Man Destroys His Groin On A Bicycle In A News Broadcast

“The thing is, the Ukrainian government doesn’t know what it’s up against,” he told me. “They have this optimistic belief that they can end the war and free Donetsk and Luhansk. This isn’t going to happen. Russia has the resources to sustain this conflict for decades.”

The Ukrainian-controlled portions of Donbas are still shot through with secessionist sentiment. Many of the people who supported secession in 2014 are still around, including officials. Some of them still hold office. In an effort to purge Donbas of the worst offenders, the Zelensky government has suspended local elections in the region, a move that has earned rebukes from democracy advocates.

Ukrainian prosecutors have brought hundreds of cases against Ukrainians in Donbas for treason and sedition. Some of the defendants have fled to Russia, but many have stayed. Few have faced full trials, and only a handful have been sentenced. When I asked a judicial activist in Kyiv why this was, she said she believed the main reason was political. With Zelensky growing unpopular, the judges worried the next regime to take power in Ukraine might be another tied to Moscow. They didn’t want to risk their careers, never mind their lives.

Donbas offers little to Russia, which does not need the region’s coal or its sad vestiges of industry. Presumably the Kremlin does not want the burden of Donbas’s public-sector budgets or its pensioners. Unlike Crimea, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Donbas has no strategic value — except as a platform for further menacing Ukraine — and no beach resorts.

What, then, does Russia want with it? Putin’s thinking has been so far removed from public scrutiny that any answer to that question is very conjectural. It depends on the drift of your Kremlinology, which in turn depends on your presumptions about his power. Russia analysts who are of the (prevailing) view that Putin approaches omnipotence ask what his realpolitik long con in Donbas can be. He’s always got one, their thinking goes. One possible explanation is electoral. Though Putin refuses to acknowledge an official Russian role in Donbas, the region has added an estimated 600,000 voters to the Russian rolls. If the results of last fall’s elections are to be believed, they support his United Russia party.

Those who class Putin with other world leaders — that is, as a mortal navigating among rivals — ask if Donbas doesn’t represent the rare miscalculation on his part. Euromaidan was a convenient pretext to invade Crimea, an idea long contemplated in the Kremlin. The Donbas operation was probably more impulsive, and it has met with a Ukrainian defiance few in Russia, or for that matter in Ukraine, would have predicted in 2014. Russian intentions there have seemed to evolve. Donbas has served variously as a bargaining chip with Western powers, a cudgel to hold over them, a hobbyhorse for the home audience and an albatross. Seizing Crimea increased Putin’s popularity hugely but only for a time. And while his ratings get a bounce with every southernly rattle of the saber, years of economic sanctions have the reverse effect.

Shortly before I arrived in Donbas, a remarkable open letter was published on the Kremlin website in Russian and English. That it bore Putin’s signature doesn’t mean he wrote it, but the 7,000-word letter did unfurl with the kind of party-congress loquacity this otherwise terse president sometimes indulges. “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” recounted the joint histories of Russia and Ukraine from the ninth century onward. Striking a conciliatory note, Putin lamented Bolshevik crimes in Ukraine (nothing of Stalin) and confessed that the war in Donbas was “in my mind our great common misfortune and tragedy.”

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