Vladislav Kopatskiy, a 24-year-old Ukrainian police officer, brings dough and bread to villagers on the eastern front of Ukraine, but at times he gets the impression that he is in enemy territory.
Kopatski takes his groceries out of the trunk of his car and quickly looks on the horizon for signs of smoke that would indicate Russia’s recent bombing in the town of Novomykolaivka. After that, it will continue to distribute humanitarian aid to the population. However, his arrival is sometimes met with cold or worse.
Despite the intense fighting and evacuation orders by the Ukrainian authorities, many who lived in Novomykolaiv near Kramatorsk support the Russians. The elders, who grew up during the Soviet era, still do not trust deep Kiev.
Kopatskiy says many residents have already been arrested on suspicion of giving GPS coordinates to Ukrainian rear bases to Russians. “Unfortunately, this has happened,” he says as he emerges from a temporary underground shelter where the family has just spent three days under Russian bombing.
Kopatskiy says he is “trying to talk” to pro-Russian residents, “but those who grew up during the Soviet era are hard to convince.” “They have a perspective, and they won’t back down,” he assured.
An opinion fueled by Kremlin propaganda that classifies Ukrainians as “neo-Nazis” according to Washington’s command and makes Kopatsk a potential target in these front-line locations.
Ukrainian soldiers in contact with the population estimate that 30-45% of them support the Russians. “They are definitely handing over our geographical location to the Russians,” one soldier complained during a short break after five days on the front.
The Donbass has predominantly Russian-speaking people with roots in the region dating back to the posting of Russian workers after World War II. This history created a Donbass identity that maintained strong economic and cultural ties with Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine.
Andriy Oleynik, a 48-year-old wheelchair user from Novomykolayvka, has been listening to warplanes and explosions of munitions nearby in the dark for the past week. His wooden cottage in the garden was hit. Since then, he has been even more angry with Kiev and Moscow because they have not sought peace.
“The Russians withdrew from Kiev. For the people who live there, the war seems to be over. If the Kievans continued their lives like we do here, everything would be different,” he says. “I blame both governments. Both sides are responsible. They don’t care about us,” he complains.
Part of the bitterness to Kiev is also due to the economic situation in the region, which suffered from deindustrialisation before the war broke out with the separatists in 2014.
Andriy and his wife, Jelena, managed to collect their savings and tried to leave the neighboring town with their children in the last few days, but had to return because it was the target of free strikes four days after their arrival.
“Where can we go?” Andriy asks. “Everyone in this area is at war,” he adds. Local police, who see families returning with their belongings despite the bombings, are unable to hold back their tears. “They’re going back to this hell because they have nowhere to go,” he says.