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As Soldiers Disengage, 'Fragile Hope' For Peace Appears In One Front-Line Ukrainian Town

So far this year, at least 29 civilians have died while making the journey through the five checkpoints along the 400-kilometer-long front, including 10 in Stanytsya Luhanska.

STANYTSYA LUHANSKA, Ukraine -- Beyond the series of checkpoints manned by armed guards with bomb-sniffing dogs in this battle-scarred town lies a mile-long stretch of no man's land that's one of the most dangerous places in Ukraine.

With snipers peering down and minefields all around, some 10,000 mostly elderly people make the trek every day on foot down a narrow road and over a collapsed bridge that spans the Siverskiy Donets River to cross the front line of a war that, at five years and counting, remains one of the major points of tension between Russia and the West.

They cross to buy and sell goods, to visit family and go to medical appointments, to receive their pensions and sometimes to bury loved ones.

Not everyone makes it. So far this year, at least 29 civilians have died while making the journey through the five checkpoints along the 400-kilometer-long front, including 10 in Stanytsya Luhanska, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told RFE/RL. Twenty-five of the deaths were related to health complications, three people were killed by land mines, and one was hit by small-arms fire.

For many residents near the front in the conflict between government forces and Russia-backed separatists, there's little to do but accept the risk.

"This is our daily life," Lyudmyla, a 66-year-old pensioner from Luhansk who asked that her last name not be published for fear of repercussions, told RFE/RL as she dragged a metal cart full of canned, boxed, and bagged food across the Stanytsya Luhanska checkpoint on July 2.

Under a clear sky and scorching sun, the temperature had reached 35 degrees Celsius. She stopped to wash her face and drink water from a spigot installed by international aid groups. A sign warning of mines loomed over. "Living like this is impossible," Lyudmyla said, "but we do it."

A sign warning of mines is seen near a water spigot at the Stanytsya Luhanska crossing.
A sign warning of mines is seen near a water spigot at the Stanytsya Luhanska crossing.

​Preoccupied with trying to make it through the crossing that day, Lyudmyla did not notice the dirt flying off a shovel in a freshly dug trench nearby.

It did not look like much, but the digging represented an unprecedented move in this town just 10 kilometers from the Russian border that has been hailed as a major achievement by Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy: For the first time since the war began in April 2014 , the Ukrainian military and Russia-backed separatists managed to agree on June 26 to pull their fighting positions back 1 kilometer each to create what the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM) calls a disengagement zone.

'A Fragile Hope For The Beginning Of The End'

While fighting has persisted elsewhere on the front, the pullback -- along with diplomatic developments such as Zelenskiy's first phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and stepped-up talk of prisoner exchanges -- is one of a handful of signs that the chances of resolving the conflict could be increasing.

That would please many Ukrainians, who go to the polls on July 21 for snap elections called by Zelenskiy after announcing at his May 20 inauguration that he was dissolving parliament. A big win for his Servant of the People party could give him more room for maneuver in efforts to end the war in eastern Ukraine.

Polls show Servant of the People on track to win between 41-48 percent of the vote, well ahead of the other parties. At least part of the reason for the broad support appears to stem from the fact that the party and the president have prioritized resolving the conflict -- Ukrainians' No. 1 demand, according to national polling.

An International Republic Institute (IRI) poll released on July 9 found that 65 percent of Ukrainians regard a resolution of the conflict in the east as the best way to increase their trust in Zelenskiy and 45 percent said it would increase their trust in parliament, which has been among the country's least trusted institutions for years.

Stanytsya Luhanska
Stanytsya Luhanska

Attempts to create disengagement zones in three other locations since 2016 failed because the two sides were unable to completely cease hostilities for a period of seven days, a precondition to the withdrawal of forces.

But since June 19, fighting in Stanytsya Luhanska has stopped and soldiers have pulled back their positions. As a result, a rare silence and respite for war-weary civilians like Lyudmyla has come to an eastern Ukrainian battlefield.

"So far everything is going smoothly," Ukrainian Colonel Ruslan Miroshnychenko told RFE/RL in an interview in no man's land, gesturing to the relatively quiet surroundings. "This is a huge step forward."

But he added that the situation was fragile. "We lose soldiers daily. We lost two yesterday from an anti-tank missile," he said, recalling a Defense Ministry report from another location. "I don't want to bulls**t you. The reality is that the war could escalate at any moment."

It is a tenuous deal, but one that Zelenskiy has said offers hope for peace where it has for half a decade -- with 13,000 dead, including more than 3,000 civilians -- felt almost inconceivable.

"I don't want to promise peace tomorrow, that we will stop the war tomorrow," he told Ukrainians in a July 1 video address posted on his social-media accounts -- perhaps heeding the cautionary tale of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, who vowed in 2014 to end the war in weeks. "But I believe a fragile hope for the beginning of the end of the war's hot phase is emerging."

President Volodymyr Zelensky (3rd from right) talks to journalists and local residents at a partially destroyed bridge near Stanytsya Luhanska on July 7.
President Volodymyr Zelensky (3rd from right) talks to journalists and local residents at a partially destroyed bridge near Stanytsya Luhanska on July 7.

Change In Rhetoric, Tactics

There has been an undeniable change in public comments about the war, and potentially in policy, since Ukraine's change of power two months ago.

As president and commander in chief, Poroshenko, who took office the day after the long and deadly battle for Donetsk airport erupted in May 2014, used militaristic rhetoric from the start and nationalism-tinged tough talk about the war as part of his unsuccessful reelection campaign.

While focused on rebuilding a military that had fallen into disarray, he imposed measures that were condemned by humanitarian groups and described by critics as punitive for citizens living in the separatist-held territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. These included an economic blockade and strict rules for residents to receive pensions that forced them to make frequent front-line crossings.

In an explosive interview with the BBC earlier this year that some residents felt epitomized Poroshenko's view of the local population, a government minister overseeing the regions referred to those citizens who refused or were unable to flee to government-controlled territory as "scum."

Zelenskiy has kept up the criticism of Moscow but has said he is open to new, constructive ideas for ending the conflict, and in the meantime has vowed to oversee steps to ease the burden on civilians living in the war zone.

At an EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv on July 8, Zelenskiy outlined some of them. He proposed streamlining the process for Ukrainians living in areas held by the Russia-backed separatists to pick up their pensions. As it stands, those people must first register as internally displaced persons (IDPs) on the government-controlled side and return there at least once every two months. If they are found by authorities not to be residing at the addresses where they are registered, they can forfeit their pensions. Zelenskiy said he would see the two-month rule expanded to one year.

And he said rebuilding hard-hit civilian areas along the front line was a top priority. He underscored that position during a visit to Stanytsya Luhanska on July 7 with European Council President Donald Tusk ahead of the summit. Zelenskiy walked through the newly dug positions, confirmed the disengagement on the Ukrainian side, and promised to repair the bridge across the Siverskiy Donets River.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) and European Council President Donald Tusk visit Stanytsya Luhanska on July 7.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) and European Council President Donald Tusk visit Stanytsya Luhanska on July 7.

The bridge has come to symbolize the plight of civilians caught up in the war. It was blown up as fighting raged in 2015, yet it continues to be used by 300,000 people commuting between the two sides today, making it the busiest crossing in the war zone. In 2018, the United Nations earmarked funds to repair the bridge, but constant fighting made renovation impossible.

At the EU-Ukraine summit, Zelenskiy promised work would start in seven or eight days — on or around July 15-16.

But there could be trouble.

Responding to a question from RFE/RL on July 16, Zelenskiy's office did not say whether the work had begun, instead asking a rhetorical question. "Have [the separatists] removed their fortification?" a spokesperson said, referring to a defensive wall erected on the bridge.

The hold-up could be due to a warning from the leader of the Russia-backed separatists in the Luhansk region, Leonid Pasechnyk, who tweeted on July 9 that any attempt by Zelenskiy's government to restore the bridge on its own "will be regarded as an act of aggression."

Vadym Prystayko, deputy head of Zelenskiy's presidential office, said in a briefing later on July 16 that Vladislav Surkov, a Putin aide responsible for Ukraine policy, had vowed during a recent meeting with peace negotiators in Minsk to use his influence over Pasechnyk and his forces to get them on board with the bridge repairs.

A return to forward positions and fighting could undermine Zelenskiy's new approach and dash the hopes of local residents for any lasting peace.

Fear And Hope

Some soldiers and even residents are wary of the disengagement in Stanytsya Luhanska. They fear that the troop withdrawal may leave Ukraine vulnerable to a potential separatist advance there.

"If our soldiers leave today, what guarantees do we have that those on the other side won't come here and take us over?" asked Maryna Danylkina, a local Red Cross volunteer in Zolote-4/Rodina, some 90 kilometers to the west.

Danylkina knows what a failed disengagement zone looks like. Last year, an unsuccessful cease-fire that saw separatist forces creeping toward the village of around 550 people, including 48 children, forced the Ukrainian military to quickly move back in. The warring sides' positions are now a mere 300 to 400 meters apart and exploding shells rain down daily.

The Zolote checkpoint near the front-line Ukrainian Army position
The Zolote checkpoint near the front-line Ukrainian Army position

Residents' nerves are shot.

"We've had so many of our people here killed during the war," said Danylkina, who works out of a former village cultural center scarred by shelling and small-arms fire. "People are terrified."

The fighting has wreaked havoc on the village and left it without electricity and running water. Food is limited.

"I get phone calls from people begging, 'Maryna, we're hungry and I have nothing to eat, nothing to feed my children,'" Danylkina said.

At the same time, she wants the disengagement in Stanytsya Luhanska to succeed. Like Zelenskiy, she hopes it can become a model for other towns and villages like hers along the front line.

'Talking Still Done With Weapons'

A successful disengagement in Zolote-4/Rodina could mean the long-awaited opening of a checkpoint that stands at the village's entrance and the chance for residents to visit their friends and family in neighboring Pervomaysk, a city held by the separatists just 5 kilometers away across the front line.

For the past five years, villagers have had to endure the long and expensive trip through the Stanytsya Luhanska crossing in order to visit each other, said Olena, a local volunteer who asked that her last name not be used because she works with international organizations she said are strict about their workers giving opinions to media.

"If the [warring] sides talk," Olena said, disengagement is possible and the opening of the crossing there "could be negotiated in a week."

But back in Stanytsya Luhanska, Miroshnychenko warned that elsewhere along the snaking front line there is still more shooting than talking.

An uptick in fighting in recent weeks has seen attacks on military ambulances and a convoy carrying the Donetsk region governor that killed several Ukrainian soldiers.

International conflict monitors from the OSCE SMM reported on July 11 that in the previous three months they recorded 85,483 cease-fire violations, including 1,732 explosions from mortar, tank, and artillery shells, and 1,269 instances of light weapons firing in violation of withdrawal lines.

"The enemy is showing us they are still there and they are our enemy," Miroshnychenko said. "Along the front line, our talk -- soldiers' talk, let's say -- is still done with weapons."