The Bridge to Nowhere A Trip to the Pro-Russian Pseudo-State of Luhansk
The war is essentially over in eastern Ukraine, but peace hasn't yet begun. A visit to the self-proclaimed mini-state known as the People's Republic of Luhansk shows that the road back to normality is long and full of obstacles.
The coffin wobbles slowly across the bridge, four men carrying it with a fifth following along behind bearing a decorated cross. The coffin tips forward as they carefully make their way down the steep wooden staircase. It then tips backward as they make their way up the other side. Not even the dead have an easy time of it in Stanytsia Luhanska.
The destroyed bridge spanning the Donets River is symbolic of divided eastern Ukraine. The war may have come to an end, but peace hasn't yet begun. The driving surface has collapsed, and the resulting chasm has been made navigable on foot with the help of two wooden staircases. Every day, thousands of people struggle across, primarily pensioners. The sick and the crippled are carried across, as are baby strollers and sacks full of plums and apples. It is the only crossing far and wide over a border that divides families, friendships and business partnerships.
North of the Donets flies the blue-and-yellow national flag of Ukraine, signifying territory under the control of Kiev. South of the river and on the bridge itself, a kind of Russian tricolor is flapping in the wind, with a light-blue stripe in place of white. It is the flag of the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic, which split off from Ukraine with the help of Russia -- an unrecognized state entity that legally belongs to Ukraine but which is a de facto appendage of Russia, with 1.5 million residents, 17 ministries and a Soviet star in its coat of arms.
It is rare for Western journalists to be allowed to report here. And the criteria used by the communications ministry of the "People's Republic" to grant permits are unclear. But such permits do, apparently, exist.
The trip through the republic begins on a dusty square in Stanytsia Luhanska. The settlement on the northern banks of the Donets used to be a non-descript suburb of Luhansk, and when the Donbass rebellion began in spring 2014, Stanytsia Luhanska briefly fell into the hands of the separatists. But then, Ukrainian government forces showed up and were able to push the front back to the river. Since then, Stanytsia Luhanska has played a new role -- as a border town, transshipment center and transportation hub. There is a lot going on right in front of the bridge access point, including kiosks, market stands, a savings bank besieged by pensioners, aid organizations, porters waiting for business, taxi drivers and buses.
At the checkpoint on the Ukrainian side, armed customs officials examine every bag. Uniformed officers work on donated laptops onto which U.S. flags have been affixed. Passports are stamped. From the checkpoint, it's still 800 meters to the bridge.
Ukraine withdrew from this broad strip in summer as part of the troop separation negotiated between the two sides. Looking almost like an act of defiance, though, every single flagpole is flying the blue-yellow flag of Ukraine.
The separation of forces is one of the very few significant steps forward since the Minsk Protocol of February 2015. That deal affirmed a cease-fire and formalized the frontlines between Ukrainian government troops and the pro-Russian rebels. But the skirmishes have continued nonetheless. Indeed, Stanytsia Luhanska is the only place along the entire 400-kilometer front separating Ukraine from the separatists where the separation has been successful. After all, retreating from territory paid for in blood requires a significant amount of political courage. Recently elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who won the election on a promise of bringing peace to the Donbass, has demonstrated that courage. But resistance is significant.
Anything that looks like a concession to Moscow is enough to trigger protests in Kiev. And the situation is similar when it comes to the "Steinmeier Formula," that Zelensky recently agreed to. The formula is a diplomatic compromise named for Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was German foreign minister when the Minsk Protocol was hammered out and is now Germany's president. It outlines when and how Kiev will allow the separatist areas a special status within Ukrainian state territory. Such a status is provided for in the Minsk agreement, but isn't widely supported in Kiev. Hence, the protests.
A free bus ferries passengers to edge of the gap in the bridge, blasted there by the Ukrainian army in March 2015 to prevent a possible separatist advance.
The separatist checkpoint at the southern end of the bridge is little more than a trailer. A young man in a training suit examines passports and, in this case, journalist IDs. Visitors must fill out a form from the "Ministry for State Security," including religious confession and hotel room number. Bags are not searched. Then, the journey continues up a range of hills, through checkpoints and into the city.
Luhansk was never a particularly attractive city. In the coal-mining region of Donbass, it was always the smaller, poorer sister to Donetsk. But now, the city seems empty as well. The train station is as quiet as a museum and there are only two connections -- one is a long-haul line toward Donetsk and the other is a regional connection. The centrally located Hotel Luhansk with its 19 floors has few guests and no café, but it does have bullet holes in the windows. The stores are empty and the local football club Zorya has been playing elsewhere for quite some time. Only cash is accepted, no matter how high the sum, and all payments are made in Russian rubles. There are no cash machines.
Children in school uniforms in the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Luhansk
Luhansk suffered mightily in the fighting. In summer 2014, the Ukrainian military fired heavy artillery into the city. There was no water for a time and some of the dead were buried provisionally in front yards because of the heat. Many victims were later moved to the outskirts of the city, where a small memorial lists their names.
The government of the People's Republic is headquartered in the former regional administration building. Taking pictures is strictly prohibited. Even the press accreditation card, signed by the communications minister, doesn't open any doors to senior officials.
But Gleb Bobrov is happy to talk, a hulking man with a beard and small, animated eyes. He's the head of the writers union and is the most prominent intellectual among the local rebels. Over a decade ago, long before the beginning of the war, he predicted in lurid prose that a civil war would be fought in eastern Ukraine. "I correctly foresaw about 70 percent of it, right down to the location of the frontlines and the Minsk negotiations," he says proudly.
Like most separatists, Bobrov didn't want an independent mini-state in Luhansk, which is why he vehemently rejects the term "separatist." He says he wants to "return home to Russia," and that this is "the national idea behind the People's Republic." Unfortunately, he adds, it didn't work quite like it did in Crimea.
To Bobrov, the Ukrainian state is a meaningless leftover from the disintegration of the Soviet Union, propped up by a corrupt elite, a national-socialist ideology and brutal oppression.
The Other Side of the Bridge
But doesn't Zelensky's election disprove this caricature? And couldn't the new president, with his peace initiatives and charm born from a past as a television comedian win over a number of hearts in Luhansk? Bobrov discounts such suggestions. Those in Luhansk who pined for Ukraine have long since left, he says, and Zelensky has no effect on the ones who have remained. "All that is taking place in a foreign country," Bobrov says. He is referring to the country on the other side of the bridge.
After our discussion, he invites us to the city's Russian theater for a premiere. For the first time, a piece about the war is being staged, a dramatic reading of wartime poetry. And it turns out to be surprisingly free of ideology, free of the standard vituperations according to which all government troops are fascists.
Alexey Karyakin, born in 1980, is one of the fathers of the People's Republic and was the first president of its parliament -- though there are no political parties in parliament, with all of them having been banned. There are only "movements." One of them is called "Freedom for Luhansk" and the other is the "Economic Union."
The fact that Karyakin is still alive is anything but a given. The People's Republic has been run with mafia methods. One Luhansk "prime minister" was apparently tortured to death in prison while several military leaders have died in arson attacks. Karyakin also had to flee Luhansk for a time.
The situation has calmed significantly since a 2017 coup. Plus, what happens in Luhansk is ultimately decided by curators in the Kremlin anyway. Karyakin is now head of the "Public Chamber of the People's Republic of Luhansk," a largely ceremonial position. A portrait of Vladimir Putin hangs on the wall above his desk.
From the perspective of Kiev, Karyakin is nothing but a Putin puppet anyway, and people in the Ukrainian capital refer to Luhansk and Donetsk as "occupied territories." But Karyakin has a different view. He says it bothers him that people in Kiev act as though people like him don't exist, as though Putin has full control and there is nobody else. "They want the territory back, but not the people," he says.
A Dream of Russian Affiliation
The question is, though, what the separatists actually want. The Minsk Protocol, to which they are bound, calls for the reintegration of their territories into Ukraine, with certain special privileges. Wouldn't that represent the end of their dream of affiliation with Russia?
No, says Karyakin, they would then have a special status within the country of Ukraine, just like Crimea did prior to 2014. Then, the people could decide what they wanted in a referendum. And he has no doubt that the people of Luhansk would decide in favor of Russia.
It is precisely this interpretation of the Minsk Protocol that officials in Kiev are afraid of -- special status as a steppingstone to definitive secession. No wonder Kiev is concerned about applying the Minsk agreement.
And so, the standoff continues. The government in Kiev wants to regain control over the lost territories, and that means first and foremost control over the border with Russia. Moscow, meanwhile, doesn't want to relinquish control and insists on taking the reverse approach: First, special status must be established for the region, including their own security forces. Only then can control of the border be returned to Ukraine.
It's difficult to say what Luhansk residents themselves actually think. They are leery and distrustful. There are still those who would like to be part of Ukraine, or at least find that preferable to being citizens of a pseudo-country that has 17 ministries but no cash machines. A place where there are no free elections, hardly any work and no discernable future. But they avoid saying as much out loud.
The younger ones move away from Luhansk, some to Russia and others to Ukraine. "In 2014, we fell out with many friends," says one married couple who didn't share the pro-Russia enthusiasm many felt at the time. "The euphoria has since vanished, which makes things easier for us. But now, everybody avoids politics altogether. Essentially, we are waiting, but we don't know what for."
They say they would long since have left if it wasn't so difficult to sell their apartment in Luhansk. At the same time, it hurts them that many in Ukraine see them as traitors just because they've stayed.
One of the Few Advantages
The Ukrainian state also doesn't make things easy for those who don't live outside of its control. To receive their pensions, Luhansk retirees have to establish a permanent address in government-controlled territory and then register there as being internally displaced. The measure was originally intended as a kind of economic sanction against the separatists. But it forces Luhansk pensioners to make their way across the destroyed bridge once every eight weeks or so to personally verify their status as displaced people and prove that they are still alive.
At the equivalent of around 110 euros per month, pensions in Ukraine are low, but they are still significantly higher than the 40 euros in financial support received in the People's Republic. Many people receive both pensions, one of the few advantages they have relative to pensioners in government-controlled territory -- in addition to subsidized gas prices.
As far as the Ukrainian state is concerned, the agencies of the People's Republic don't exist, which means that there is no contact with them at all. The only channel through which separatist representatives and Kiev communicate is the Trilateral Contact Group, a forum established to implement the Minsk Protocol. The term trilateral refers to the group's three initial members: Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The separatists were only included later at Russia's request.
Olga Kobtseva represents the People's Republic in the subgroup for humanitarian questions. She is a resolute woman who took up arms in the conflict five years ago. Her birthplace of Rubizhne is now under the control of Kiev.
The bridge over the Donets is among the issues discussed in Kobtseva's subgroup. Negotiations focused on repairing the bridge have been ongoing since May 2015 and every question imaginable has been a source of disagreement. Where exactly does the line of contact run, the border that isn't really a border? It was never precisely established during the Minsk talks. How wide should the driving surface be? Kiev wants it to be narrower so that tanks and trucks can't make it across.
Ironically, even after the bridge is repaired, the plan is to only open it to foot traffic. The entire political clamor, the media attention, the visit by Ukrainian President Zelensky and European Council President Donald Tusk -- all that has only been for a modest pedestrian crossing. Nothing demonstrates better just how small the steps made in the peace process have been.
Sacks of Cash
And there's an even bigger irony: There are already two road connections not all that far away. They would just have to be opened. But the separatists are fighting with the government in Kiev over which one to open, with each side following its own military logic. Kiev prefers the road in Zolote, while the People's Republic is arguing in favor of the bridge in Shchastya. Already, that crossing is being used once a month to hand over money to Ukraine to pay for its part of the shared water system. In several sacks of cash, of course.
But for Stanytsia Luhanska and the pensioners of the self-proclaimed Luhansk republic, an improved pedestrian bridge would be a significant step forward. And the work has, in fact, begun. In early October, the wooden staircases were cleared away with the plan calling for the gap in the middle now to be fixed. To ensure that the important crossing wouldn't have to be closed even for a single day, a detour for pedestrians was set up. In the People's Republic, few actually thought that the bridge would ever be repaired, believing even as recently as September that the whole thing was just a PR ploy by the new Ukrainian president. But the detour is in place.
The bridgeworks were made possible by the withdrawal of troops from the most advanced positions. Zelensky now wants to repeat the troop separation operation in Zolote and Petrovske, as agreed to with the OSCE. The withdrawal is also a key demand of Moscow's, as a prerequisite for a planned, high-level meeting between Zelensky and Putin in France, together with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But in October, Ukrainian war veterans made their way to Zolote in an attempt to prevent the controversial withdrawal there. Clashes with the police were the result. For those who see any withdrawal as a capitulation to Putin, there is no room for the compromises the peace process requires. That would leave only one solution. When asked what he desires for his small town, Yuri Zolkin, the Stanytsia Luhanska district head, said tersely: "A NATO base."
In summer, Zolkin engaged in a heated debate on the bridge with Olga Kobtseva, of all people, the Luhansk negotiator. Kobtseva had come over to the northern side of the damaged bridge to welcome a United Nations visitor and escort her across. She was joined by the Luhansk "foreign minister," who was wearing the coat of arms of the People's Republic with the red star.
As chance would have it, Zolkin was there at the same time. This side is under Ukrainian control, he said to the separatist. "As far as I'm concerned, you can go to Minsk or to your side of the bridge," he said. "And what kind of weird symbol are you wearing? What kind of a strange republic is that?" Kobtseva responded angrily. Stanytsia Luhanska actually belongs to the People's Republic, she shouted, not to government-controlled Ukraine.
A camera team filmed the altercation. And as the two argued, the usual border traffic trudged past -- more and more people, loaded down with heavy bags and even heavier worries. Worries that, even after four-and-a-half years, haven't been made any lighter.