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KRYVYI RIH, Ukraine — The solicitation of treason came to Oleksandr Vilkul on the second day of the war, during a phone call from a former colleague.
Mr Vilkul, the scion of a powerful political family in southeastern Ukraine that has long been seen as harboring pro-Russian views, answered the call as Russian troops advanced within a few miles of his hometown, Kryvyi Rih.
“He said, ‘Oleksandr Yurivich, you look at the map, you see the situation is predetermined,'” Mr Vilkul said, recalling the conversation with a fellow minister in a former pro-Russian Ukrainian government.
“Sign a friendship, cooperation and defense agreement with Russia and they will have good relations with you,” the former colleague said. “You will be a great person in the new Ukraine.”
The offer failed spectacularly. Once the war started, Mr. Vilkul said, the gray area seeped into Ukrainian politics for him. The missiles hitting his hometown made the choice obvious: he would fight back.
“I responded with profanity,” Mr. Vilkul said in an interview.
If the first months of the war in Ukraine turned into a military debacle for the Russian army – deflating the reputation of its commanders and troops during a forced retreat from kyiv – the Russian invasion also highlighted another glaring failure: Moscow’s flawed analysis of the politics of the country it was attacking. The miscalculation led to errors no less costly in lives for the Russian army than the erroneous tactics of the tank operators who headed for the bogs.
The Kremlin went to war hoping for a quick and painless victory, predicting that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government would fracture and key officials in the largely Russian-speaking eastern region would gladly switch sides. This does not happen.
Political myopia was greatest in the east of the country, according to political analysts.
In all but a few villages, Russia failed to sway local politicians to its side. Ukrainian authorities opened 38 treason cases, all targeting low-level officials in individual treason cases.
“No one wanted to be part of this thing behind the wall,” said Kostyantyn Usov, a former Kryvyi Rih lawmaker, referring to Russia’s isolated and authoritarian system.
He said this system had a dismal appeal in Ukraine and noted the lack of widespread collaboration with Russia, including among Ukrainians who speak Russian and share the country’s cultural values.
“We are part of something brilliant,” he said of Ukraine. “It’s here, with us, in our group. And they have nothing to offer.
Other prominent, once Russian-leaning politicians, including Ihor Terekhov, the mayor of Kharkiv, and Hennady Trukhanov, the mayor of Odessa, also remained loyal and became fierce defenders of their cities.
Alongside the rulers of the southeast, the Ukrainians also resisted. Street protests against the occupation in Kherson continue despite the deadly dangers to participants. A man stood in front of a tank. Kryvyi Rih miners and steelworkers have shown no sign of pivotal allegiance to Russia.
“Before the war, we had ties with Russia,” said Serhiy Zhyhalov, 36, an engineer at a steelworks, referring to family, linguistic and cultural ties. But no more, he said. “No one doubts that Russia attacked us.”
The southeastern regions of Ukraine, a stretch of steppes and devastated industrial and mining towns, are now at the center of the fighting in the war.
Driving south from kyiv, the highway leaves behind the dense pine forests and reed swamps of northern Ukraine, and the landscape opens up to vast plains. The agricultural fields extend to the horizons, in rapeseeds with brilliant yellow flowers or plowed black earth.
In many ways, the region is linked to Soviet and Russian history. The iron and coal industries have shaped southeastern Ukraine. In and around the city of Kryvyi Rih are iron ore deposits; coal is further east, near the city of Donetsk.
The two mining basins, known as Kryvbas and Donbas, gave rise to a metallurgical industry that attracted many nationalities from the Tsarist and Soviet empires from the late 19th century, with Russian becoming the lingua franca in the mining towns. The villages remained predominantly Ukrainian.
For years, the region has elected Russian-leaning politicians such as Mr. Vilkul, a favorite villain of Ukrainian nationalists for promoting Soviet-style cultural events that have angered many Ukrainians. He organized, for example, a one-on-one evening in Kryvyi Rih to sing “Katyusha”, a Russian song associated with the Soviet victory in World War II.
More concretely, Mr. Vilkul rose in politics under former pro-Russian President Viktor F. Yanukovych, in whose government he served as Deputy Prime Minister until street protesters deposed Mr. Yanukovych in 2014. .
Much of the rest of Yanukovych’s cabinet fled with him to Russia. But Mr Vilkul remained in Ukraine as the de facto political leader of Kryvyi Rih while his aging father served as the town’s mayor.
And he caught the attention of Moscow. In 2018, Mr Vilkul said in the interview, he was told by an intermediary that “the days of chaos were over” and that he now had to follow orders from Moscow if he wanted to remain in politics in the south. -is. He said he refused.
The Russians, he said, hadn’t even bothered to woo him, they had only made demands. He said Moscow has taken the same approach to other politicians in eastern Ukraine. “They didn’t even try to convince us,” he said. “They just thought we would be on their side a priori.”
On the eve of the war, Mr. Vilkul was quite possibly the Russian politician in Ukraine with the broadest popular support. “I was alone at this level,” he said. He was also seen by Moscow as a promising potential convert to his side during the invasion of Ukraine.
That’s when the call came in to Mr. Vilkul’s mobile phone from Vitaly Zakharchenko, a Ukrainian in exile in Russia who had served as interior minister under Mr. Vilkul in Mr. Yanukovych’s government. He recommended Mr. Vilkul to cooperate with the Russians.
“I told him to get lost,” Mr Vilkul said. “I didn’t even think about it.”
Mr Vilkul said he had been misunderstood – by Russian leaders and his nationalist opposition at home. A great-grandfather, he said, had fought White Russians in the Civil War. The Vilkul family, he said, “have been fighting the Russians on this land for a hundred years.”
The Kremlin, he said, had misinterpreted its respect for World War II veterans and support for Russian-speaking rights as potential support for a renewed Russian empire, which he called a mistake . He called the Russians “classic megalomaniacs”.
“They took the common language and values such as attitudes towards World War II and orthodoxy as a sign that someone loved them,” he said.
A second offer, this time made publicly by another Ukrainian exile, Oleh Tsaryov, in a Telegram message, came about a week later when Russian troops had advanced within six miles of the town. “My fellow party members and I have always taken a pro-Russian stance,” the message said, referring to Mr. Vilkul and his father, and added ominously that “cooperation with the Russian military means the preservation of the city and lives”.
Mr. Vilkul responded with an obscene Facebook post.
In the early days of the invasion, Mr. Vilkul ordered mining companies in the area to park heavy equipment on the runway at the city’s airport, thwarting an air assault, and on access roads, slowing down traffic. tank columns. The tires then burst and the engines were disabled.
The city’s steel industry began producing tank barriers and armor vest plates. Mr. Zelensky, whose hometown is Kryvyi Rih, appointed Mr. Vilkul the city’s military governor on the third day of the war, despite the two having been political opponents in peacetime.
Mr. Vilkul has taken to wearing fatigues and a camouflage bandana. A parade of Ukrainian nationalists, including the leader of the right sector paramilitaries, Dmytro Yarosh, and a prominent activist and military officer, Tetiana Chernovol, once sworn enemies of the Vilkul family, came to his office to shake his hand.
“If we’re fighting the Russians,” he said, “have we ever been really pro-Russian, in essence?”
Maria Varenikova contributed report.