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Putin’s Pretext: How A Staged Evacuation In Donbas Paved Way For Russian Invasion

Exclusive: New details emerge of a would-be forced evacuation last week of pro-Russian civilians from the Donetsk and Luhansk territories that Vladimir Putin has used to justify Thursday’s invasion of Ukraine. Locals call the operation a “farce.”

Photo of streets in Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine after a hit by Russian artillery

Russian artillery hit in Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine

Andriy Olenin

DONETSK — It was February 18, one week before Vladimir Putin launched the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when the occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk territories were witness to what can only be described as a kind of variety show.

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The operation was effectively organized by Putin and the leaders of the LNR-DNR breakaway republics in Eastern Ukraine, regions that the Russian President would soon recognize as independent states to pave the wave for Thursday’s pre-dawn invasion.

The “show” in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas featured staged detonation of cars and armored personnel carriers, which then led to a "nationwide evacuation and mobilization" that would be cited by the Kremlin in recognizing the new independent "republics" and justify the subsequent war.

Donetsk departure

The evacuees were each given 10,000 rubles ($125) and were put on buses, and would wind up stuck in the freezing cold on the border without food and water for several days. They would be housed in gyms and abandoned children’s summer camps, while the homes of some were being looted back in Donbas.The evacuation of pro-Russian residents of the occupied districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions was justified by a possible offensive by the Ukrainian armed forces.

The breakaway republic leaders said the aim was to move 700,000 people to the Rostov region in southwestern Russia. Still, most locals decided not to leave their homes. According to Russian media, about 60,000 residents were evacuated to Russia.

First, orphans were sent out.

The drama described did not match the reality on the ground that this newspaper witnessed and in multiple conversations with locals in the occupied territories. There had been no fear of a Ukrainian offensive, no panic on the street as people tried to go about their daily lives. There were no mass lines for buses going to Russia.

"Everything is calm in the city, everything is as usual. Shots were indeed heard one night, but this is far from what happened in 2014. I have no acquaintances who are going to evacuate,” said one resident named Kateryna earlier this week.

Residents explained that the officials organizing the evacuation told them they could "take a vacation at [their] own expense and go to Rostov.” First, orphans were sent out, followed by retirees and people with low incomes and no housing." Otherwise, there was widespread resistance to the forced evacuations.

Photo of a bus on the road connecting Kurakhovo to Dachne in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine

A bus in Kurakhovo, Donetsk Oblast

Diego Herrera/Contacto/ZUMA

Looting back home

Several noted that it is dangerous to leave your apartment. According to Donetsk-based journalist Tim Zlatkin, looters robbed some 100 apartments of evacuees: "It took looters less than a day to rob 56 apartments in Donetsk and 42 in Makiivka. Yes, it is the apartments of "evacuated" locals,” Zlatkin wrote on Facebook.

In some cities of Donbas, others choose to simulate evacuation. As a resident of occupied Makiivka recounted, people were given a day off at work so that they can go to the train station to take a picture of a faux departure.

According to Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, more than 30 buses with women, elderly people, and children stayed in the village in the Rostov region, all night without food or even the opportunity to go to the toilet.

The sanatoriums where they were to be housed were closed, and the buildings were guarded by security forces.

Straight out of a movie

"What was promised is not true,” one refugee from Donbas told the Ukrainian-language service of the BBC. “Russia has promised that we will be accommodated in boarding houses where we will be fed. But it didn't happen, my small children and I went for a long time. We stood at the Russian checkpoint for three hours, waiting for enough buses. We were temporarily housed, 500 people in one assembly hall. It was very stuffy and hot. And we had to spend the night with the children on stage, on the floor behind the scenes. It was very difficult for the pensioners, they were sitting on chairs all the time. Only the next day we will be taken to Taganrog to the station, where we will be distributed to other regions.”

The fact that Ukrainian citizens are allegedly being taken out en masse to Russia is a farce.

Those who did end up in the refugee center said they were being housed in groups of four or five, and there was no hot water in the building. Other Donbas residents taken to the Rostov region complained that they were abandoned and left stranded on the street for more than 24 hours.

Earlier this week, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov called the situation with the forced refugees a production of Mosfilm, the Moscow-based film studio, and said that some are returning home on their own. "The fact that Ukrainian citizens are allegedly being taken out en masse to the Russian Federation is now also a farce. Our intelligence has accurate information that people return home on their own, they are not fed or resettled there."

For all of Ukraine, by Thursday morning, the Russian script had changed again — and has gotten all too real.

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