‘Shelling is a daily reality in eastern Ukraine for almost five years’
Could a new leader end an undeclared war with Russia that has killed 13,000 people?
Sofia Tolmacheva at her house close to the war zone in Pisky, eastern Ukraine. ‘I don’t believe in any of these politicians anymore.’ Photograph: Roger Waleson/Sopa Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Nearby Donetsk had been chosen to jointly host the Euro 2012 football championships and was gearing up for a building boom that would transform the city centre and create a gleaming new airport a couple of kilometres from Pisky.
Gathering at their luxury homes beside Pisky’s lake, the Donetsk elite savoured the prospect of a cash windfall and of local politician Viktor Yanukovich winning Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election.
Tolmacheva turned 80 this month, in a village and country much changed.
Her own home was hit by shelling after war erupted here five years ago, and she has been moved with her disabled son from one abandoned house to another, as most of Pisky’s 2,000 residents fled amid fierce and bloody fighting for the airport.
The new terminal was obliterated and the ruins are controlled by Russian-led militia who have made Donetsk their separatist capital, just across the frontline from a devastated Pisky that is now home to just 10 civilians.
The holdouts rely on help from NGOs and government soldiers for whom Pisky is a key strategic position, and they have offered to drive Tolmacheva to a polling station for Sunday’s presidential election.
“There’s no way I’m going to vote. Who would I vote for?” she says, as a dog and two cats scamper around her yard, apparently inured to the occasional judder of machine gun fire and crack of rifles in the middle distance.
“I don’t believe in any of these politicians anymore . . . But I do believe in God and that those scumbags Poroshenko and Turchynov will drop dead.”
Petro Poroshenko won power after the autocratic Yanukovich was ousted in the 2014 Maidan revolution. Oleksandr Turchynov is the secretary of Ukraine’s national security council and a hawkish opponent of Russia and its proxy forces that control parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Tolmacheva resents them for failing to end a war that has claimed some 13,000 lives and shattered places such as Pisky, but across the country many people share her antipathy towards Poroshenko and his post-Maidan presidency.
They accuse him of betraying the revolution by running Ukraine in the old style of backroom deals between oligarchs and their political cronies, and by choosing to protect corrupt judges and officials rather than instituting the rule of law.
Polls suggest Ukrainians will reject Poroshenko and fellow political heavyweight Yulia Tymoshenko, in favour of a comedian whose closest brush with power until now was playing a fictional president on television.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy seems almost certain to top a field of 39 candidates in Sunday’s vote, and be the favourite to win a run-off on April 21st against either Poroshenko or two-time former prime minister Tymoshenko.
Zelenskiy (41) has tried to distance himself from Ukraine’s long established and widely discredited politicians, by running a light-hearted campaign driven by social media posts and jokey videos and rejecting major one-on-one interviews and all debates.
He has sought to counter fears over his substance by choosing experts and former ministers as advisers, but opponents argue it is too risky to choose a political novice to lead Ukraine during an undeclared war with Russia.
Zelenskiy says he would like the United States and Britain to join Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France in talks on the issue, but admits to having no silver bullet to end a conflict that has poisoned relations between Moscow and the West.
Like the other top presidential candidates, Zelenskiy says Russia must end its occupation of Crimea and its de facto hold over much of the Donbas region; by doing so, however, Moscow would forfeit a major card gained by its aggression – a means to destabilise Ukraine and thwart its hopes of eventual EU and Nato membership.
More likely is continued low-level war along a heavily mined “contact line” between government troops and Kremlin-backed militia, who trade sniper and artillery fire through the spreading silence as life in places such as Pisky ebbs away.
The line snakes for 500km across eastern Ukraine, through deserted fields, empty roads, shuttered factories and dying villages, where a sense of abandonment has replaced the terror wrought by the intense fighting of 2014-2015.
“There is periodic shelling and we reply ‘calibre-for-calibre’ to provocations. Now the enemy often fires not so much to inflict damage as to draw a response that would reveal our positions,” says army spokeswoman Lidia Vasilenko.
“We will see if there are provocations during the election. We’re ready for anything and we’re ready to reply.”
Formerly a member of a reconnaissance unit in a volunteer battalion, Vasilenko (31) is now with the military’s 57th motorised infantry brigade, which is operating in and around Pisky.
One of its duties is to accompany aid groups such as People in Need into the village, where local staff from the Czech NGO deliver water to its few remaining residents, whose gas, electricity and water supplies have been severed by the war.
“Shelling is a daily reality in eastern Ukraine for almost five years. An estimated 5.2 million people are affected by the armed conflict, 3.5 million of whom require humanitarian assistance,” says Ania Okinczyc, the country director for the group.
Only by ending the war and focusing national and international efforts on reviving the region “can the socio-economic fabric of the area – and in particular of the remote communities which are often the most vulnerable – be restored.”
What’s left of the hopes of Maidan? There’s more desire to change things now than there was back then. None of the demands of Maidan have been met
Almost all of those still living in these frontline villages are too old, too ill or too poor to relocate.
At least two civilians are in Pisky by choice, however, ensconced in what feels like a secret garden amid the destruction and despair.
They look after an Orthodox Church monastery complex that includes a vast mansion with its own ornate chapel, which was reportedly used until the war by the metropolitan (church leader) of Donetsk, who was close to Yanukovich before he fled to Russia.
The residence overlooks tidy gardens, a golden-roofed chapel, a fountain and an enclosure where a peacock struts among clucking chickens, while the rear faces a lake stocked with fish and a boathouse where the monastery’s pleasure cruiser awaits.
“It’s quiet now, but when the shelling was bad I’d run into whichever of the two basements was closest,” says Alexander (62), who has worked in Pisky since 2015.
“When they shot at each other from [government-controlled] Avdiivka and the outskirts of Donetsk, the bullets would go straight overhead. When tracers flew over at night it was actually beautiful – as long as they were high up.”
Some of the monastery buildings are pockmarked by shrapnel but they are pristine compared with the rest of Pisky, suggesting the militia shows great care not to shell the property of the wealthy and influential Moscow-affiliated church.
“I like the nature here,” says Yuri (56), who travels with Alexander from the government-held city of Slovyansk to live and work at the monastery for two-month shifts.
“But I don’t like the war. I fought [for the Red Army] in Afghanistan for two years, so I know what it means.”
Alexander says they are not supposed to leave their unlikely idyll for security reasons – but even if they could he has no enthusiasm for the election.
“What are we electing?” he says.
“What’s left of the hopes of Maidan? There’s more desire to change things now than there was back then. None of the demands of Maidan have been met.”
As it suffocates Pisky and other villages in the firing line, the war is giving an unexpected lift to towns and cities a little further from the front.
Kramatorsk, 115km north of separatist-run Donetsk, is now the seat of the government-controlled regional administration and a base for international agencies and NGOs that are responding to the conflict, breathing money and life into an ailing industrial city of 150,000 people.
“My wife and I are voting for Poroshenko,” says Alexander, a taxi driver in Kramatorsk who says he also runs a dental business.
“The city is getting better, some investment is coming in, and the country has chosen this path towards Europe so we should follow it until we get there. We need to forget about Russia – it’s going to be a total mess if we keep changing direction every few years,” he explains.
“For me, Poroshenko and Tymoshenko are the capable ones. They’ve been around a long time, they’ve got their resources and they know what they’re doing. Zelenskiy is a funny guy but he should stick to that. He’s not ready to be president.”
As head of state and commander in chief, the untested Zelenskiy would have to tackle the kind of crisis that erupted in the Black Sea on November 25th last year, when Russian boats fired upon three Ukrainian naval ships and seized 24 crewmen.
The incident came as Russia tightened its grip around the Sea of Azov that it shares with Ukraine – effectively blockading the major Ukrainian port of Mariupol – and strengthened its firepower in now heavily militarised Crimea.
“My dad finally joined the navy a couple of years ago, when he was 45. It was his childhood dream,” says Olha Oprysko, daughter of able seaman Andriy Oprysko, who is now held in a Moscow jail on charges of illegally crossing the Russian border.
“He was in living Odessa and I was in Kiev, but we used to talk every day . . . Now he’s not allowed to speak to us by phone and we don’t think he’s getting our letters, which are subject to censorship,” she told The Irish Times.
“Lots of people are focused on the elections now and I hope that afterwards we’ll somehow be able to bring our sailors home more quickly.”
Five years on the frontline have taught Pisky’s last residents not to hope for much, but most have no intention – or prospect – of leaving now.
“This is my second war, one in childhood and one in old age,” says Tolmacheva, who was born in 1939.
“But I’m not going anywhere. I’m waiting until this is over, to see what’s left at the end of it all.”