel Dremov. 

All of the servicemen with whom I talked were natives, many of them from the Lugansk region’s territories currently occupied by Ukraine. I didn’t see a single member of the Russian army which is allegedly fighting under the guise of militiamen. My friends from Lugansk did tell me, however, of volunteers from Russia who came to join the militia in 2014, but there was no opportunity to visit with them.

The first thing that strikes you when you talk with soldiers of the LPR army is their high morale and top-shape psychological spirit. The army has tasted victories and aims to completely route the enemy, and probably can’t imagine anything else. At the start of the war, the Donbass militia fought tanks with hunting rifles and faced down rocket volley systems with machine guns. When the Acting President of Ukraine, Turchynov, unleashed the war in Donbass in April 2014, he gave two to three weeks to subdue “rebellious” Donbass. But it is already the fourth year of war, and Donbass is unbroken. What’s more, instead of partisan militias armed and equipped with whatever they could get their hands on, both Donbass republics have since managed to create fully-fledged armies. 

While, of course, the Donbass militia are outnumbered by Ukrainian armed forces by three to one and in terms of reserves by nearly twice, both armies are now almost identical besides the fact that the DPR and LPR do not have their own air forces. From time to time, the UAF deploys technological innovations courtesy of NATO allies, but the Donbass armies are many times superior to their Ukrainian opponent in terms of fighting spirit and readiness for sacrifice. 

All of the Lugansk People’s Militia fighters and veterans of the 2014 fighting with whom I talked unanimously asserted that the Ukrainian army cannot and, most importantly, does not want to fight. The lion’s share of UAF soldiers and officers do not understand the point of this war against their yesterday compatriots and some Ukrainian troops consider the war to be altogether criminal. This can also be seen in the mutual hatred that exists between UAF units and the Ukrainian Nazi battalions. This hatred periodically spills over into shelling each other and, as LPR troops as well as my friends in the DPR have told me, these clashes happen if not every day, then every week. An all-out life and death fight between UAF soldiers and Nazis is only a matter of time. 

Overall, the UAF has sustained hefty moral and material blows over the course of the war. The Nazi battalions are mostly located in the rear of the UAF, rarely enter into battle, and used as defensive squads ready at any moment to open fire on Ukrainian regular troops if they retreat. And when they do enter into battle, according to LPR People’s Militia fighters and veterans, they demonstrate generally low skill and ability. In the interpretations of LPR veterans, the low military professionalism of the Ukrainian Nazis is explained by the fact that they are, after all, executioners, not soldiers. 

As a scholar of Ukrainian Nazism, I can offer an historical parallel. During the Great Patriotic War, the Banderites and other Ukrainian Nazi collaborators showed their effectiveness as punitive and, in some cases, counter-insurgency forces. But when in battle with regular units of the Red Army or NKVD troops, they demonstrated low combat capability and training. The SS Galicia division, which was trained and led by Germany officers, was crushed by Red Army units within one day in the Korsun-Shevchenko Operation (1944).

Among LPR servicemen, I also noted their desire to opt for more active combat operations. In the opinion of Lugansk and Donetsk fighters, Minsk 2 stole their well-deserved victory. Especially noticeable among fighters native to the Donbass cities now controlled by Ukraine is the desire to go on a counter-offensive. At the same time, however, militia fighters understand that patience is necessary when politics is involved. None of them, however, expected that the war would last longer than three years. How long it will still last – that’s a question whose answer no one in the trenches of the LPR knows.

While I’ve written about frontline battles on the “demarcation line” many times, on this trip I finally managed to visit the frontline in person. At first, we visited the base of a unit which sends APC’s to the front, where only some one kilometer separates them from Ukrainian positions. The soldiers on the frontline are real Spartans. Fortunately, compared to 2014, elementary order has been established and soldiers are provided regular meals. Back in 2014, meat and other canned food was still the single most valued form of aid.

As for the prospects of a new big war with Ukraine, LPR commanders have different opinions. Perhaps the majority of commanders believe that there will be no full outbreak of war in the coming months since Kiev is for now trying to take advantage of political opportunities to put pressure on the Donbass republics and Russia. But the main point I can convey is that Ukraine is aware of just how powerful the republics’ armies are. The commanders of the garrisons that I visited are determined to win and firmly believe in victory. 

On the whole, in the opinion of Lugansk army officers whom I surveyed, the republics boast artillery superiority over the UAF at least in terms of skillful fire. I heard of this for the first time not from acquaintances among the militia, but from a speech by the Israeli expert Yakov Kedmi. In the words of LPR People’s Militia commanders, the quantity and quality of arms is now at the proper level. In other words, they have something with which to meet the Ukrainian aggressor.

Not only soldiers, but also LPR civilians are of the same spirit. While talking in relatively peaceful Lugansk with civilians, I heard the following: “If the Nazis [how Donbass people call Ukrainians – Popov] get through, they will massacre everyone. So we will not surrender to Ukraine under any circumstances.” 

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Such plans for “cleansing” the Donbass population were voiced again publicly several days ago by Shkiryak, an advisor to Ukraine’s interior affairs minister. Indeed, Ukrainian officials don’t bother hiding that they are preparing for total genocide against the Donbass population as was frankly shown back in 2014. As for how the people of Donbass have survived over the past several years, what conditions they live in, and how they have begun building their own statehood amidst Ukraine’s genocidal war against them – we will discuss my firsthand observations on this in the following part. 

To be continued in Part 2…

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