Krivi Rih, Ukraine – On the second day of the war, on a phone call from an old colleague, a request for treason came to Oleksandr Vilkul.
The heir to a powerful political family in southeastern Ukraine, Mr. Wilkul, who has long been seen as pro-Russian, made the call as Russian troops advanced within a few miles of his hometown of Krivi Rih.
“Oleksandr Yuryevich, you look at the map and you see that the situation is predetermined,” he said. Wilkul said he recalled talking to a former minister of the pro-Russian Ukrainian government.
“Sign the agreement of friendship, cooperation and security with Russia, they will have a good relationship with you,” said the former colleague. “You will be a great person in the new Ukraine.”
The offer failed miserably. Mr. Wilkul said that as soon as the war began, the gray area was out of Ukrainian politics. The choice of missiles to strike his hometown made clear: he would fight back.
“I responded with slander,” he said. Willkul said in an interview.
If the first months of the war in Ukraine had turned into a military defeat for the Russian army – the reputation of its commanders and troops had been forcibly withdrawn from Kyiv – the Russian invasion would have illustrated another obvious failure: a misinterpretation of Moscow’s politics. The country it attacks. The miscalculation led to less costly mistakes in the life of the Russian military than the misguided tactics of the tank operators who went into the swamps.
The Kremlin entered the war in anticipation of a quick and painless victory, predicting that the government of President Volodymyr Zhelensky would collapse and that leading officials in the Russian-speaking eastern region would happily turn the pages. That did not happen.
Political analysts say political myopia was most important in the east of the country.
In all but a handful of villages, Russia has failed to persuade local politicians. Ukrainian authorities have opened 38 treason cases, all of which targeted lower-level officials in cases of personal treason.
Referring to Russia’s isolated dictatorial system, Kryvyi Rih’s former parliamentarian Kostyantyn Usov said, “No one wants to be a part of that thing behind the wall.
He noted that the organization has a bad appeal in Ukraine and lacks widespread cooperation with Russia, including Ukrainians who speak Russian and share the country’s cultural values.
“We are part of something brighter,” he said of Ukraine. “It’s here, with us, in our team. And they have nothing to offer.
Other prominent, at one time pro-Russian politicians, including Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekov and Odessa Mayor Hennadi Trukanov, remained loyal and stern defenders of their cities.
The Ukrainian people also opposed the leaders in the southeast. Street demonstrations against the occupation in Gershon continue despite the perilous threats to participants. A man stood in front of the tank. Kryvyi Rih’s miners and steelworkers showed no signs of loyalty to Russia.
“Before the war, we had relations with Russia,” said Serhiy Zhyhalov, a 36-year-old steel plant engineer, referring to family, linguistic and cultural ties. But not anymore, he said. “No one has any doubt that Russia is attacking us.”
The southeastern regions of Ukraine, the meadows and the expansion of charred industrial and mining cities, are now the focus of the fighting.
Going south from Kiev, the highway leaves the dense pine forests and reed swamps of northern Ukraine, and the terrain opens up into vast plains. Brilliant, yellow-blooming rapeseed or plowed black earth in farm fields, stretching to the horizons.
In many ways, the region is intertwined with Soviet and Russian history. The iron and coal industries shaped southeastern Ukraine. The city of Kryvyi Rih and its environs are rich in iron ore; Coal is located in the east, near the city of Donetsk.
Two mineral deposits, known as Crevpass and Donbass, led to the metallurgical industry, which attracted many nations from the Tsarist and Soviet empires from the late 19th century, becoming the Russian language in the mining cities. The villages are mostly Ukrainian-speaking.
The region has for many years selected pro-Russian politicians such as Mr. Wilkul, the favorite villain of Ukrainian nationalists, to promote Soviet-style cultural events that have angered many Ukrainians. For example, Krivi Rihil hosted a Sinhala party to belt out the Russian song “Katyusha” associated with the victory of the Soviet World War II.
More substantially, Mr. Wilkul is the son of former pro-Russian President Victor F. Kennedy. He rose to prominence in politics under Yanukovych, and he served as deputy prime minister in his government until street protesters ousted Mr Yanukovych in 2014.
Most of Mr. Yanukovych’s cabinet fled to Russia with him. But Mr. Wilkul was the real political boss of Krivi Ri in Ukraine, while his elderly father served as mayor of the city.
He caught Moscow’s eye. In 2018, Mr. Wilkul said in an interview that he had been told by an intermediary that the “period of chaos” was over and that he would have to follow Moscow’s orders if he wanted to stay in politics in the Southeast. He said he refused.
The Russians did not even bother to take him to court, they only made the demands. He said Moscow had taken a similar approach to other politicians in eastern Ukraine. “They didn’t even try to convince us,” he said. “They thought we would be on their side.”
Prior to the war, Mr. Vilkul may be a pro-Russian politician with broad popular support in Ukraine. “I was alone at this level,” he said. He was also seen as a hopeful who could turn to its side when Moscow invaded Ukraine.
Just then, Mr. Wilkul received a call on his cell phone from Vitaly Zakharchenko, a Ukrainian immigrant to Russia who had served as Interior Minister under Mr. Wilkul in Yanukovych’s government. He recommended Mr Willkul to cooperate with the Russians.
“I told him to get lost,” Mr. Wilkul said. “I did not consider it.”
Mr. Wilkul said he was misunderstood by Russia’s leadership and his nationalist opposition at home. A great-grandfather, he said, fought against the white Russians in the Civil War. The Wilkul family, he said, “have been fighting with the Russians on this land for hundreds of years.”
He said the Kremlin had misunderstood respect for World War II veterans and support for the rights of Russian speakers as a possible support for a renewed Russian empire, which he said was wrong. He called the Russians “classic megalomaniacs”.
“They misunderstood common language and values such as World War II attitudes and traditions as a sign that someone was in love,” he said.
The second offer, this time by another Ukrainian exile, Oleh Tsaryov, was made public in a post in the Telegram, a week after Russian troops advanced within six miles of the city. “My fellow party members and I have always taken a pro-Russian stance,” he said. Wilkul and his father added, “Cooperation with the Russian military is a defense of the city and lives.”
Mr. Wilkul responded with an obscene post on Facebook.
In the early days of the invasion, Mr. Wilkul ordered the region’s mining companies to park heavy equipment on the runway of the city’s airport, prevent airstrikes, and slow down tank lanes on access roads. Then the tires popped and the engines stalled.
The city’s steel industry began to replace tank barriers and plates for armored underwear. Mr. Grivi Rih, a native of his hometown. Zhelensky was appointed military governor of the city on the third day of the war, despite the fact that the two were political enemies in peacetime.
Mr. Wilkul is wearing a fatigue and camouflage bandana. The march of Ukrainian nationalists, led by Dmitri Yarosz, leader of the right-wing paramilitary, and Tetiana Chernovol, a prominent activist and military officer, have come to his office to shake hands with Titiana Chernovol, once a rival of the Vilkul family.
“If we fight the Russians, are we really ever pro-Russian, in essence?” He said.
Maria Varenikova Contributed report.
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