STANYTSIA LUHANSKA, Ukraine – People pass the stripped-down checkpoint dragging wheeled suitcases along the muddy sidewalk, traversing one of the sharpest political divides in Europe today.
In a pale winter sun on Sunday afternoon, 17-year-old Gleb Yegorov traveled to Ukraine after walking a half-mile buffer zone and then crossing a pedestrian bridge suspended over a ravine. Artillery rumbles in the distance.
Behind him was the Russian-backed separatist enclave known as the Luhansk People’s Republic, which he said he was fleeing to avoid the draft. He barely made it out, he said, after an eight-hour interrogation on the separatist side of the crossing, and would never return.
“There is no future for me there,” he said. “They send boys to the front and don’t think about it if they die.”
For years, the Luhansk People’s Republic and its breakaway Ukrainian enclave, the Donetsk People’s Republic, have been largely ignored. They were just two strange little political entities, Stalinist throwbacks with domestic politics too esoteric to deserve much attention from the outside world.
But now that Europe’s biggest war in decades may hang on them, it sometimes seems like Luhansk and Donetsk are all on everyone’s mind.
As Ukraine is surrounded by Russian forces, Western governments warn that Moscow could use the two Russian-backed republics as the stage for a ‘false flag’ attack on ethnic Russian civilians – and then cite it as justification when they cross the border.
The rift between these mini-states and Ukraine is reminiscent of the Berlin Wall, that is, a separation that was born not of language or ethnicity, but of Cold War-style politics. On one side of the roughly 250-mile front line is Ukraine, a western-looking nation aspiring to integrate with European democracies. On the other hand, about 3.5 million people live in virtual police states.
The concern is that these territories become the scene of a disaster, staged or accidental, which could lead to much wider violence. A stray shell, for example, could hit a residential building, or there could be a terrorist attack on fleeing refugees. Whatever the situation, Ukraine would be blamed and Russia would have a pretext to invade.
Russia, despite repeated accusations from the West, says it has no intention of invading and just wants its legitimate geopolitical interests respected.
On Sunday evening, the Ukrainian military issued a statement saying that Russian-backed separatists in the Lugansk region had opened fire with heavy artillery on their own capital “in a bid to blame the Ukrainian military”.
“In the absence of any aggressive action by Ukrainian defenders, the occupiers themselves are blowing up infrastructure in the occupied territories and chaotically firing on cities,” the statement said. Russian news agencies reported artillery strikes in the area. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
While attacking one’s own side to blame an enemy might seem particularly grim, it wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened in the eight-year history of the two enclaves.
Analysts suspect that many violent events are false flag attacks. And insider violence by Russian security services or local proxies has been a fixture of the republics’ history for years, according to Ukrainian intelligence and public statements by comrades of some of those killed.
In recent days, both sides along the eastern Ukrainian front have been making ominous predictions of a mass casualty event somewhere in the mining and farming villages – and they blame each other even before it happens.
“The Russian military and special services are preparing a terrorist attack, the victims of which should be peaceful residents,” the commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, Valery Zaluzhny, warned in a statement over the weekend. “The enemy is looking to use this as a justification to bring in the Russian military as ‘peacekeepers’.”
On Sunday, Ukraine’s Interior Ministry released a statement saying the Donetsk People’s Republic’s Information Ministry was prepositioning camera crews at sites of supposedly imminent Ukrainian drone strikes. “The purpose of such actions is to demonize the Ukrainian military,” he said.
The Luhansk People’s Republic, meanwhile, said its security service – known as MGB, a version of the name used by the KGB in the Soviet Union – discovered a radio-controlled car bomb along the route taken by buses carrying evacuees. The claim could not be independently verified.
Raising tensions, the People’s Republics said they planned to evacuate 700,000 women and children because the Ukrainian army was planning an attack. Western governments have scoffed at the idea that Ukraine would launch an attack just as Russia has amassed, according to the latest US estimates, 190,000 troops near its borders.
Residents of separatist enclaves who evacuated to Russia had starkly different views on the escalating violence along the front line, accusing Ukraine of firing artillery at towns on their side.
Ukrainian soldiers “stand only 10 kilometers away from us and we can hear them very well,” Lyudmila N. Zueva, 63, said as she entered Russia at the Matveev Kurgan border crossing over the weekend.
The enclaves separated in 2014, and after that, entering these deep regions of Eastern Europe was like traveling to a realm seemingly separate from the contemporary world. Pontoon bridges have been erected beside shattered highways that trace a route of half-abandoned towns and sprawling carcasses of crumbling factories. Above, no commercial aircraft are visible. The flights ended in 2014 after a civilian airliner was shot down.
What happens in the republics looks like a black box.
Getting entry for international journalists can be difficult. And only one international group, an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission with a weak mandate, has observers on the ground. And access to enclaves for international journalists can be difficult.
But some information has emerged.
Military and civilian leaders oscillated between Russian citizens suspected of having ties to intelligence agencies and local Ukrainians with modest CVs, and this was upended by a series of violent purges. On several occasions, leadership positions have been held by the owner of a canine behavior school, a man who played the role of Santa Claus in a shopping center, the operator of a Ponzi scheme and a famous boss of the organized crime.
As they were sidelined and replaced, separatist leaders blamed the Ukrainian military for assassinations and ambushes that officials in Ukraine’s capital Kiev said were entirely local affairs.
Perhaps the most significant murder was that of the President of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, who died in the 2018 restaurant bombing that each side pinned on the other.
But other bloody episodes occurred before that, including one in which several separatist paramilitary commanders and their supporters were killed in ambushes in 2015. The victim of an attack was a man named Aleksei B. Mozgovoi, a pro-Russian warlord nicknamed “the Brain” whose five bodyguards proved to be of little use. Mr. Mozgovoi’s press secretary was also killed.
“Is that why we intervened? Is that what we died for? He asked.
Mr. Dryomov was soon also killed. The Luhansk People’s Republic blamed Ukrainian special forces.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry estimated that 200 people died in the purges and said Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, masterminded the attacks.
The enclave policy is a mixture of Russian imperialism and nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Hammer and sickle flags are commonly flown. In government offices, officials hang portraits of Stalin and Orthodox Christian icons.
“When it all started back then, I had a feeling of disconnection from reality,” said Maria Paseka, who left the Luhansk People’s Republic and switched to the government-controlled side last August. “The puzzle didn’t fit together. I felt like everyone around me had been told something that I knew nothing about.
In Ukraine, Ms. Paseka acknowledged, “there are things to improve, like the government, salaries, prices, the standard of living. But it is clear to me where I live now and that we move to Europe, without falling back into prehistory with Russia.
The order given last week by the new leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Denis Pushilin, to evacuate hundreds of thousands of women and children was seen as a particularly worrying signal.
Mr Pushilin, who intervened after Mr Zakharchenko was killed, said he expected a Ukrainian attack that would kill civilians.
As thousands boarded buses and evacuated to Russia, some took the opportunity to flee west, crossing into Ukraine at the only operational checkpoint: the overpass and a stretch of sidewalk. about a kilometer long here, where a ceasefire is usually observed to allow civilians to cross.
On Saturday, Natalia Kasheyeva, 33, a lawyer, rolled a yellow Day-Glo suitcase while driving her two daughters, whom she was sending to their grandparents to get away from the violence.
“You feel the pressure,” she said of life in the Luhansk People’s Republic.
Mr Yegorov, who left to avoid the draft, his green eyes squinting in the late afternoon sun, said he used to live with his grandfather but will now live with his mother in Kyiv. He said he saw through what he called the management’s bogus communist stimulus policy.
“No one I know,” he said, “wants to fight for the Luhansk People’s Republic.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Ivan Nechepurenko from the Matveev Kurgan border post in Russia.