Scott Ritter
© Scott RitterScott Ritter (center) visits the city of Luhansk, founded in 1795, accompanied by bodyguards from the Sparta Battalion

As its military operation enters a critical stage, the question of why it took Moscow eight years to intervene remains a sensitive topic

On May 26, the Donetsk People's Republic marked the tenth anniversary of the first battle for the region's international airport. This was a key clash in the fight between Ukraine and local citizens who opposed the nationalist-dominated government that had seized power in Kiev as a result of the US-backed coup in February 2014. The anniversary was but one in a succession of similar commemorations of events which, together, draw attention to the fact that the war in Donbass has been ongoing for a decade.

Earlier this year I traveled to the Chechen Republic, Crimea, and the New Russian territories of Kherson and Zaporozhye, all locations which comprised what I called Russia's "Path of Redemption," the geographic expression of actions undertaken by Moscow. The fourth -and final- destination of my trip, the two people's republics of Donetsk and Lugansk that are collectively referred to as the Donbass, brought this journey to a close. By visiting the literal ground zero of the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict, I was able to put a punctation mark at the end of a long and complicated passage which delved into the very essence of modern-day Russia — what it means to be Russian, and the price the Russian nation has been willing to pay to preserve this definition.

When I crossed the border between Zaporozhye and Donetsk, there was no doubt that I was entering a war zone. The bodyguards from the Sparta Battalion that had escorted my vehicle as we drove through Kherson and Zaporozhye was replaced by a heavily armed detachment of camouflaged Russian soldiers, a constant reminder of the ever-present threat posed by Ukrainian partisans and saboteurs. I was being driven in an armored Chevy Tahoe, the former property of a Bank of Russia executive which had been re-purposed for this trip. My host, Aleksandr Zyryanov, the Director of the Investment Development Agency of Novosibirsk, was at the wheel. My fellow passengers were Aleksandr's close friend and comrade, Denis, and Kirill, a resident of Saint Petersburg who was our point of contact with several Russian military units in Donbass we were hoping to meet up with.

Our first stop in Donbass was the city of Mariupol, site of a bloody siege in March-May 2022 which saw the combined forces of the Donetsk People's Republic and the Russian army, including Chechen fighters, defeat thousands of Ukrainian Marines and members of the Azov Regiment, a formation of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists who openly support the ideology of Stepan Bandera, the founder of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, or OUN, which fought alongside Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The last surviving remnants of the Ukrainian garrison which had holed up in a complex of tunnels underneath the sprawling Azovstal iron and steel factory that dominated the center of the city surrendered to Russian forces on May 20, 2022, bringing the battle to an end.

Mariupol suffered horribly because of the siege and the house-to-house fighting required to clear the city of its fanatic occupiers. The scars of war were so deep and prevalent as to leave the casual observer grasping to figure out how, or even if, the city and its population could ever recover. This was especially so when looking at the ruins of the Azovstal plant from the vantage point of the restored monument to the its workers who died during World War Two. And yet, like the patches of green that mark a charred forest after the first rainfall, Mariupol bore the evidence of a city coming back to life. The southern districts of the city had been completely razed, and new apartment complexes constructed which are populated by families whose children frolicked in playgrounds and parks nestled between the bright new buildings. Across the highway from the newly built neighborhood was a large new hospital complex. And as one drove into the center of the city, row upon row of damaged apartment buildings were undergoing reconstruction and repair work. Shops and restaurants were open, and people scurried about the sidewalks going about their business. Mariupol is very much alive, although the huge swaths of darkened neighborhoods, their buildings still uninhabitable, bear mute testimony to the work that still needs to be done.

The city of Donetsk, the capital of its eponymous people's republic, is a living manifestation of the stark contrasts that define a modern metropolitan center during war - shiny high-rise buildings, their glass windows reflecting the morning sunlight, beckon, while in the streets below mothers walk hand in hand with their children, unflinching as the sound of artillery fire - incoming and outgoing - echo around them. Driving through the city, I was struck by the bustling activity at one street corner as families shopped for food and the basic necessities of life in stores fully stocked with the desired goods, only to drive around the next corner to find the ruins of a similar market scene, destroyed by the random artillery and rocket fire from Ukrainian forces who still treat the citizens of Donetsk as "terrorists."

I was taken to the Donbass Liberator's monument, located in the Donetsk Culture and Leisure Park, next to the city's arena, where we laid flowers to the memory of the fallen. Afterwards, as I was shown the monuments to the fallen heroes of the ongoing war with Ukraine, the sound of rocket fire shook the grounds. "It's ours," said my guide, an attractive young lady whose calm demeanor belied the reality of her current situation. "Uragan," she said, a reference to the Russian 220-mm multiple launch rocket system. "Don't worry."

That a female tour guide was serving as a walking resource for weapons identification to a former Marine intelligence officer who used to specialize in identifying Soviet arms and equipment only underscored the disparity between perception and reality which marked the city of Donetsk - a world where normalcy was randomly punctuated with the horrors of war. It would be easy to allow yourself to become shrouded in the kind of flinching paranoia that seizes you when you are convinced that every step you take could be your last. To prevent yourself from simply fleeing to a basement until the all-clear signal sounds, you can overcompensate by taking on a devil-may-care attitude of "what happens, happens."

But, for most, caution is the name of the game in Donetsk - while death may be randomly delivered in the form of Ukrainian artillery and rockets, you do not need to become a willing victim, especially if you know the Ukrainian enemy is actively searching for you in order to deliver a lethal blow.

I have been labeled by the Center for Countering Disinformation, a US-funded Ukrainian government agency, as an "information terrorist" who deserves to be treated as an actual "terrorist" in terms of punishment - a not-so-veiled threat to my life. Likewise, my name is on the infamous Mirotvorets ("peacekeepers") "kill list" promulgated by the Ukrainian intelligence service. Daria Dugina, the daughter of the famous Russian political philosopher, Aleksandr Dugin, and Maksim Fomin, a Russian military blogger who wrote under the name Vladlen Tatarsky, were both on this list and were murdered by agents of the Ukrainian intelligence services. While I would have to be an egocentric narcissist to believe that the entire Ukrainian war effort would grind to a halt in order to hunt me down during my short visit to Donbass, the fact that Ukraine has on a regular basis attacked the hotels frequented by journalists reporting on the conflict also means that one you'd have to have a callous disregard for innocent life by staying at a hotel in Donetsk as long as your name is on such lists.

Discretion being the better part of valor, my hosts eschewed the offered room in a high-end Donetsk hotel for a more Spartan setting in a safehouse used during their frequent trips to the region. I traded the fine cuisine of Donetsk that my friend and colleague Randy Credico had bragged about during his visit to the region for the traditional soldier's fare of fried potatoes and sausage cooked over a gas stove by Aleksandr's friend, Denis.

Paranoia is the name of the game, however, when it comes to the day-to-day lives of those men and women who govern Donetsk and defend it from the Ukrainian army, if for no other reason than the Ukrainians are, in fact, actively trying to hunt them down and kill them. I had the honor and privilege of meeting with Denis Pushilin, the Governor of the Donetsk People's Republic, and Aleksandr Khodakovsky, the commander of the legendary Vostok Battalion, one of the first military formations created in the Donbass region in 2014 to fight for independence from Ukraine. On both occasions, extensive security precautions were put in place to forestall any effort by Ukrainian intelligence to discover our meeting, identify its location, and attack it with artillery.

Pushilin and Khodakovsky both recalled their personal histories of the time of the founding of the Donetsk People's Republic. Pushilin personally led a rally in Donetsk on April 5, 2014, calling for a referendum for the DPR to join Russia. He served as the first head of the DPR before stepping down in July 2014. In September 2018, he was brought back as the head of the DPR following the assassination of then DPR leader Aleksander Zakharchenko in a bombing of a Donetsk restaurant. He has served in that position ever since.

Up until early 2014, Aleksandr Khodakovsky was the commander of the elite Ukrainian police commando unit known as Alpha Group. Following the February 2014 Maidan coup that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, Khodakovsky and most of his Alpha Group commandoes defected to the Donbass resistance, where they were reformed into the Vostok Battalion. It was Khodakovsky's Vostok Battalion which led the attack on Donetsk Airport on May 28, 2014, and which led the way into Mariupol in 2022. Today the Vostok Battalion has been expanded into a brigade-sized force operating as part of the Russian military, where it plays an active role in the ongoing battles for control of the Donbass region.

The contrast between Pushilin and Khodakovsky is quite stark. Both men are confident in the righteousness of their cause and the path of history they are embarked on. But while Pushilin brought with him the buoyant optimism of a politician looking forward to a better future, Khodakovsky exuded the quiet resignation of a soldier who knows that the victory he is fighting for can only come at a cost which, over the course of a decade's worth of war, had become almost unbearable. Both men exhibited a deep love for the Donetsk People's Republic, and a genuine appreciation for the sacrifice made by the Russian army and nation in coming to their assistance, and for bringing them into the fold of the Russian Federation.

The one thing both men had in common was a look of mental exhaustion whenever the subject of Russia's military intervention was raised. I couldn't quite put my finger on what caused this look until later, after our meetings had concluded and I found myself in the city of Lugansk, the capital of the Lugansk People's Republic. The drive from Donetsk to Lugansk took us through towns and villages that had previously been on the front lines of the war with Ukraine. Some of these population centers showed signs of life. Many, however, did not. War, like a tornado, seemed to have a random character, targeting some places for destruction, while skipping over others.

Today, the city of Lugansk is not on the front line, and its citizens enjoy a life of relative calm when contrasted with their neighbors in Donetsk. But war has visited them in the past, with all the violence and horror that currently unfolds in the regions of Donbass located to the south and west of the city. On June 27, 2017, the citizens of Lugansk unveiled a memorial dedicated to children killed because of the fighting that had been raging since 2014. On that day, 33 white doves were released into the air to symbolize the young lives lost.

On January 17, 2024, I visited this memorial, known as the 'Alley of Angels.' There is another, more well-known Alley of Angels located in Donetsk. Because of the proximity of the war to that city, media coverage of the Donetsk monument, which commemorates the more than 230 children killed in the Donetsk People's Republic by Ukraine since 2014, has been extensive, to the point that much of the world has seemed to have forgotten that the war with Ukraine has ravaged Lugansk as well. Since the unveiling of the Lugansk monument, another 35 children have been killed, raising the total to 68, with more than 190 additional children injured, all due to indiscriminate Ukrainian shelling.

Aleksandr and I took part in a small ceremony marked by our laying flowers at the foot of the monument. By the time we had finished, a small crowd had gathered around to witness the sight of an American mourning the loss of their children. I was handed a book about the memorial and given an impromptu tour of the sculptures and plaques that were located there. A television crew asked me for a short interview.

"What are your impressions of this memorial?" the interviewer asked.

"It's a touching tribute to the young lives that were so needlessly lost," I replied. "And a constant reminder as to why this tragic war needs to be fought and won."

Afterwards, a lady emerged from the small crowd that had been watching the proceedings. "We thank you for coming to visit our city, and to honor the memory of our children," she said, tears welling in her eyes.

She held out her hand, and I took it in mine, a gesture of friendship and compassion.

"You must be relieved now that you are part of Russia, and the Russian army is helping drive the Ukrainians back," I said.

"Yes," she said, her voice cracking. "Yes, of course. But why did it take them so long? These children," she said, gesturing toward the memorial, "did not have to die. Why did it take them so long?"

I looked into her eyes, and immediately was struck by a sense of déjà vu. I had seen that look before, in the eyes of Denis Pushilin and Alexander Khodakovsky, a mixture of relief and exasperation, of hope and dejection, of happiness and sorrow. Yes, the leadership and people of Donbass are overjoyed by the presence of Russian troops on their territory, and the fact that the region is now legally part of Russia. Yes, Russia loves them now. But where was Russia when the children started dying in 2014? Why did it take so long for Moscow to wake up to the need to bring the Donbass into the fold of the Russian nation?

This is the eternal question, one that Russia today struggles to find an adequate answer for.

Russia's path of redemption ends in Donbass. Here, the sins, errors, and evil which combined to create the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict are manifest. Questions have been asked to which there may be no adequate answer. Today, the situation on the ground increasingly points to a Russian victory over both Ukraine and its supporters in the collective West. But this victory has come at a huge physical and psychological cost. While the dead may be buried and honored, the living will always have to struggle to come to grips over the sacrifices that have been made in support of the cause they were fighting for.

And, in the end, if they believe that the cause was a just one - and it is my firm position that they do, in fact, believe this to be the case - then the answer to the question as to why it took Russia so long to intervene on behalf of Donbass will hang there, unanswerable, if for no other reason than that the pain any honest answer will generate may be too much to bear for those who had been fighting for the liberation of Donbass these past ten years.