YASYNUVATA, Ukraine – With Russian-backed separatist leaders saying they don’t want to talk peace anymore, both sides are heading into the New Year accusing the other of preparing for a new offensive.
The stalemate is evident in the Donetsk Oblast city of Yasynuvata, which lost many of its 34,000 residents to the war. In August, Ukrainian forces secured Yasynuvata only to lose it again.
Yasynuvata is surrounded by checkpoints of separatists on one side and Ukrainian forces on the other side.
One of the Kremlin-supported soldiers at the Yasynuvata checkpoint, who introduces himself as Igor and who will not give his last name to Western journalists, controls passing cars.
Pointing in the direction of Donetsk, the capital of the separatist stronghold, he says: “There lies the dream.”
He turns around and points his finger in the direction of Kyiv and says: “There’s fascism.”
Next to the unused and deserted train station in Yasynuvata, Kremlin-backed fighters have taken control of a former Ukrainian police station, using it as a headquarters and prison. In the main hall a fence separates an old woman talking to her son, a prisoner, as his face looks tired and his hands reach out through the fence to the woman. One female soldier, leaning on her Kalashnikov, prohibits the woman from talking to anyone other than the man behind the fence.
The soldiers don’t want to talk about the prisoners, but 20-year-old teacher and Yasynuvata native Veronica Khizhnyak claims that the detainees are not Ukrainian prisoners of war. “The people that have been imprisoned here are common thieves,” she explains, ignoring the fact that some Ukrainian soldiers have been captured.
Russian-supported fighters come and go, laughing with each other, and making jokes. A woman gazes at four computer screens checking the security cameras. Some soldiers in their early 20s sit on a sofa, drinking tea and playing with a German Shepherd dog named Sasha. An image of Josef Stalin hangs on the door, watching over the young soldiers in the room.
Nikolai, a Russian volunteer fighter from Yekaterinburg, does not want to give his last name out of fear of reprisals.
He says that peace can only come when Ukraine fulfills the demands of the separatist governments.
“Listen, my Novorossiyan brothers have fought for their values. Ukraine wants to kill them for having a different point of view. I can assure you there are plenty of people sympathizing with our ideology living in cities controlled by the Ukrainian army, but they are too afraid to express their opinion,” he explains.
“We also need to take care of those people!” he then shouts, smashing his hand on the table.
With Yasynuvata having the distinction of having been under both Ukrainian and separatist control, there is sympathy for Ukraine’s side also.
“When fascists took over in August, we knew there must have been traitors in the city. Yes, we’ve found them, and yes we’ve dealt with them, too,” Nikolay angrily says, not elaborating further about the fate of the “traitors.”
Since the signed Minsk peace agreement on Sept. 5, and many more additional proposed cease-fires later, many have been killed in fighting – bringing the war’s toll to roughly 5,000 people.
“Sometimes peace can only come with violence,” Nikolai laughs, leaving the impression he is not eager for peace now.
Fighting still continues at some of the hot spots in war-torn Donbas, like the Donetsk airport and the rebel-surrounded city of Debaltseve that is still being held by Ukrainian forces.
As the New Year approaches, the question remains whether the eastern Ukraine conflict will stabilize at all.
A native Donetsk resident who introduces himself as Nikita Kornienko, 24, steps up from his chair, saying: “We just fight against fascism. Peace cannot win from fascism.”
The rest of the soldiers in the room agree with him. They are all cheering and clapping, making it clear that peace is far from the thoughts of these warriors as 2015 approaches.