Ukraine: ’We have orders to live here!’ Luhansk faces Russia’s ‘soft’ occupation

Collaborate or resist? Patriotism, poverty and self-interest are pulling Luhansk’s people apart

With the fall of Lysychansk on 3 July 2022, Russia completely occupied Luhansk oblast, Ukraine’s easternmost province.

Luhansk oblast, a Soviet planner’s invention, is stitched together from patches of various historical regions. It resembles a bell pepper cut down the middle from west to east by the Siversky Donets River. To the south is the urbanised and industrialised Donbas, which Russia occupied in 2014 with the help of separatist auxiliaries that drew their strength from the local ethnically diverse Russian-speaking proletariat.

Russia made a play on the vast, thinly populated expanse of steppe and farmland north of the Siversky Donets River and found many local administrators prepared to organise the supposed independence referendum of 2014. But separatism did not flourish in the black earth of the north. Smallholder farmers and businessmen founded an armed self-defence unit which scrapped with separatist forces and eventually became a battalion of the Ukrainian army. Tens of thousands of displaced people took refuge in the area from Russia’s occupation to the south, bolstering pro-Ukrainian locals and enriching the economic and social life of the region.

The frontline splitting the Luhansk region froze in place for seven years under a deceptively stable peace, held together by the Minsk agreements. A limited war rumbled away along the front, taking 25 to 100 civilian lives a year, mostly in the so-called People’s Republics. But a surprising amount of normality returned to areas that the Ukrainian government controlled, and Kyiv’s signature decentralisation reforms helped bring more resources to the region’s scruffy cities and larger villages.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of 2022 shattered this status quo. To date, there have not been reports of the horrific torture and execution documented in towns near Kyiv like Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel in the Luhansk region. This may simply be because the Russians and their local auxiliaries have successfully isolated the region’s residents. On the other hand, it may indeed be that Russia is imposing a relatively ‘soft’ occupation in Luhansk, expecting that the population is unusually receptive to its rule. Which is right?

Russian Spring 2.0

This time around, Russia did not even wait for the official start of the “special military operation” on 24 February to begin ravaging Luhansk region: its forces had shelled the frontline city of Shchastia (‘Happiness’) to rubble in the week before the invasion. Then, on the 24th, its troops flooded into the Ukrainian-controlled north across the Russian border to the north and east and across the Siversky Donets river to the south.

As it went, the Russian army destroyed all the manufacturing and mining cities that had remained under Ukrainian government control since 2014. On the whole, however, it was able to seize Luhansk’s rural areas with minimum force. But the occupation is not the one that Russia anticipated.

Some leaders gave the Russians the welcome they expected. The elected leaders of two Ukrainian-controlled towns on the Russian border, Milove and Markivka, threw their doors open to the occupiers. So did the appointed head of the Stanytsia Luhanska civil-military administration, a veteran of 20 years of Western-funded economic development projects.

Speaking in public, Albert Zinchenko related his pride that Stanytsia Luhanska would be “the first in Ukraine to re-enter the Russian world”. (He attributed local enthusiasm for Russia to his town’s Don Cossack heritage.)

The leader of Trokhizbenka, a frontline community which shares that Cossack heritage, also chose to collaborate, as did the mayor of Rubizhne once his city was smashed by the Russian army.

In other communities, like Ukrainian-speaking Svatove, local leaders and police chiefs simply disappeared, leaving loyal residents to fend for themselves. One anonymous resident described Svatove’s government as a “Potemkin structure”: it folded when pressed by Russian occupying forces.

But when Russian forces and their separatist auxiliaries from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic entered towns across the region’s rural north, they were met by raucous anti-Russian protests. In several towns, locals blocked tank columns, sang the national anthem and harangued sullen occupiers. Residents of Starobilsk tore down the Luhansk People’s Republic flag. The northern Luhansk region joined the tide of Ukrainian civic resistance, smashing stereotypes about the supposedly pro-Russian eastern Ukraine.

The Russian occupiers did not smash their own stereotypes, however. They began shooting at protestors, wounding three in Novopskov on 5 March. Hope for a rapid liberation faded as the Ukrainian army retreated from the rural north to urban positions on the western edge of Luhansk region. Russia consequently annihilated these cities as Ukrainian forces fought desperately, tactically retreated and urgently tried to evacuate civilians.

The story of this destruction should be told. But this author, who made Sievierodonetsk his home for the past six years and started a family there, is perhaps not ready to tell it. Let us suffice to leave their names here, the cities murdered by the Russian army from February to July 2022: Shchastia, Popasna, Rubizhne, Kreminna, Novotoshkivka, Toshkivka, Hirske, Pryvillia, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.

And so Russia’s occupation began in earnest.

The story of Shulhynka

When the occupation hit the village of Shulhynka, Natalia Petrenko was head of its local administration. Petrenko’s ambition had been to make her rural community as comfortable as the city, in order to stem the chronic outflow of young and working-age residents. To do this, she landed major grants from Western donors and lobbied for a shiny modern public service centre.

On 27 February, Russian tanks rolled into Shulhynka. According to Petrenko, the streets were deathly silent, though some pro-Russian villagers stood along the highway waving. The first thing the tanks did was knock over a newly installed flagpole with the Ukrainian flag.

Heartbroken and enraged, Petrenko confronted the Russian soldiers and tussled with them to reclaim the Ukrainian yellow-and-blue. Security camera video shows her approaching the soldiers, gesticulating emotionally and pulling back her jacket to show she was not armed. “Later on, once we knew what they did in Bucha, I realised they could have just shot me and thrown me in a ditch,” Petrenko reflected.

The Russian soldiers, from the neighbouring Rostov region, proceeded to ransack the public service centre, loading a new printer and other office equipment into their troop carrier. When she asked them why they had come they only answered: “We have orders.”

“We have orders to live here!” Petrenko answered. “Get out!”

The Russians were quickly replaced by soldiers, security services and administrators from the Luhansk People’s Republic. They put new signs on public buildings and appointed the intensely pro-Russian former head of the town’s collective farm as an unelected ‘overseer’. Petrenko claims the latter keeps order with threats of basement prisons.

Ukrainian army veterans in Shulhynka left before the occupation, many returning to the front. Petrenko then quietly organised the evacuation of many of their wives, to prevent them from becoming hostages. Like Petrenko, the majority of elected local officials and bureaucrats refused to collaborate, as did most of the closely-knit teaching staff at the local school.

To her surprise, those that did collaborate included a local village head (who always wore a traditional Ukrainian vyshyvanka shirt on holidays) and a teaching assistant who organised patriotic summer camps. The latter asked the new authorities to make her the head of the lyceum.

Luhansk People’s Republic officials pressed Petrenko to tell them where the town administration’s cash safe was located. She repeatedly explained that Ukrainian reforms had moved the budget online, that everything down to printer ink was purchased through online tenders and there was no cash. “The damn Americans screwed up the whole system!” the officials raged, referring to Western support for administrative reforms.

Petrenko was later interrogated by two “LPR” spooks in the nearby town of Starobilsk. They asked her for databases of town residents, which she refused to hand over. They then berated her with Russian propaganda talking points: “The Americans want to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian,” “Ukraine is a fiction thought up by Lenin,” “We’ll beat those European values out of you.”

She was shown pictures of the massacres in Bucha and asked how she felt about them. They berated her for answering only in Ukrainian. One agent told her: “I know you can all speak Russian, I’m a former Ukrainian myself.”

And yet, strangely, they returned her to Shulhynka at 2am. And they did not stop her from escaping the next day to western Ukraine, either by design or by lack of organisation.

The Russian way

Shulhynka demonstrates several key themes in Russia’s occupation of the northern Luhansk region.

Intimidation, abduction and ideological pressing are critical to Russia’s approach. The first task that occupiers asked of local collaborators was to identify local army veterans and pro-Ukrainian activists. Any who had not escaped in time came under surveillance, were continuously searched and interrogated and often detained. Local ‘courts’ have since sentenced Ukrainian veterans and farmers who funded the Ukrainian army in 2014 to jail terms. Other veterans – and even their relatives – are held without charge.

The occupiers scour the locals for signs of Ukrainian sympathy or even access to information from Ukraine. According to Dmytro Shenhur, editor of a local newspaper in Starobilsk, after the Russians took control of internet providers and blocked Ukrainian sites, they began detaining people on the street whose cell phones had VPNs to get around the block. Natalia Petrenko, from Shulhynka, says the occupiers monitor not just posts on social media, but even individual ‘likes’.

Russia has begun filling local leadership roles with unelected bureaucrats eager for stratospheric career growth (the collaborator leading Novopskov used to work in its land maps office) or pensioned administrators from the time of the pro-Russian administration of Viktor Yanukovich in pre-2014 Ukraine.

In his community, editor Shenhur from Starobilsk thinks as many as half the local officials have chosen to continue working or collaborate. Separatist media has published images of a full auditorium of Starobilsk teachers training in the new curriculum from the Russian state. At the same time, some communities were able to evacuate enough workers in time to avoid such grim scenes.

The newly occupied territories enjoy a busy schedule of public holidays. In June, the occupiers scored something of a PR coup on Russia Day, nearly filling the main squares in many rural towns and villages. There may be an element of coercion at play: mayor Yana Litvinova of Starobilsk, who was forced out by occupying forces, claims that teachers have to attend public festivals at risk of losing their jobs. But photos from the event, with enthusiastic crowds including Russian flag-waving teenagers, suggest that coercion does not fully explain it.

Not surprisingly, local pro-Ukrainian Telegram groups angrily record the identities of these zhduni (‘waiters’). More darkly, they also name shkuri (‘pelts’), a term for young women accused of sleeping with the occupiers.

Food, farming and cash

But can the occupiers deliver bread as well as circuses? The higher quality of life across the border in Russia has always inspired pro-Russian sentiment in the rural north. Today, however, prices for food and medicine are significantly higher than unoccupied territories or even the ‘old’ Luhansk People’s Republic, and the occupiers have switched food supplies from Ukrainian sources to Russian, Belarusian and Luhansk People’s Republic brands, which locals consider of lower quality. And not just the locals: multiple sources report occupying soldiers from Russia and southern Luhansk hungrily buying up the last supplies of Ukrainian meat, cheese and vodka from local stores.

For the first several months of occupation, Ukrainian volunteers had to smuggle insulin into Starobilsk to keep people with diabetes alive, though locals report it is now available in pharmacies.

Perhaps the greatest blow to residents’ wellbeing is the artificial devaluing of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, against the Russian rouble. Officially sanctioned rackets mean that 15% to 30% of the value of converted hryvnias is taken as ‘fees’.

At the same time Russia has begun enrolling the elderly in its pension system – Ukrainian pensions still accumulate on their difficult-to-access Ukrainian bank accounts – and distributing a small general welfare payment. For those residents who were always living on the edge of insolvency, such additional income is no small instrument of Russian influence.

Farmers, the engines of the northern economy, must now sell their grain to a Luhansk People’s Republic body set up to facilitate export to Russia. Separatist media quote some wheat growers saying that they are satisfied with the speed at which Russia has restored grain logistics; meanwhile, the head of the region’s legitimate agricultural department reports that farmers have been forced to sell their harvest at prices lower than production costs.

Ruslan Markov, an expert in the local rural economy, says farmers around Starobilsk risk hostile takeover by the Luhansk People’s Republic if they don’t agree to the dictated grain prices. Alleged past support for the Ukrainian army is held over them as justification.

Patriotism and poverty

Who is winning the war for hearts and minds in the Luhansk region? Ukraine clearly took the first round, when a shocked Russia discovered that the Luhansk of 2022 was not the region in which it had successfully sown sedition and separatism in 2014. The pro-Ukrainian element of society was larger and more confident than it had been eight years earlier. In the parlance of Russian political discourse, it was the “passionate element” in local politics that has won out.

The scale of the patriotic response surprised many, including the author. It cannot be explained by the widespread and persistent understanding that Luhansk is divided between an ethnically and politically Ukrainian rural north versus a Sovietised and pro-Russian urban south.

The patriotism on display in 2022 emerged most strongly in those communities, whether rural or urban, that had some socio-economic optimism, a viable economic base and usually with leaders like Shulhynka’s Natalya Petrenko who could reap the benefits of Ukraine’s signature decentralisation policy.

These conditions inspired in many residents an aspirational patriotism, one that recognises how far Ukraine is from what it could become, but which ties the realisation of that promised Ukraine with their own self-realisation. And this aspiration and optimism are not strictly correlated to Ukrainian ethnicity. Sievierodonetsk and Rubizhne are classic Soviet melting-pot cities, yet their motivated and civically active youth have shown their Ukrainian colours in this terrible war.

Over the past eight years, Ukraine’s signature reform of decentralisation and formation of ‘consolidated’ village and town administrations brought more resources and initiative not only to Luhansk’s urban centres, but to sleepy county seats too. Public spaces were spruced up, government services streamlined and made accessible. A modest but active middle class demanded and received better culture, food and services from the private sector.

Some villages thrived under decentralisation when there were active local leaders, and successful grain and sunflower farmers formed a Ukraine-oriented local elite. Yet for the most part, the modern slide of the Ukrainian village into economic irrelevance continued.

National memory and Ukrainian ethnicity are also profoundly important to many activists, soldiers and simply loyal citizens. But some of the most ethnically and linguistically Ukrainian places in Luhansk are its remote villages, which are also among its most economically desperate – and many have clicked seamlessly into Russia’s occupation mechanism.

Many residents of these villages, lopsidedly elderly after decades of demographic outflow, pine for the bustle of the collective farm and the certainty and optimism they remember from Soviet times. Others have actively resisted the occupation, but Russian forces could easily force them out by engaging collaborators in these tight-knit rural communities.

Winning the occupation

Here we see the contours of Russia’s occupation strategy: purge or intimidate into silence the actively pro-Ukrainian segment of the population, while activating the loyalty of the most alienated segment through aggressive ‘Russian world’ and Soviet symbols. In the middle is a significant swathe of the population with ill-defined ideology, who Russia hopes to win over by restoring economic normalcy.

The first part of the strategy will work better with time: as displaced patriots integrate into communities elsewhere in Ukraine, they will eventually lose touch with their inaccessible hometowns.

Time might be working against Russia, however, in its efforts to demonstrate material benefits from the occupation. If unemployment, high prices and currency manipulation persist, Russia could begin to lose the support that is fuelled more by economics than ideology. But there is little hope Moscow would then successfully adapt its occupation model; eight years of economic tailspin in the ‘old’ Luhansk People’s Republic demonstrates that. Instead, increasing unrest could be met with the sickening violence that is the hallmark of Russia’s invasion.

That violence may come regardless; two occupation administrators have been killed by shootings or car bombs in the past weeks in Starobilsk and Bilovodsk and one wounded. This has inspired a sharp uptick in Russian security service activity, which could precede repression.

For Ukraine, the challenge is twofold. First of all, maintaining the cohesion of Luhansk’s communities in exile. Many have successfully set up shop elsewhere in Ukraine, offering social services and education to displaced residents. But just as important will be husbanding displaced residents’ belief in the communities they left behind, given their natural desire to integrate into the wider Ukrainian community.

Secondly, the country must regard the fostering of economic opportunity and optimism as a matter of national security. Economic successes over the past eight years noticeably bolstered pro-Ukrainian feeling in the Luhansk region, but to truly neutralise Russia’s revanchist threat, prosperity must reach even the remotest village.