Destroy documents and move computers: this is the escape plan of the mayors of the most active front in the war in Ukraine | International

The mayor of Kramatorsk takes a blank sheet of paper and begins to paint a map of Donbas, the area in eastern Ukraine where the fighting is the hardest and bloodiest. He first paints a large circle and around it four more points, forming a defensive semicircle around it. The large circle in the center is his city, Kramatorsk, a prewar town of 250,000, and the four dots around it are Severodonetsk, the administrative capital of Lugansk, and the towns of Lisichansk, Bakhmut, and Sloviansk. Together they form a line of contention that is the most active battlefront in the country. Practically, all its mayors have asked the last settlers to leave their homes immediately in the face of what they fear is the beginning of a new Russian offensive. And they have designed an escape plan with very precise details to prevent the sensitive information they store from being in the hands of the invading troops.

Separated from each other by between 70 and 100 kilometers, all the mayors of this region of Ukraine closely follow the street-to-street battle in the symbolic Severodonesk, for what may happen to them next. The four interviewees agree that there is a protocol that everyone must follow in the event of an invasion and that it consists of evacuating the mayor in record time, taking the city council’s computers, destroying files and getting rid of documents that provide sensitive information on both the civilian population as well as on the defensive positions of the city with the aim that they fall into Russian hands.

According to the mayor of Kramatorsk, Olexander Goncharenko (58), in charge of defending the largest point on the improvised map, “if any of these cities falls, the Russians will be here in a few weeks,” he tells EL PAÍS in his office, a a place decorated with the yellow and blue flags of Ukraine and a huge fish tank that seems to be the only quiet thing in a context of military dominoes where the fall of one population can trigger the fall of many others.

The mayor of Kramatorsk, Olexander Goncharenko, in his office at City Hall this Thursday.
The mayor of Kramatorsk, Olexander Goncharenko, in his office at City Hall this Thursday.James Garcia

“We are prepared for the worst case scenario,” says Goncharenko. “We already know how the Russians work: first they attack with missiles, then artillery, and lastly tanks and infantry. They completely destroy cities because that is their strategy,” he continues. In that case, he adds, “at City Hall we all know what to do. There are instructions on what documents to take, what computers to leave and what to move, or what records to destroy,” he explains, pen and sheet in hand. Goncharenko and the rest of the mayors of Donbas are a kind of motivational heroes who work to convince their entourage that they have everything to resist while they have escape plans in the drawer in case the Russian army arrives. The importance of what happens in the coming weeks in this part of the country lies in the fact that it could lead to the consolidation of Russian power in eastern Ukraine, which would allow Putin to carry out a nibble 20% of the Ukrainian territory.

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Despite being one of the most threatened mayors, the mayor of Lisichansk, Olexandr Zaika (41), does not wear a bulletproof vest because “it attracts bullets,” he says jokingly during an interview with this newspaper at a gas station. The most serious problem, he points out, is that the city he directs, with some 130,000 inhabitants before the war, “receives air and missile attacks on a daily basis and they are increasingly chaotic and do not respond to any logic: hospitals, schools, houses … they are bombarded”, he explains. “Lisichansk is 65% destroyed and there is no water, gas or electricity and there are only about 20,000 people left, but the neighboring city of Popasna, for example, no longer exists; it has been 100% annihilated,” he adds.

Regarding the escape plan, the mayor reveals: “In Lisichansk we have already removed most of the sensitive material from the town hall after the first month of the war.” And he adds: “There are some things left to continue working on, but everything is prepared so that only essential personnel remain.”

Zaika sleeps every day in a bunker surrounded by soldiers, but he is one of the few civil servants who resists living in the city. “All mayors are military targets for the Russians,” he says, referring to the fact that they are good loot to later exchange for Russian soldiers. “From the first days of the war he received anonymous messages with proposals to collaborate, and with threats, but now it doesn’t work anymore. The Russian strategy is usually always the same: first they try to buy you and if not, they try to destroy ”, he explains.

Olexander Zaika, mayor of Lisichanks, during the interview with EL PAÍS in a park near the city of Kramatorsk.
Olexander Zaika, mayor of Lisichanks, during the interview with EL PAÍS in a park near the city of Kramatorsk.James Garcia

Of the almost 20,000 people who still live in a city that has very little left to become a pile of rubble, Zaika says that most of the residents are elderly, sick and people without money to go out. “Some are also those who await with open arms the arrival of the Russian world”, which here they consider peaceful separatists. Despite everything, he believes that the city will resist the massive attack that has already begun: “Lisichanks is a fortress that is on a hill and is better defended than Severodonetsk”.

The methodology applied in places like Kherson or Mariupol has reached the ears of all the mayors when the cities fall into the hands of Russia. In a few weeks they try to erase anything that smacks of Ukraine: they impose their mayor, they distribute new newspapers, they ban the Ukrainian media, they land with new officials, they distribute passports and they force the immediate use of the ruble.

No one is unaware that there are some roads like the ones that link Kramatorsk with Soledar, Liman or Izum that hang by a thread and that at the moment are controlled by Ukraine, but that are bombed every day and if they pass into Russian hands the The situation would get complicated for all of them in no time. Although these routes serve to reinforce the front with new weapons from European countries and a greater number of soldiers, the proportion, as recognized by President Volodímir Zelenski, is one Ukrainian soldier for every 10 Russians. Meanwhile, the front’s death factory is unforgiving and buries between 100 and 200 Ukrainians every day, the president acknowledged.

For the deputy mayor of Bajmut, Maksim Sutkovi, in the city he runs, with some 100,000 people before the Russian invasion, which included thousands of refugee families from the 2014 war, there are now only less than 30,000. “Those who stayed have nowhere to go. Their house and small piece of land are all they have. Most of the people went to kyiv, Zaporizhia or Dnipro”, he explains. Sutkovi also has an evacuation plan for City Hall staff given the increased attack on the city, which received four missiles this Friday, but he refuses to give details for security reasons. When asked if he feels like a military target, he only answers by phone: “I only feel responsible for the 30,000 people who still live in Bakhmut.” “The most serious problem in Donetsk and Luhansk is the lack of gas, but it is impossible to repair the destroyed pipelines because we are attacked by Russia,” he says. Cities like his were recently visited by Zelensky during a surprise visit, “which was very important for the soldiers and to reaffirm the idea that Donbas is an integral part of Ukraine,” he says forcefully.

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