Why Russia will go to the very end

Report from Donbas (This is the first of a three-part series.)

by Guy Mettan*

How could they do this to us? Why does Kiev want to destroy us? These are the questions that the people of Donbas have been asking themselves for the last 10 years. Considered from Switzerland or France, they may seem incongruous, as we are so used to believing that only Ukrainians are suffering from the war. We don’t want to know that the battle has been going on for a decade and has primarily affected the civilian population of Donbas.

For a week, I was able to criss-cross the two provinces, visiting towns that had been destroyed and those that were being rebuilt, meeting refugees, and talking to people. I have no doubt that this piece will offend many people who are used to seeing the world in black and white. To them I would say what John Steinbeck and Robert Capa said to their detractors when they visited Stalin’s Russia in 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War: I am simply bearing witness, reporting what I saw and heard on the other side of the front. Then it’s up to everyone to form an opinion. Mine is that Russia and the people of Donbas will never stop fighting until they have won.

An unexpected opportunity

It all began in a very Russian way, through an unlikely chain of circumstances. Nine years ago, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, I met a Tajik entrepreneur from Moscow who was marrying off his daughter. He didn’t speak English and, without paying any attention to my miserable Russian, he invited our delegation to the wedding. I made a short speech in honour of the bride and her parents. Since then, Umar Ikromovitch has become a close friend, one that neither distance nor the linguistic barrier could separate. Once or twice a year, on important holidays, he sends me a message via Telegram. In February, I was surprised when he invited me to join him to tour his work in Donbas, a region he had never visited before. Umar employs several hundred workers in the Moscow region and a few dozen in the reconstruction of Donbas.
  So, at 3 a. m. on 3 April, he and Nikita, one of his friends from the Russian Ministry of Defence, were waiting for me outside Vnukovo airport to begin our drive to Donbas. Nikita had prepared the programme and provided the necessary permits, as well as an experienced driver, Volodia. For 10 hours, with a short coffee break at a newly opened petrol station, we drove at breakneck speed down the 1,060 kilometres of the “Prigozhin” motorway, between Moscow and Rostov-on-Don – the same motorway on which the late leader of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, had set out upon with his tanks last July.
  Nothing could be simpler than a Russian motorway. They are always straight. There’s not a single bend along the Prigozhin motorway until you reach Rostov. And as the motorway is clear, apart from 50 kilometres of roadworks shortly before Rostov, the journey was quick and effortless, allowing us to travel from the last snows of Moscow to the soft spring of the Sea of Azov in just a few hours. We saw a steady stream of lorries and a few military convoys, although not many of the latter.

Rostov: Drinking water for Donetsk

In Rostov, the bustling port and congested capital of southern Russia, we barely had a chance to put down our luggage and take three steps before setting off on our first visit. This was to an enormous pumping and turbine station, located at the mouth of the river Don some 20 kilometres from the city.
  Workers are still finishing the external work. Two gigantic tubes, dozens of 20,000 m3 tanks, and eight pumping stations, each with 11 turbines, now transport fresh water to Donetsk, 200 kilometres away, which is deprived of drinking water because of the Ukrainian embargo. Everything is automatised. The 3,700 workers started as soon as the republics were reintegrated into the mother country, in November 2022, and finished the huge worksite and the construction of the high-voltage line powering the turbines six months later, in April 2023.

A manifestation
of Russian determination

My first conclusion is that, after such rapid and colossal investments, Russia’s will seems unshakeable. And I don’t think Russia will ever again agree to separate itself from the Donbas. This territory is now Russian, full stop.
  As night fell, we seated ourselves at a table in one of Rostov’s most popular brasseries, facing the peaceful River Don. It was to be a quiet night, and we slept soundly. The following night, with 40 Ukrainian missiles fired at the nearby Morozov’s air base, would prove more animated.
  The next morning we set off for Mariupol, 180 kilometres and three hours away. After Taganrog, a small port near the river’s mouth, the road runs alongside the Sea of Azov and is jammed with convoys of lorries coming and going from Donbas. The road is currently being widened. Military vehicles are clearly marked with a “V” or a “Z.” [“V” stands for the phrases “truth is strength” or “task will be completed” and “Z” stands for a phrase meaning “for victory.” Note of the editors].
  Checkpoints and various controls follow one another on either side of the Russian border with the Republic of Donetsk. On the side of the road, long convoys wait to be searched. Thanks to our passes, we are soon on ex-Ukrainian territory. Yevgeny, a Russian from Vladivostok who has volunteered for the Donetsk Republic, takes over. He will be our guide and interpreter throughout our stay.

Visiting Mariupol:
Destruction and reconstruction

Shortly before noon we reach the outskirts of Mariupol and enter the territory of Azovstal, the vast steel complex that was totally devastated early in the war. The factory now is nothing but rusting chimneys, a tangle of burst pipes, and twisted ironwork. A vision of apocalypse that immediately evokes the Stalingrad tractor factory of Vasily Grossman, the Red Army war correspondent, and Steinbeck and Capa’s “A Russian Journal”. None of the surrounding houses and apartment blocks survived.
  The city centre, however, has survived the war much better: At first glance, half of it was destroyed, half survived. Mariupol is currently undergoing a major renovation. In the central square, the reconstruction of the famous theatre – bombed or blown up, we’re not sure – is due to be completed by the end of the year. Umar is happy: The children and young mothers have already taken over the park and playground that his company has just completed. The bus routes, donated by the city of St Petersburg, have been re-established. The café terraces have reopened.
  Then we head back to the west of the city, which offers a very different landscape. Everything here is new. The old districts have already been renovated; new districts, clusters of buildings, a school, a nursery and a hospital have all been built in less than a year. A lady walking her dog tells us that she just moved into her brand new flat a fortnight ago, after living for months in a slum without running water.
  Supervised by the Russian Ministry of Defence’s Military Construction Company, with the help of Russian towns and provinces, work is going on day and night. Ten thousand residents have already been rehoused and the town has regained two-thirds of its pre-war population of 300,000. In the afternoon, we will visit a second 60-bed hospital, completely new and demountable – taken apart and moved if the need arises. They are very well equipped and run by volunteer doctors from all over Russia.

What do schools
tell us about a country?

The most spectacular buildings, however, are the schools. On the seafront, a new naval academy will welcome its first class of cadets at the start of the new academic year in September. Classrooms, boarding facilities, sports halls, and training facilities: Four gleaming glass-and-steel buildings have been completed in ten months. Designed to accommodate 560 uniformed students aged 11 to 17, I am told they will take in mainly orphans from the two wars in Donbas, 2014–2022 and 2022–2024. With six days of instruction per week, eight to ten hours a day, there’s hardly time to get bored. At the end of the course, students can either continue their training in the navy or enter a civilian university.
  A second school is more traditional but even more spectacular. It’s an experimental school, the like of which has never been seen before in Russia (or in Switzerland, to my knowledge). The remarkable design is well-conceived. The classrooms are equipped with the latest technology, including computers, robots, cyber- and nanotechnologies, and artificial intelligence. More traditional are the rooms for drawing, sewing, cooking, painting, languages, ballet, drama, chemistry, physics, biology, anatomy and mathematics. There is even a room equipped with compartments for learning to drive and fly.

Learning – not frowned upon in Russia

Begun at the end of 2022 and completed in September 2023, this school welcomed its first intake of 500 students last year and expects 500 more at the start of the new school year in September. The pedagogy is in keeping with the building, but without any pedagogical flourishes: Classes last 12 hours a day – 8 a. m. to 8 p. m., with six hours of “hard” subjects in the morning and six hours of more recreational or complementary subjects in the afternoon. The canteen provides three meals a day. The only difficulty, says the headmistress, is finding teachers willing to move to Mariupol. But she doesn’t seem to be one to shy away from the task.

‘They want to kill
as many civilians as possible’

In the late afternoon, we set off on the brand-new motorway linking Mariupol to Donetsk, 120 kilometres away, making a short stop in the small town of Volnovakha, whose Palace of Culture was hit by HIMARS rockets last November. The roof has collapsed, and scaffolding clutters what remains of the stage and auditorium.
  Fortunately, no one was killed or injured in the blast, as the show scheduled for that day was moved at the last minute. As far as the locals were concerned, there was no doubt that the Ukrainians were trying to kill as many civilians as possible. My guide explained that they always fired HIMARS rockets in groups of three – the first rocket to pierce the roof and structures, the second to kill the occupants and, twenty to twenty-five minutes later, a third strike to kill as many firefighters, rescue workers, relatives, policemen, friends, and neighbours who had come to help the victims as possible. I heard this story several times.

Donetsk: Bustling amid
the thunder of cannons

Donetsk is a city of one million inhabitants – very spread out, very busy, with heavy traffic. Few buildings or façades have been destroyed. On the other hand, the city is alive with the sound of cannon fire. I didn’t pay much attention to it when I arrived, because of my fatigue and emotions. But when I woke up at 3 a. m., I was suddenly struck by the sound of the cannon. Every two or three minutes, a shot goes off, rattling the windows and lighting up the sky with an orange glow: It’s Russian artillery firing on Ukrainian positions a few kilometres from the town centre. The Ukrainians retaliate with missiles, drones, or HIMARS rockets, which triggers Russian counter-battery fire, at a rate of one or two an hour, I believe.
  The next morning, I was taught to distinguish one from the other. The HIMARS rockets are silent until the final explosion, the French SCALP and British Storm Shadow missiles make an airplane-like hum, as do the Russian anti-missile missiles, while the ordinary shells fall with a whistling sound. In any case, I have nothing to worry about, my new friends assure me. They have put me up in the only hotel in the city still in American hands, and the Ukrainians would never dare fire on an American target. Nevertheless, Ukrainian fire continues to cause injuries and an average of one death a week. All civilians, because there are absolutely no soldiers, military vehicles, or military installations in the town. In four days, I haven’t come across a single uniform.

‘Alley of Angels’

We start the day with a visit to the “Alley of Angels”, which stands in the middle of a beautiful city park. This is the name given to the funerary monument erected in memory of the children killed by Ukrainian bombing since 2014. A hundred and sixty names have already been inscribed on the marble. But the list of casualties now runs to more than 200. Dozens of bunches of flowers, toys, and photos of children pile up under the wrought iron arch. It’s overwhelming.
  On the way back, we pay a visit to our professional colleagues from OPLOT television and radio, on the edge of the central square. Their building is regularly targeted by HIMARS. The last studios to be hit have not yet been repaired, but the refurbishing is swift, and the five TV and radio channels are broadcasting without interruption. The management and staff are 90 percent female; the few men on staff are assigned to cover the front line, 10 kilometres away. A small kindergarten – a large crèche would attract the attention of the Ukrainian HIMARS – takes care of the employees’ children. It’s the same all over the city, as public crèches have had to close to avoid the strikes. Initially, in 2014, it was difficult to recruit journalists because of the risk of attack, but that is no longer the case, says editor-in-chief Nina Anatoleva. The Russian intervention in 2022 greatly increased security. But they have lost viewers. Their channels, which used to broadcast widely in the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, have been cut off and can now be seen only on the internet or the local network.

Near the front line

As soon as you leave Donetsk, you feel the proximity of the front line.
  In the afternoon, we travel to the village of Yasynuvata, close to Avdiivka and therefore very close to the front line. The village, which is very exposed to Ukrainian shelling, is home to a school that has been converted into a reception centre for refugees from the recently liberated villages.  The road is torn up by shellfire and littered with the debris of collapsed bridges. On our left, two Ka-50 Alligators and an MI-8 helicopter are flying low over the ground as they return from the front. To our right, trenches and three rows of dragoons’ teeth, the equivalent of our Swiss Toblerone1, form one of the lines of Russian defence. Military vehicles regularly drive along it.
  Our vehicle is perfectly anonymous. No convoy, press badges, bullet-proof waistcoats, or helmets to attract the attention of Ukrainian surveillance drones. The GPS on our mobile phones has long since been deactivated. It’s all about being as ordinary as possible. The road is getting worse and worse, and traffic is almost non-existent. The driver, the guide, and Umar are perfectly impassive.
  The headmistress of the school, a former maths teacher who is now the head of the reception centre, welcomes us. The liberation of Avdiivka and the neighbouring villages at the end of February brought the surviving inhabitants out of the cellars. They are housed here, in the classrooms, while waiting to return to their homes or find new ones. Some of the 160 people housed here have already been able to return to Avdiivka. Today, it is the turn of Nina Timofeevna, 85 years old and full of verve, to return to her home. She lived in her cellar for two years, making fires on the street. “The Ukrainian soldiers didn’t help us at all”, she assures us, while the Russian army repaired her roof and the windows of her house, so that she can return, flanked by two soldiers from the military police who carry her gear. “It’s not a war”, she says. “It’s a massacre of civilians. They want to destroy us”.
  In the corridors, volunteers from the Orthodox Church are unpacking boxes of clothes, bottles of water, and food. In the other rooms, couples with a beautiful blue-eyed cat, old people. A family with a four-year-old boy. They had their flat blown away by a rocket while trying to find food outside. The father was a factory worker and the mother an accountant at the Avdiivka coking plant. They miraculously escaped death and still can’t believe they survived...

Donbas will remain Russian

On the way back to Donetsk, the discussion turns to life during the war, and Yevgeny tells me that in Mariupol the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion opened a secret prison in a building at the airport in 2014, called the Bibliotheka, the Library, because the victims there were referred to as “books”, like the Nazis who called their victims “Stück”. According to eyewitness accounts, dozens of people were tortured and killed there during the eight years when the battalion’s nationalists tattooed with Nazi symbols ruled Mariupol while the local police looked the other way. Investigations are under way to identify the victims, and visits to the premises have been suspended. The Russian press reported on the incident, but the Western media remained silent for fear of undermining the narrative of the good Ukrainians and the bad Russians.
  My second conclusion now. At the beginning of April, Donbas celebrates the 10th anniversary of its uprising against the Kiev regime, which, in the spring of 2014, had declared a terrorising war against it. Thousands of people – civilians, children, and fighters – have been killed. Donetsk has taken on the nickname of “City of Heroes”. After so many sacrifices, the three million inhabitants of the oblast will fight to the bitter end to defend their republic, whatever the cost and whatever people in the West may think of them.  •

1 Swiss Army armoured barriers, which were named after the Swiss chocolate because of their shape.

Guy Mettan is an independent journalist and member of the Grand Council of the Canton of Geneva, which he presided over in 2010. He worked for the “Journal de Genève”, Le Temps stratégique, Bilan, Le Nouveau Quotidien, and later as director and editor-in-chief of the “Tribune de Genève”. In 1996, he founded the Club Suisse de la Presse, of which he was president and later director from 1998 to 2019.

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