Dolphin caretaker and trainer Andrey*, who works at the dolphinarium in the city of Skadovks in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, talks to us in metaphors. We are a group of international journalists brought here by the Russian authorities to tour the area. “Dolphins are highly sociable mammals, they have close links with other dolphins; they cooperate and act together. If only we people learnt the same, we would not be in a state of war,” Andrey observes philosophically.
Andrey is taking care of the dolphins with the help of the Russian army, which claims that the owner of the dolphinarium, a former Member of Parliament, has abandoned them. Andrey denies that the owner has “run away”, but does not elaborate on his whereabouts.
The dolphins are in the small aquarium; the main one went under renovation before the war, which Russia refers to as “special military operation”, started, work that now remains disrupted. The creatures are playful and active, especially when they hear the giggles of the children who have come here for a break from days otherwise filled with uncertainty and fear.
Russia took over the Kherson region with nearly zero resistance in the beginning of March. In a matter of two days, Russian forces secured the Antonovsky Bridge, which provides a strategic crossing over the Dnieper river, and then entered Kherson city that was being defended by several dozens of members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defence, a citizen-soldier branch of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Nearly three months later, Kherson is still a troubling place for the Russian forces. Many residents are not happy to see the Russian flag raised over the city.
The interim Russian administration is trying its best to keep the city running: municipality services are functioning, and supplies of food and medicine have been more or less re-established. “We are trying to restore peaceful life and working on social problems now,” said Alexander Kobets, the new, pro-Russian Mayor of Kherson. For many people, the elderly particularly, the costs of municipal services, such as electricity, gas, and water, were exorbitant, he said, and added that these would be reduced by 30-40 per cent, a tariff reduction subsidised by Russia.
Kobets believed that the Kherson region could soon become a part of Russia, which reflected the will of many residents, but he also admitted that there were some who objected to this. The Mayor did not elaborate on how the new government planned to address these concerns.
“I was born a Ukrainian. I am a patriot, and I don’t want to be in Russia,” said a 16-year-old college student who represents the younger generation that is particularly not happy with the developments. “I have many friends who have died fighting the Russians.”
Local people say that in Kherson residents are trying not to venture out too much. “It’s not that people are scared of the Russian army, they don’t harm anyone, but who knows,” said Liza*. “People are scared of the uncertainty about the future,” she added. Liza now lives in her workplace; her house on the outskirts of Kherson was partially damaged during the first days of the war. According to her, if it were not for the Russian army, people’s houses and commercial establishments would have been stripped by looters.
Many residents said they did not have reasons to trust the Russian government, whom they saw as the aggressor. But they have also lost trust in the Ukrainian government, which they believe has done nothing to protect the land.
“Our Ukrainian leaders, sitting far away from here, tell us to sabotage work so that Russians do not succeed in running the city. But if we do not work, how do we feed our families and pay our bills?” asked Anna*, a local journalist. “They tell us to ‘sit and wait, we will come for you’. It has been almost three months, how long will anyone wait?”
People like Anna also fear that many residents will face repression, on suspicion of “collaborating” with Russians, if the city is recaptured by Ukraine. “Those of us who didn’t have any opportunity to leave the city, no relatives in Lviv, no money to go to Europe, we are now called traitors,” she said angrily.
Rebuilding the city
Some 420 km from Kherson towards eastern Ukraine lies the city of Mariupol, so much in the news. It is a part of Donbass, a Russian-speaking heartland and once Ukraine’s largest industrial region. Unlike Kherson, which has seen almost no fighting, Mariupol has faced destruction of a kind no European city has experienced since the Second World War.
In the beginning of March, Mariupol was surrounded by the forces of Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Russia. It took nearly two months to liberate the residential areas and make them safe for people to venture out from war shelters. The city’s complete liberation was announced by the Russian Defence Minister on May 20, when the remainder of the over 2,500 Azov Regiment fighters locked in the city’s largest industrial facility, the Azovstal iron and steel works, surrendered—a move that Ukraine and its Western allies refuse to call “surrender”, referring to it as “evacuation” instead.
Mariupol has served as home for the Azov Regiment since May 2014, when this unit was first formed with paid volunteer fighters. Many of these fighters, according to local people, have criminal pasts and/or a history of drug addiction. The group is accused of neo-Nazi and white supremacist sympathies. Of the various paramilitary units now operating in Ukraine under a shared ideology that is articulated by the hardline, right-wing nationalist party called “Right Sector”, the Azov Regiment is believed to be the largest and the best equipped.
These paramilitary units were the leading force of Maidan—the bloody 2014 February revolution—which led to the ousting of pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovych and brought to power a pro-Western government that steered closer ties with the European Union and a break from Russia, politically, economically, and ideologically. These forces have, for the last eight years, been fighting pro-Russian “separatists”—the Russian-speaking population of eastern Ukraine who objected to Maidan.
Mariupol’s residents believe their war really started then, in May 2014, when the Azov Regiment and Ukraine’s law-enforcement forces killed dozens of pro-Russian protesters. Since then the Azov have made permanent bases in and around the city. “In the city port, where I’ve worked till retirement, we have been seeing Azov fighters making military fortifications, receiving shipments with weapons. They lived right here, inside the port premises, they have been using our canteen,” said Olga Ivanovna*, a Mariupol citizen.
Yuryevka, some 40 km from Mariupol, the main base of the Azov Regiment, was left by the fighters hastily. It is filled with neo-Nazi symbols and anti-Russian literature, German-made waterproof military notepads, and US-made handgun cartridges, confirming Russia’s long-standing claim that Ukrainian far-right movements have been supplied weapons and trained by allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
Mariupol residents have many horror stories to tell. They spent two months under heavy shelling, hiding in the basements of buildings as their apartments were used by Ukrainian troops as firing positions. “Much before the Russian army entered the city, they [Ukrainian soldiers] used to get drunk in the evening and start firing in the direction of the city from around 2 or 3 a.m. This continued every night until the Russians arrived,” said Natalia, a resident of Mariupol’s 23rd Microdistrict. “I don’t know if they did it for fun or if it was an order, but I am sure they were destroying the city deliberately,” she said.
While many residents voice this version, there are those who blame Russia for destroying the city. According to Natalia, her neighbour, who has seen the Ukrainian army fire heavy weapons from her courtyard, believes it was an effort to protect the city from the Russian army. Asked if she hated Russia for initiating this fighting, Natalia said that if it was not Russia, it could have been the US. People in Mariupol have been waiting for this for the last eight years, she said.
The local zoo is probably the only spot in the city that is almost intact. It is now used for tiny fun fairs and distribution of humanitarian aid. “During the months of siege, we sheltered around 50 people here, those whose houses were destroyed and who had no provision of food. We have been distributing the meat of killed animals,” said Savveliy Vashura, the director of the zoo. Some 5 per cent of the animals were killed by shrapnel, he said.
DPR authorities plan to rebuild the city with help from Russia. “Around 60 per cent of the buildings are beyond repair. As for the municipal infrastructure communications, the situation is a bit better than we initially anticipated,” Denis Pushilin, the head of DPR, told reporters. According to him, the city’s largest industrial facility, the Illich Iron & Steel Works, used as a base by Ukrainian troops during the battle, will be restored. The Azovstal plant will most likely be demolished. “Based on residents’ wishes, who believe the plant has harmed the ecology and not allowed the city to develop as a tourist destination, we are likely to redevelop the site as an IT park, residential area or park,” Pushilin said.
In Donetsk, the capital of DPR, the war has been a part of everyday life since 2014. People are visibly tired of the violence that has taken many lives and separated many families. Until 2017, both DPR and LPR (Luhansk People’s Republic) were partially integrated with Ukraine ‘s economy. Now, economic ties have broken and people’s ties have weakened.
Many people have left Donetsk since February this year. Unlike Ukraine, where no evacuation was undertaken by the government until the casualties started mounting, evacuations from DPR and LPR were announced by the authorities from February 18 onwards, and over one million people have been evacuated to Russia.
Today, Donetsk looks deserted, with just a few shops and cafes open. People have been leaving over the last eight years to find safety and better opportunities. Artem street in the city centre is probably the only place that still looks lively, where residents can be seen taking evening walks even as distant sounds of artillery shake the air. Donetsk’s residential suburbs closer to the line of separation are under constant shelling.
But being used to the war does not mean not wanting it to end. “We just want to live in peace, we want things to change, we want development. I wish no one experiences what we have been through all these years,” said a young woman walking with her daughter.
The ongoing second phase of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, according to Russian defence officials, looks to establish full control over Donbass and southern Ukraine in order to link the south of Russia with the Crimean peninsula (which became part of Russia in 2014 as Moscow’s reaction to Maidan) via a land corridor. So far, it is connected by a 19-km rail and road bridge over the sea).
The first phase, which started with a full-fledged offensive and ended with Russian troops withdrawing from Kyiv and Kharkiv regions (a move that raised eyebrows among many in Russia), was aimed at destroying Ukraine’s military infrastructure and preventing its troops from gaining strength in the main direction of Russia’s advance, Russian Ministry of Defence officials claimed in March.
Hardly anyone in Donbass today believes the stand-off will end in the near future. As fierce fighting continues in Rubezhny, Severodonetsk and Lisichansk in the Luhansk region, and Avdiivka and Yasynuvata near Donetsk, there is a distant possibility of the conflict turning into a long and exhausting war. The winner will be largely defined by both Ukraine and Russia’s ability to mobilise resources to continue fighting, the level of support Ukraine continues to receive from the West (something that could become a challenge going forward), and the rapidly changing geopolitical context.
While people living through the war perceive the context differently, what unites them is their desire for peace and safety, stability and future opportunities. Under which flag they get this may be less important.
*names changed on request.
Ksenia Kondratieva is a Russian journalist who has spent the last 15 years reporting from St. Petersburg, Moscow, Dhaka and Mumbai, covering developing economies, defence, energy, and more.