Z symbol Russia
I'd like to introduce Vladislav Ugolniy, a Russian nationalist in Donetsk and a founder of OPCB — a humanitarian aid and media project which I can't for the life of me translate. When I asked Ugolniy to help me out he just chuckled and said it was an inside joke. So there, sorry, I tried.

Ugolniy is well-known in youth patriotic circles and wants to work on preserving the Russian heritage of the Ukraine, once the Russian military takes it all that is. He sees himself as a culture warrior and wants to create a positive counter-culture to counteract Liberal and Western influence. He is a proponent of the idea of the "Russkiy Mir" (Russian world) and the reunification of the Slavlands.

Ugolniy and his people are quite active and provide drone training to DNR, LNR and Russian fighters in the Donbass. But their main function is providing information to the military command operating in the Donbass. They run a network of pro-Russian sympathizers and informants. Pro-Russians send them information, which they analyze and pass on to military command. Their work has led to several strikes on Ukrainian positions thanks to information provided to them by locals. Internet meme veterans have probably heard of similar volunteer groups providing information to the Russian military and Assad's government in Syria which led to targeted missile strikes on ISIS training facilities.

So, basically, you're telling me that the cyberwar is quite real and not just people posting memes at one another.

Yes, it is, and if anything, we were unprepared for it. At least from the side of the Russian government which wasn't prepared at all. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian side was prepared, and everything that we do, well they do the same thing to us. They too get information sent to them by sympathizers and spies in Ukraine. In the DNR [Donetsk People's Republic] and the LNR [Lukanshk People's Republic], the problem is not as apparent anymore. But, for example, in 2017, Ukrainian sympathizers were paid 200$ to help correct and coordinate artillery fire coming from the Ukrainian side on militia positions. They went up to high vantage points and phoned in correct striking coordinates to the Ukrainian side. These people helped the Ukrainians bomb their own people - their neighbors, for less than 30 pieces of silver. This is an endemic problem. At least in the Donbass now, the Russian counter-intelligence operation has been set up and deals with this problem. As a result, we do not work on sniffing out spies on our territories anymore and leave it to the professionals.

We would also fight Ukrainian bots by launching DDOS attacks on them. So, if we were to uncover an information-trawling Ukrainian bots operating on social-media, we would take them offline by spamming them with messages and stickers causing an overload and a 404. Again, we don't do this as much anymore now that the professionals have finally gotten their act together, but it was a very active front for us in the first days of the war.

Tells us more about yourself, Ugolniy. You use a nom de guerre - is there a reason for this?

Well, first of all, I spent my childhood in Donetsk. Then I went to study in Odessa and returned to Donetsk just as the troubles started.

In 2014, the situation came undone at a frightening pace and, seeing as I was always a politically vigilant young man, I was very aware of what was going on. I followed the events of Maidan closely. In February, when the protests started in Crimea and then the Russian military swooped in to save them, I expected the same thing to happen to us in the East. We had a hope that we would be able to effect a political movement that would bring us back into the fold of Russia. We thought that we could seize the local government buildings, declare independence and then wait for help. That was the plan.

In Kharkiv, they succeed in taking some government buildings, but the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] was sent in by Kiev and the rebellion was put down in a bloody way. In Donbass, we had more success though as you know.

As May came, Russians were burned alive in Odessa and that angered us all. I was ready to run off to join Igor Strelkov and his rebellion when I heard the news then and there. Hearing about this, my dad belted me in the face and told me in no uncertain terms that he wouldn't let me go, and that dashed my hopes of joining the rebellion. But, nonetheless, I decided to start getting politically active under a nom de guerre at that time in my own way. Because of spies and Ukrainian terrorism, hiding my identity was very important.

Anyway, Russia did NOT swoop in to save us like they did with Crimea. Some military supplies and humanitarian aid came through, of course. But people like Strelkov claim that it wasn't anywhere near enough. It was, however, enough to stop the Ukrainian advance for a time. If Russia hadn't helped at all, the Ukrainians would have taken our cities and we would have been genocided — or at least many would have been arrested and killed and we would be living under an armed, hostile occupation. Like the people in Mariupol were. Hostages.

People in the East were not happy that Russia let the conflict simmer for as long as it did. It was a difficult time during which many hoped for rescue, and many also felt abandoned. However, many now believe that Russia simply wasn't ready for a conflict with the West. They needed time to prepare. However, during this time, Ukraine didn't sit idly by and got ready as well.

In 2014, Ukraine had practically no army and we could have taken the entirety of the East. Now though, they have the largest army in Europe and are being equipped by the West. This is not an effective offensive army, true, but they are successful at defending their fortified positions, which is easier.

What comes next? Do you think the Russian campaign will succeed? What are their goals - we don't even know do we?

I believe that the Russian army will liquidate the state of Ukraine in one form or another. Here in Donbass, we consider this the third campaign of this war and it will take a few more campaigns to achieve Russia's objectives. I believe that Russia will take all the territories in the south up to Transdniestria to cut Kiev off from the Black Sea eventually. Also, Kharkiv will be taken — which historically has always been a center of Russian influence. As for Dniepopetrovsk, it is a rich city and a worthy prize, but it won't be taken in this campaign season. As for Kiev itself, it used to be the third city of the Russian Empire. It is an important seat of Orthodoxy. Without Kiev, we simply won't have all of our historical core territories under our control. This problem has to be corrected. It is inconceivable that we would continue to exist shorn of our core territories and cities.

What is the situation like in Donbass? What is it really like there - before the war and after it began?

Before the war, there was a huge problem with banditism and oligarchism in the East. I hate Yanukovitch, for the record. Westerners think that he was "pro-Russian" right? No, no, no. But the banditism in Ukraine wasn't contained to just our region. It was widespread.

I'm from Kiev myself and I was always taught that the East was nothing but criminals and oligarchs and organized crime. "Mordor" basically. Is this true or just typical Kievan snobbery?

There is certainly some Kievan snobbery at work here. As a result of the war, we have finally been rid of the worst of the parasitical local oligarchs. The rest of Ukraine has not been so blessed.

But you need to understand what has happened here since 2014 before this will all start to make sense.

For example, take the case of the Donbass oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who took a pro-Ukrainian position and started arming Ukrainian death squads.
Rinat Akhmetov

Rinat Akhmetov
[NOTE: Rinat Akhmetov is operating freely in America now, he owns many coal mining operations in Appalachia.] Thanks to Akhemetov, we lost Mariupol. Mariupol was under the control of pro-Russians, but Akhmetov intervened and handed it over to Ukraine. But here's the thing: Akhmetov initially supported the "Russian Spring" and the protests in the Donbass because he wanted to gain a negotiating chip to play against Kiev. This is typical of the politics in Ukraine — the Donbass oligarchs would manipulate latent Russian patriotism to threaten Kiev and demand concession.]

But then Strelkov came along.
Strelkov
Strelkov refused to be a part of these oligarchic power plays and refused to allow Russians to be pawns in these games. Thanks to Strelkov, the rebellion started in earnest. Once Akhmetov realized that the rebellion was real and not something that he could control, he switched to supporting Ukraine to try and put a lid on it, but it was too late. Kiev turned on him too, eventually. As a result, Akhmetov and other oligarchs ended up losing almost everything in our territories.

Things got worse from that point onwards for Donbass though. By 2016, Ukraine put sanctions on us. That meant that coal and other products were blocked from entering Ukraine and businesses and entire industries were shut down. People weren't being paid for months at a time. Alexander Zakharchenko, who had been given absolute power of running the affairs of the DNR at the time, stepped in and nationalized the industries in the Donbass as an emergency measure. Thanks to him, people were put back to work.
Alexander Zakharchenko

Alexander Zakharchenko
It wasn't long before another oligarch, however, decided to make his play for power and money.

The oligarch Serihy Kurchenko, a man with friends in Ukraine and Russia, used his influence in Moscow to swoop in and claim the government monopoly on the Donbass war-economy for himself. Naturally, he began stealing huge amounts of money and things went back to business as usual — the old model of looting returned. Wages went unpaid and our industry, already crippled by the war, was brought to the edge of ruin by his corrupt operation. To get this position though, Zakharchenko had to be removed and Kurchenko was almost certainly the man behind his assassination.
Serihy Kurchenko

Serihy Kurchenko
In Donbass, it is easy to arrange the murder of one person or another for money. There is an effort to combat this now and rein in the contracted killings, but it is still a problem.

After the death of the hardliner Zakharchenko, Denis Pushilin came to power [in the DNR], who remains at his post now, and Kurchenko began making his profits.

The people of Donbass went on mass strikes and protests because of the absurdity of the situation. It got so bad that eventually Moscow decided to do something about it. Kurchenko had stolen too much and angered too many people so he had to go, his connections and friends in the security structures notwithstanding. It was in 2021 that Russia started making serious plans for dealing with the situation in Donbass. As a result, Kurchenko was slated to be replaced and Yurchenko was tapped to replace him. Pushilin, however, remains at his post.
Denis Pushilin

Denis Pushilin
As a result of the special military operation, the political situation in Donbass has drastically improved. People were quite happy to hear the news of the start of the special operation when it began in February. To be fair, happy is not the right word, perhaps because people are not happy that the strikes have intensified and no one can even go out for strolls outside anymore. Actually, the people are absolutely livid now, seeing as the shelling hasn't stopped since the operation began. But they're angry at Ukraine, not Russia.


Comment: Meanwhile over in 'war torn' Kiev and Lviv, Western leaders (and celebrities) have been visiting Zelensky, sometimes more than once, and they could be seen strutting around in the nearby streets for photo ops.


In Luhansk, however, life has returned to normal. Many LNR citizens are still fighting, of course, but Ukrainian artillery can't reach the city. They have constant water supplies, unlike us [in the DNR]. The Ukrainians control our main water canal and deny us water. We can't take regular showers and we can't wash our dishes until the Russian army takes Slavyansk. I keep water in large water bottles — I count 14 in my kitchen now.

What can we expect for Donbass in the coming months and years? Any forecasts on your part?

We have a referendum up ahead of us in the DNR. But that won't happen until the rest of our territories are reunited. If we had taken Kiev quickly, we would have probably been given a special status as autonomous states. But, because of how the war has progressed, we are now almost certainly going to be incorporated into the Russian Federation. We are going to be a "special territory" and not just a regular oblast (equivalent to a US state). We will probably have some sort of Cossack status because of our wartime experience and enjoy special privileges in exchange for providing volunteers for further war efforts. We will remain militarized and the military structures that we have now will be preserved. We are not going to be rebuilt on a liberal model, but on a militarized one, most likely. Our people aren't going to surrender their guns. In Russia, in contrast, guns are much harder to get.

And right now, we have Pushilin at the head of the DNR. He will probably become the governor once the referendum is decided, but once there are elections, he will probably be replaced. But to get to all that we have to first win. We are now in what can be understood as the third phase of the military operation. Our forces are now launching a full attack on the Ukrainian positions, where the enemy has spent 8 years entrenching themselves.

It will be a bloody fight.