The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even people in separatist Ukraine question ‘evacuation’ crisis brewed by Russian-backed leaders

People on board a train traveling from Donetsk, in Ukraine separatist region, to Rostov, Russia. (for The Washington Post)

MOSCOW — The manufactured war scare mounted by Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — using potentially 700,000 people as props — unraveled quickly.

Its centerpiece was a staged mass evacuation of women, children and elderly residents of breakaway regions, touching off long lines at ATMs and gas stations on Friday. Russian state TV went all out on the fake war, airing film of buses leaving, arrests of alleged spies and grainy video of “saboteurs,” playing off President Vladimir Putin’s claim on Tuesday that “genocide” was unfolding.

So far, however, the false-flag effort appeared neither particularly sophisticated nor very convincing. Residents of the separatist republics were as skeptical as anyone about the claims that Ukrainian forces were ready to attack and try to reclaim the territory in the eight-year war with Russian-backed separatist fighters.

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“Everything is fine,” said one woman from the Donetsk separatist region — which calls itself the Donetsk People’s Republic — who crossed via a checkpoint into Russia on Saturday. “There were not many people at the checkpoint,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid possible repercussions from separatist officials.

The evacuation story — and separatists’ claims that Ukraine was planning to attack — sparked fears that Russia will use this as a pretext to invade Ukraine. Ukrainian officials deny staging attacks or having any plans to do so. Instead, they report that separatist forces have stepped up shelling into Ukraine, possibly hoping to provoke Ukrainian retaliation.

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A Russian official claimed that 35,000 people had evacuated to Russia by noon Saturday, a number that would have required more than 1,000 bus journeys.

But the woman saw about 20 buses with a capacity of 22 seats entering Russia when she was crossing into Russia’s southern Rostov region Saturday morning. There were no long bus queues. And traffic apps showed light traffic on the roads from the separatist regions to Rostov. RBK media, an independent Russian outlet, reported 3,384 people leaving the separatist zones by midday Saturday.

The woman said many people had no plans to evacuate after orders came Friday. “Some people panicked, but mostly people are taking it easy and do not want to go anywhere,” she said, interviewed via Telegram. Like others, she spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisals from local separatist authorities.

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Many others painted the same picture, contradicting the official version — such as Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova’s claim that Ukraine was committing “crimes against humanity” and Russia’s Investigative Committee report of “massive shelling” by Ukraine of civilian villages. All has been denied by Ukrainian officials, and journalists in Ukraine have witnessed no major offensive actions by Ukrainian forces.

“I honestly do not have the feeling that someone is attacking someone,” the woman from the separatist region said, “neither Ukraine nor Russia. No one is preparing to attack.”

Others who were in the separatist areas Saturday said the situation was calm with few signs of a major evacuation. Several people interviewed said that those who left were motivated by a 10,000-ruble payment on arrival in Russia, about $130, that the Russian government announced Friday.

A 55-year-old tradesman from Donetsk said in a phone interview Saturday that the evacuation was “not active. There is no panic in the city. People do not want to leave the territory. And I don’t want to go anywhere. Yesterday there were small queues at the gas station, but now they are gone. There are also no queues in stores. It’s calm outside.”

A 37-year-old small-business owner from Donetsk added by phone: “Everything is normal. From what I see, people are not afraid and are not going to leave.”

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Nikolai, a Donetsk resident interviewed via Telegram, said the same thing, explaining: “You know that we have been living through this for the past eight years? Some people rushed to the ATMs last night and to the grocery stores, but today everything is back to normal.”

A man from the city of Makeyevka in Donetsk dismissed claims of attacks or planned attacks. “All this ‘action’ is just deception” he said in a Telegram interview.

As Russian and separatist claims of major attacks came thick and fast, creating a cascade of alarming events on state TV, officials offered no evidence of genocide, crimes against humanity or terrorism. Western officials warned that Russia appeared to be manufacturing a false-flag scenario, to use as a pretext to attack Ukraine in coming days.

“The evacuation of people was specially organized in order to show the ‘atrocities,’ of the Ukrainian army,” said Yevgeny Vasiliev, a Kyiv activist with the Ukrainian group Vostok SOS, which supports victims of armed conflict in Ukraine. He is currently in eastern Ukraine working near the front lines.

“You see, it's easy to take children out of orphanages, or old people out of nursing homes. Nobody asks them. The sane people are not going to leave,” he said.

But he added that separatist disinformation about explosions and attacks blamed on Ukraine was designed to intimidate others into leaving. “And it partially works.”

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Almost as soon as the evacuation announcement was made, the narrative of a massive Ukrainian attack began to fray. First, there was no sighting of a major attack from Ukraine, despite a massive foreign media presence in the country. Journalists from The Washington Post and other media organizations on the line of contact reported shelling from the separatist side.

The video announcements ordering the evacuations from the two insurgent leaders were quickly unmasked by several analysts, including the Netherlands-based Bellingcat investigative group. It found that metadata on both videos indicated they were recorded two days before Friday’s supposedly “urgent” evacuation of 700,000 people.

Donetsk separatist leader Denis Pushilin’s video said, “Today, on February the 18th …” suggesting that the videos were coordinated ahead of time and that the timing was staged.

The separatist claim of a Ukrainian attack on a kindergarten on Thursday also fell apart quickly — when it turned out the kindergarten was on the government-controlled side of the front line. The shelled wall faced separatist territory — but that did not stop an online disinformation campaign by pro-Moscow figures who circulated images of the kindergarten with construction machinery added digitally to suggest the machine punched the hole.

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According to Bellingcat, another grainy video that aired on Russian television Saturday, purporting to show Ukrainian “saboteurs” attempting to blow up a chlorine cylinder at Stirol chemical plant in Horlivka in separatist territory at dawn Saturday, was actually filmed in early February, based on an analysis of the metadata.

Men ages 15 to 55 in the separatist areas were called up to fight. Call-up announcements were made on Telegram channels and loudspeakers in the streets.

One group assembled at a local school in Donetsk, according to video sent by a local journalist who was on the scene. The journalists provided the video on the condition of anonymity because of concerns of drawing the attention of local authorities.

The video showed men lined up and being addressed by a militia figure, who said Ukraine “taught by its American teachers” was massing forces to invade and “stamp on our young republic with its filthy boot.”

“Each and every one of you will honorably complete your duty to the motherland.”

Natalie Gryvnyak in Kyiv contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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