As Russia relentlessly shells occupied cities in Donbas, people are starting to blame Russian proxy puppet states DPR and LPR, and not necessarily Moscow, Stanislav Aseyev, a Ukrainian writer and journalist, and a former prisoner of the infamous Izolyatsia detention facility, has said in an interview with NV.
NV: It’s clear from Russian conduct that one of the first things they do after occupying an area is establish a facility to illegally detain and torture civilians. Would you say this topic is largely missed by Western and Ukrainian media?
Aseyev: Absolutely. My regular reports about my personal experience and what the Russian is currently doing in occupied areas of Kherson and Zaporizhzhya tend to surprise both Western audiences and so-called liberal Russians.
They are in disbelief that Russians are torturing people. I then have to explain that it’s not a series of isolated incidents, but a systemic approach – it’s surprising whenever someone is lucky enough to go through this “filtration” system without getting tortured. Western media don’t cover this well enough, leaving their audience ill-informed on what kind of Russia they are dealing with. Modern Russian governance relies on a system that uses torture as a tool.
NV: Why are they in disbelief? Do they still harbor some notions about the 21st century being too civilized for something like that?
Aseyev: That’s right. The free world has a distorted image of Russia, thanks to the effective and well-funded work of Russian propaganda. Russia to the West – especially Germany and France – is Tchaikovsky, ballet, and (head of Gazprom Alexey) Miller in a spotless tuxedo.
Meaning that civilized countries don’t realize that their usual Russian contacts – Miller, (Russian FM Sergey) Lavrov, or (Russian dictator Vladimir) Putin – are far removed from the Russians we’re dealing with in Kyiv, Kherson, and Donbas. They have no morals or ethics, and have nothing in common with Dostoyevsky or Tchaikovsky. The Russians in Ukraine are exemplified by torture chambers and cellars, where they torment our people.
NV: Is there a way for us to demonstrate that the nation of Tchaikovsky can indiscriminately torture civilians? Even after everything they saw in Kyiv and Chernihiv regions?
Aseyev: That’s not enough. This has to be not just a political or reporting effort, but also a cultural one. We should make movies, and documentaries about this, write books, which will then be turned into screenplays. That would be much more effective in reaching ordinary Europeans and Americans, than official statements about several dozen more people getting thrown into some cellar. This kind of messaging does not resonate emotionally, it doesn’t make the audiences viscerally feel the horrors of what’s going on in occupied territories.
NV: We saw the outpouring of public support for Ukrainian sovereignty in occupied areas in southern Ukraine. How does this compare to what was going on in the east at the very beginning of the war, in 2014-2015?
Aseyev: We can draw direct parallels, as it’s all very similar. For example, I was detained by Russian proxies in connection to the case of people blasting the Ukrainian national anthem in Donetsk during Russia’s Day celebrations, and making various patriotic graffiti around the city.
Basically, that’s exactly what’s going on right now in Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions. But let’s be real: these sporadic acts by partisans – or perhaps our security services – didn’t help us reclaim these territories or win over the hearts and minds of local population en masse. It didn’t have any material effect, and therefore we shouldn’t have any illusions on how things are going to turn out in Kherson, for example.
NV: With the hindsight of eight years in Donbas, what can we prognosticate about how things will develop in the south.
Aseyev: The situation is somewhat different, as fierce fighting is ongoing in the east and south of Ukraine. The conflict around Donetsk and Luhansk has been largely frozen since 2016. Nearby fighting affects the psychology of the local populace, making pro-Ukraine people hope for eventual liberation.
A person I know well, for example, got stuck in besieged Mariupol, and kept asking me if there’s a chance the city would soon be liberated. Even in a place like that, where the Russians have razed everything to the ground, people are still waiting for Ukraine to return. If the war transitions to a low-intensity conflict, the fate of the Russia-occupied territories will mirror that of the so-called DPR and LPR, I’m afraid. We will lose the hearts of people who remain there; they will instead adapt to the kind of life Russian occupation would have in store for them.
NV: What can you glean of the current public mood in Donetsk from your sources?
Aseyev: In a nutshell, they don’t think of Ukraine any differently. At the same time, there is growing discontent with the local “government,” for mobilizing husbands, brothers, and sons.
They are returned in body-bags at best, and are left to rot in the fields, at worst. And the mobilization there is total. At this point, men are avoiding going outside at all, fearing forced conscription.
Naturally, this affects what people think of the occupation authorities and their head (Denis) Pushilin personally. It doesn’t mean people don’t like Russia, or start favoring Ukraine, no. People are simply blaming Pushilin for what they clearly see is a stratagem to use them as cannon fodder. With no training, they are being sent to die at the front lines. This has already become a problem – a small one, at this point – for the regime.
NV: Why do you think people who remained in areas of Donbas Russia occupied after 2014 didn’t expect to be used in this way?
Aseyev: I assume they thought it will go the way Crimean annexation did – with little bloodshed and a speedy accession into the Russian Federation. That’s what I heard from people I met during my time in captivity – that Donbas will be annexed by Russia.
Nobody expected such staunch resistance by Ukrainian armed forces there. I don’t have the numbers to back it up, but I think that one in five households in Donbas was affected by that whole ordeal. In this sense, people didn’t expect they would have to pay for Russian passports with the lives of their family members.
NV: We’ve had reports that DPR troops are refusing to fight for the LPR. Do these statelets actually consider themselves separate “republics,” both seeking to join Russia?
Aseyev: Not really, it’s simply an excuse to avoid risking their lives at Severodonetsk. They realized they would be used to reinforce battered regiments in Luhansk region, and said they are willing to fight only for their own “republic.” What they actually meant is that they are unwilling to die in the most dangerous part of the battlefield.
NV: Russian propaganda keeps producing claims that Ukraine is shelling its own territory, in particular – Donetsk. Is this an effort to boost conscription in Donbas?
Aseyev: This is an interesting point. Even Ukrainian media have lately been silent on powerful and persistent artillery strikes on civilian infrastructure. Not just in Donetsk, but also in Makiivka.
Together with some colleagues from the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, we’ve been analyzing public social media groups, frequented by pro-Russian separatists.
In contrast with 2014-2015, people no longer believe that it’s Ukraine that’s attacking them. People can hear loud bangs, followed by mortar shells exploding several seconds later.
We’re not talking about MLRS, these are simple mortars with a range of 4-5 kilometers. Finally, folks are starting to draw conclusions from these facts. Not to mention, it’s widely known that we’re short on artillery shells, so firing at residential areas of Makiivka or Donetsk makes absolutely no sense.
NV: If people are starting to realize Ukraine is not attacking them, how does discourse go then between them? Do they have an explanation for these attacks? Does it add to their discontent with the authorities?
Aseyev: They are getting angry, but not at Russia. Once again, they blame Pushilin. The explanation is that it’s an effort to drum up anger towards Ukraine, in order to mobilize every male who hasn’t been conscripted yet. The perception is that this is coming from the local government, so popular anger is focused on Pushilin, and not Russia.
NV: So they are eager to join great Russia, but they hold it to be separate from its proxy regime in Donbas?
Aseyev: This perverse logic has been around the whole time, and is espoused not only by regular folks, but also by field commanders like (Igor) Girkin, or propagandists like (Roman) Manekin. He, by the way, was thrown in a cellar for criticizing Pushilin. Essentially, he was in favor of the whole Pax Russica concept, but said that they got unlucky with poor leadership after 2014 – Zakharchenko and Pushilin.
Girkin’s story is similar: he was effectively pushed out entirely, together with his entourage. This is but another facet of Russian propaganda: there is this great tzar Putin, who doesn’t know what’s going on here on the ground, where everything is bungled by bad barons. Perennial Russian maxim: good tzar, bad barons, who steal and torment locals. This thinking didn’t start in 2014, this is how the Russian people have felt about their government from since the times of the Russian Empire.
NV: Now that DPR’s “government” had another reshuffle, with some Russian officials coming in to oversee them, do you think something will change in the region?
Aseyev: I’m afraid it means Russia is planning to annex at least Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Since the existing government structure, there is thoroughly and completely corrupt and criminal – this is probably the first time in history a criminal enclave has the attributes of a quasi-state – absorbing Donbas with this baggage makes little sense. Russia clearly intends to establish some semblance of order on this territory first. Key players will likely be replaced, perhaps including Pushilin and (head of LPR Leonid) Pasechnik. Or they will simply be assassinated, like Zakharchenko.
NV: Having met some POWs from the so-called DPR, how would you describe them?
Aseyev: They are mostly students, 20-22 years old. Some were older men, around 35-40. I met some Russians, too, but they weren’t shown on video. But people from Donetsk were largely young lads, conscripted from university dorms and lecture halls, packed into buses, issued with rifles. They never fired a shot in their lives before, so they were taught how to reload, and that’s it. With no training whatsoever, these guys were thrown at the front lines. Eventually, they got captured; some immediately, others – after some clashes.