The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukraine’s Zelensky wants to end a war in the east. His problem: No one agrees how to do it.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, right, attends a welcome ceremony for Ukrainian detainees released during a swap with pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, at the Boryspil International Airport in Ukraine. (Yuliia Ovsiannokova/Ukrinform/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)

KYIV, Ukraine — Oleg Sugorey's first arrest in eastern Ukraine by Russian-backed separatist agents was terrifying. His second arrest — after 10 days of torture and beatings in 2017 — was just as terrifying but also fake. It was staged for Russian television.

The stories of Ukrainians arrested in the country’s breakaway east — where a six-year war drones on — emerged after their release in recent prisoner swaps, seen as the first halting steps toward possible peace.

But the shocking brutality of their stories underscored the war’s costs, hardening sentiment in Ukraine among those who see any compromise with Russia as capitulation.

A new prisoner exchange has been agreed upon for coming weeks.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, a political dilettante and former TV comedian, swept into office last April on a promise to end the war in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 14,000 people since 2014. Zelensky met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris in December, and both sides withdrew from several hot spots on the front line, although firing and casualties continue.

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Any peace deal hinges on how Ukraine would reintegrate the two Ukrainian separatist republics, Donetsk and Luhansk, in the eastern Donbas region. No deal can happen without agreement on some kind of special self-
governing status for the regions, but some fear that is just what Moscow wants — an opportunity to retain influence and try to destabilize Ukraine.

Zelensky, meanwhile, struggles to navigate critical relations with the United States — seeking more military aid from the Trump administration but trying to steer clear of the political fallout from President Trump’s impeachment in the House and later Senate acquittal.

No clear path to peace

War broke out in a Russian-backed separatist uprising in Donbas shortly after Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Now as Zelensky seeks a fast track to peace, his countrymen do not agree on how to achieve it.

Many see the separatist regions as a hive of traitors, and some fear that their reintegration into Ukraine’s political institutions would paralyze its politics and stymie its path to a pro-European democracy.

Zelensky’s signature last year on a road map for peace, known as the Steinmeier Formula, was condemned by protests in Ukraine.

Sugorey, 43, a former printer, was handed back to Ukraine in a Dec. 29 prisoner exchange. He says he was part of a Ukrainian undercover team sent to blow up a TV tower in Donetsk when he was arrested in 2017. Ukraine’s security service denies the link.

After months of torture and deprivation, he now seems lost and uncertain in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. On his return, the colors seemed too bright, the people too lively, he says. It was exhausting.

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“I’d like to somehow close myself in a small cell,” said Sugorey, who has not yet returned to his home city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine.

He described horrific torture: Doused with water before electric shocks were applied to his genitals and buttocks. Suspended for days in a pressure position. He said he begged for death. He says some of his interrogators spoke Russian with native accents and slyly asked him where he thought they were from.

“You know, you are really going insane,” he said. “You’re alone in the cell, and you hear the sound of something thudding down. A large cat or dog would appear in the corner of my eye, and I would look at it, and it would be gone.”

Sugorey was twice paraded for Russian state-owned television, in staged confessions. The first time was during the faked arrest for Russia-24 that came after his first 10 days of torture.

The second time, reporters from state-run TV Center aired Sugorey’s confession at the site of the TV tower. An angry scar on his wrist caused by his handcuffs was blotted from view with a faked image of a tattoo.

The video also made the rounds in Ukraine on the Internet.

Sugorey fears that a peace deal with Russia would mean that thousands of lives were lost for nothing.

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“I understand that someday the war will end, and thank God I’m alive and nothing was amputated from my body. But inside me I have this very sharp sense of justice that we must finish the war, because of all those deaths and everything I suffered. In my case, I don’t want to say it was all in vain.”

Russia's deepening reach

Ukraine’s war has seen families separated for years and the near-desertion of dozens of villages in a dead zone along the front line. Family members who travel outside the separatist areas and then try to return risk arrest on suspicion of spying, according to Ukrainian human rights activists.

A fight for the identities of some 3 million residents of the separatist regions is underway, with Russia issuing 200,000 passports to residents — giving it a future excuse to intervene to “protect” them, critics say. Meanwhile, Ukraine has launched a new TV station to broadcast in Russian to separatist regions, aiming to foster a sense of Ukrainian identity.

“People are arrested [by the separatist side] for political reasons, like supporting Ukraine or blogging,” said Yevgeny Kaplin, from the nongovernmental organization Proliska, which assists civilians affected by the conflict. “They are being arrested for espionage and face up to 15 years in prison, or they are shot.”

One woman was accused of espionage for taking photos of her house and a stadium in Luhansk and posting them on Facebook last month, he said. “That woman has four children, and now she’s being held in a basement somewhere” in Luhansk.

Many Donbas residents who fled the war have since returned to the separatist regions because, seen as traitors by Kyiv, they could not find a house or work.

Oleksandra Matviychuk, of Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties, who works with prisoners, victims of torture and their families in the separatist regions, said as soon as prisoners were released, more people were arrested. Bus drivers coming from Ukraine were often targeted.

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“There is no guarantee on how to behave to avoid being arrested. You can be a fan of Putin and be arrested. Some people were arrested because they took a photo of a cafe. Some people were arrested for having a burn on their arm. Some people were arrested because they crossed the road in front of an official’s car, and the official didn’t like it,” said Matviychuk, who has documented thousands of cases of torture, abuses and sexual assault.

Increasingly, people were arrested and their families extorted for money, she said.

“They try to break people and to destroy their personalities,” she said.

Olesya Yakhno, an independent political analyst, said Russia’s issuing of passports to residents in the separatist regions and efforts to foster a Russian identity amounted to the slowing of annexation.

“Zelensky needs to define what is peace and what are the red lines. But the government lacks a unified strategic approach,” Yakhno said.

Russia's conditions

Moscow insists that elections in Luhansk and Donetsk should be held first, before control of the territories is returned to Ukraine — a provision in the Minsk Agreements, the cease-fire and peace protocols signed in 2014 and 2015. Kyiv rejects elections while the regions remain outside its control.

“Ukraine will not agree to Russia’s conditions. A frozen conflict has become an option that many people in Ukraine actually support,” said Yakhno, adding that many feared that reintegrating the pro-Russian regions would allow them to block Ukraine’s pro-Western foreign policy.

“It would be impossible for parliament to approve a special status for Donbas,” she said. “Society would just march on parliament. War is still going on. It would be seen as capitulation.”

Putin disparaged the chances for peace in an interview with the Tass news agency last month, after Zelensky called for revisions to the Minsk Agreements.

In comments offensive to many Ukrainians, the Russian president questioned Ukraine’s language and even its identity, saying: “We are one and the same people. I don’t know whether they like this or not, but if you look at the reality, that is true. You see, we had no difference in our languages until the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

“To talk about today or tomorrow we need to know history, need to know who we are, where do we come from, what unites us,” Putin said.

Bohdan Bondarenko, an analyst with the Center of Policy and Legal Reform in Ukraine, said there was no consensus in the country on what status the separatist regions would have and how to reintegrate them.

“Zelensky has a real desire to solve the problem. Let’s imagine that Zelensky gets agreement with Putin. Ukrainian society will not accept it. Our society will not agree. Society is very divided,” Bondarenko said.

But he said Russia is losing its appetite to support Donbas and would prefer to see it returned.

“They don’t need this Donbas. It’s costing them a lot of money. At this point, Donbas is more negative for Putin then positive. For Russia, the best thing would be if Donbas was inside Ukraine but with a special status. It would be an instrument for destabilization.”

But industrialized Donbas is an important economic asset to Ukraine, said an adviser to Kyiv’s parliamentary committee on Donbas and the occupied territories, Alexey Yakubin. Opinion polls indicate that Ukrainians want it back, but he said this called for compromise.

“It’s an opportunity to open a new page in relations with Russia, a huge market for Ukraine. But this compromise has its price. In my opinion, Russia wants to end this story. I think they see Zelensky as a window of opportunity because he’s willing to negotiate.”

Despite the complications, Zelensky recently set Moscow an unlikely December deadline for peace, speaking in an interview with the Guardian newspaper.

“He has very good intentions,” said Yakhno, the political analyst. “He wants peace. He doesn’t have good advisers.

“He wants fast results. But there is no quick result possible. In order to achieve peace you need time,” she said.

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