Desire to break free from Ukraine keeps devastated Donetsk fighting​

In Eastern Ukraine, there’s supposed to be a cease-fire, but the fighting starts again every night. For two years, soldiers for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic -- with the backing of Russia -- have fought the Ukrainian government to gain autonomy. Special correspondent Nick Schifrin reports from the front lines, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

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    Tonight, we begin a weeklong series from Eastern Europe that we're calling Fault Lines.

    On Friday, NATO will announce the largest military buildup in Europe since the Cold War. Tensions between the West and Russia have reached the highest level since the fall of the Soviet Union. This week, we will examine the causes of that tension.

    Tonight, we begin with Europe's only active front line, in Eastern Ukraine. For two years, fighters for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, with the backing of Russia, have fought the Ukrainian government to gain autonomy. The West, including the U.S., is backing Ukraine's government; 10,000 people have died.

    With the help of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Nick Schifrin and producer Zach Fannin traveled to Donetsk, and discovered that what is supposed to be a cease-fire is anything but.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN, Special Correspondent:

    On the front line in Eastern Ukraine, the war is fought in trenches.

    At the end of each trench, small outposts are manned by men who call themselves rebels. They fight to separate from Ukraine and join Russia.

    IVAN, Soldier, "Donetsk People's Republic" (through translator): It's intense all the time, all the time.


    Ivan, who declined to give his last name, grew up in a nearby village. Their enemies, fellow Ukrainians fighting to stay united, are only 1,000 feet away.

  • IVAN (through translator):

    I can see their positions over there.


    There's supposed to be a cease-fire. But the fighting starts every night. On average, one fighter for the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic dies every day.

    This war is like going back 100 years. This is a trench war, and you can hear some of the explosions in the distance, and not very far away from us. These guys have been fighting here since January, and they say that the front line hasn't moved at all.

    What motivates you to be here?

  • IVAN (through translator):

    My home is five kilometers from here. How could I not fight if the war is so close?

    ANDREW, Soldier, "Donetsk People's Republic": I decided to be useful here at least.


    Andrew, who also refused to give his last name, is former Soviet special forces. He says he came here to train a ragtag army.

    Were you sent here by Russia?


    No. No. I'm a volunteer, so nobody — nobody pay me something. I don't see professionally ready people. So, I see taxis. I see drivers.

    Come, guys. Let's go.


    Their base used to be a local school. They resist Ukraine's alliance with Europe. They align with Russia. And as the war persists, their desire to separate grows.

  • MAN (through translator):

    Once an army targets its own people, they become the enemy.


    How we can be in one state now?


    So you have to separate now?


    Sure. They have to separate.


    The front is 280-miles-long. To get to the village of Spartak, we needed an armed escort.

    On this front line, Anya, who also declined to give her last name, leads what she calls an infantry brigade. The professional Russian soldiers here whom U.S. officials say number in the thousands are invisible.

    So, as we walk down this road, what is the risk here?

    ANYA, Soldier, "Donetsk People's Republic" (through translator): Total risk. We're now walking in their snipers' scopes. Here, everything is within their snipers' reach.


    This is incoming.

    We had been here just a few minutes when we heard the incoming bullets above our head, so we have taken cover. We're staying low right now, and we're beginning to hear rebel soldiers beginning to fire back.


  • MAN (through translator):

    I will take him out quickly.

  • MAN (through translator):

    Are you kidding?


  • ANYA (through translator):

    Let's go! Let's go! Stay down.


    Like many of these fighters, Anya's not a trained soldier. She was a successful chain store owner. But she's become a true believer in a pro-Russian and anti-European future.

  • ANYA (through translator):

    The entire Ukraine is fighting with us following NATO orders. They are nothing on their own. You are writing that I'm a blonde separatist who will come and start killing your children. Yes, I will do just that.


    Are you willing to die for this cause?

  • ANYA (through translator):

    Yes, of course, I'm ready to die for my home. I will not let a single fascist into my home. I will fight them as long as my heart beats.


    When she and the city use fascist, it's inspired by the Soviet Union's role in the war against fascist Nazi Germany. In May, a downtown parade celebrated the Soviet Union's World War II victory.

    Today, the children of World War II veterans say this war is against the same enemy. Training for that war starts young. Teenage girls spend Saturday afternoons with Russian Kalashnikovs. The average Russian soldier needs more than 10 seconds to do this; 15-year-old Katerina needs nine seconds.

    KATERINA, Soldier Trainee, "Donetsk People's Republic" (through translator): Since I was little, I preferred playing football with boys to playing with dolls.


    Next up, Soviet hazmat suits. Their teacher, Sergey Fomchenko, is a former Soviet soldier and police officer.

    SERGEY FOMCHENKO, Military Trainer, "Donetsk People's Republic" (through translator): Why, when we look toward Russia, do they call it a crime? In general, the whole of Eastern Ukraine aligns with Russia. I would like us to be part of Russia.


    Upstairs, he shows me where a rocket struck this school. Ukraine and Russia have agreed Donetsk should eventually reintegrate into Ukraine. But everyone we spoke to rejected that.

    Would you ever be able to go back to Ukraine?

  • SERGEY FOMCHENKO (through translator):

    A lot of blood was spilled. Many people died. Graduates of this school and other schools are now in the army. For what? To go back to Ukraine? I think it won't happen.


    So the training continues. They know their AKs by heart.

    When they're not training, they're proselytizing. The Donetsk military is short on recruits. So the girls hand out recruiting flyers to fighting-age males, anyone between 18 and 55. Katerina also rejects returning to Ukraine, because of what this war has forced her to see.

  • KATERINA (through translator):

    There was a shell in my apartment block. Everything was blown up. When someone you know gets injured or killed, it's very hard to keep going.


    That unwillingness to reunite means Donetsk, with the help of Russia, is becoming more and more autonomous.

    Downtown, city workers whose salaries are paid by Russia look after public gardens. In supermarkets, the shelves are stocked with Russian products. The only currency accepted is Russian rubles. Residents try and lead normal lives. In the main square, with the Vladimir Lenin statue, families rent toy cars by the hour.

    In the opera house built under Stalin, a matinee showing of Giuseppe Verdi's "Masked Ball," the audience was about two-thirds full at $3 a ticket. And across the street, at the Chicago nightclub, an Italian band invited by the local government delivers distraction and ideology.

    But this city is an orphan. The Donetsk People's Republic was birthed with the help of Russian soldiers. Today, it's not claimed by Russia, and it's isolated from Ukraine. There are no working banks, and no way to pick up pensions.

    The best salary in town is a soldier's, $225 per month. Vadim Bazey and Alexandr Goryakin are both 17.

  • VADIM BAZEY, High School Student (through translator):

    Right now, there's no prospects here.

  • ALEXANDR GORYAKIN, High School Student (through translator):

    The best option in terms of opportunities is to go abroad, for example, to America or England.


    But that's impossible, because they're physically stuck.

    They can't get Ukrainian passports. And their Donetsk I.D.s allow access only to Russia. For those without the means to leave the front lines, life is even more difficult.

    Valentina Nikolayevna sleeps in her cellar because she's scared of shelling. She hasn't had running water or electricity in two years.

    Has it been worth it?

  • VALENTINA NIKOLAYEVNA, Ukraine (through translator):

    During the second World War, it took us, the Soviet Union, four years to cross half of Europe. Here, it's been two years and we're in the same spot.


    Can you just describe how difficult life has gotten?

  • VALENTINA NIKOLAYEVNA (through translator):

    I would have never believed it if two years ago you would have told me I was going to live in a basement. Very hard.


    Nearby, this is all that's left of the Donetsk Airport. It was built only four years ago. Down the street, this neighborhood is full of homes partially or completely damaged.

    But this is where we found Zakharova Vladimirovna and her 3-year-old grandson, Peter. They have spent nearly the entire war on these streets. They invited me in their home. Her husband, Zakharoff Pavlovich, grew up in this house. A Ukrainian rocket landed in their backyard.

  • ZAKHAROFF PAVLOVICH, Ukraine (through translator):

    There were so many rockets. We just heard the noise of one above us.


    This collection of bricks used to be their bomb shelter. They stay because they fear looters. They both agree they have suffered, but don't necessarily agree on the solution.

  • ZAKHAROFF PAVLOVICH (through translator):

    Good people from around here were killed. They were good guys. What did they die for?

  • ZAKHAROVA VLADIMIROVNA, Ukraine (through translator):

    We have always known this part of Ukraine was very different from the rest. But we didn't know that they hated us so much. We want to have autonomy here.


    That desire to separate means they will keep fighting. But they can't overpower their enemy. So the front lines will remain frozen in place, with little chance of a thaw.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin in Donetsk.


    Tune in tomorrow, as Nick Schifrin continues his reporting from the other side, as Ukraine fights not only the war in its east, but deep corruption from within.