Donbas youth exploited by Russia in war against Ukraine

A Russian tank in Ruska Lozova near Kharkiv (Credit: Stanislav Kibalnyk)

Russia withdrew its troops from the Kharkiv region and sent a number of untrained Donbas residents to cover for them.

A unit in the 138th Guards Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, a formation of the Russian Ground Forces, was sent home for recovery following the country’s big losses in the region. Many of the conscripts also wrote resignation letters.

The successes of the Ukrainian army in the north and north-east of Kharkiv can be explained by the fact that Russia is using Donbas residents to maintain its defence there. Russia’s Armed Forces units were transferred to the south of the region where most of the fighting is these days.

What did one of these Donbas units look like from the inside? Nine students from Donetsk explained that they were sent to the village of Vesele, near Kharkiv, where they were told to dig trenches, work at checkpoints, and check cars. They surrendered to the Ukrainian army before the counter-attack began and talked about the conditions in a press conference aired by Ukrinform.

“We were mobilised through force, blackmailed, and told that we’d go to prison if we refused,” the Donetsk students at the press conference.

“Rumour had it that the sentence was seven years, with an additional two years if  parents hid their children. We were given belts with Soviet symbols and helmets from the Second World War era. When we were boarding the train, one of us dropped our helmet because it didn’t sit very well. It fell from a one-metre distance and smashed into two parts. So, we were given very old and worn out uniforms,” they explained.

Members of the People's Militia of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) were less fortunate. One of them published a video explaining that when the Russians withdrew from the Kharkiv region, they were sent to guard the positions. These men ran away and tried to cross the border into Russia but were stopped and threatened with imprisonment and execution. At the time of recording the video, it was the men’s second night sleeping at the border.

There are also numerous videos published online of wives and mothers of the soldiers mobilised to the 115th regiment of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). The women say that the unit ended up near Kharkiv, where it nearly faced encirclement, though 500 soldiers managed to escape.

They have now been sent to Starobesheve in the southeast of the Donetsk region to wait for another deployment. People in the videos are outraged that the unit's leadership is not responding to them and not allowing the newbies to leave.

The recently mobilised Luhansk soldiers from the video turned out to be the 206th regiment of the People’s Militia of the so-called LPR. They were stationed near Lyptsi, 30 km north of Kharkiv. The border checkpoint where they are stuck is called Nekhoteevka. Previously, they were stationed in Tsyrkuny and Ruska Lozova. The Russian army had withdrawn, their equipment was destroyed, and they left their positions.

This emerged from their wives, who were protesting in Rovenky in the Luhansk region. A video of the protest was published by journalist Denis Kazansky. They demanded they see the self-proclaimed head of the so-called LPR, Leonid Pasechnik.

The officials said that meeting with Pasechnik was out of bounds, and all the wives could do was write an appeal at the military registration office.

“You will get sound sleep tonight, but we are sleeping outside the military registration office,” one of the protesters responded.

Seeing no results, the protesters went to the military prosecutor’s office the next day, on 16 May, demanding that the mobilised men return home.

“The Russians are not letting them home, telling them to call Pasechnik because they are ‘there illegally’,” the protesters complained to the self-proclaimed foreign minister of LPR, Vladyslav Deineho, who happened to pass by.

“Get our husbands home!” the wives demanded.

The women were furious that the men were called up to defend the LPR but ended up in the Kharkiv region instead. They complained that the men were used as cannon fodder, that they didn’t even go through the medical checks before conscription and that the Russian army left them there alone without any cover.

They noted that the military base accused their husbands of desertion when they’re not even legally obliged to serve and forced them to go to the frontline.

Deyneho shrugged in response. He pretended to look for an important contact on his phone to sort this out. But it was quite obvious that he simply didn’t know what to say.

It is surprising that such a protest was even allowed to happen in the so-called LPR, let alone broadcasted on social media. But it is a crucial insight into what the Donbas men are being put through by Russia.

These women’s pleas, however, are likely to be in vain. It will be easier for their husbands to surrender to the Ukrainian army than to get a response from anyone. Otherwise, their husbands may end up “under Ukrainian tanks” again.