“The occupiers are actively destroying the results of the reform, which means that we’ve been doing everything right.” An interview with the head of the Kreminna municipality
Lieutenant Colonel Oleksandr Dunets talks about how locals live under occupation and fight for the return of Ukrainian authorities, punishing traitors to death.
Text by: Dmytro Syniak
The town of Kreminna has become a symbol of Ukraine’s struggle against collaboration with the enemy. Several sudden explosions during the meetings of the occupiers’ bootlickers killed dozens of them. This completely discouraged many of their potential successors from representing Russian authorities in the town. Oleksandr Dunets, head of the town’s military administration, told Decentralization about the life in the occupied Kreminna. A lieutenant colonel of the Ukrainian Army (call sign ‘Spider’), he served in the 128th Transcarpathian Mountain Assault Brigade and was awarded the Order ‘For Courage’, 3rd degree, in 2015. From the middle of 2020 until the very beginning of the full-scale invasion, Mr. Dunets headed the administration of the town of Shchastia, which has been one of the main outposts of Ukrainian defence for almost a decade.
How did you experience the beginning of hostilities on 24 February?
The same as everyone else, probably; I was stupefied. I had been convinced that the Russians would never dare a direct armed confrontation with Ukraine because it would cost them dearly. The realisation that I was wrong added to the general stress of the full-scale offensive, which began almost simultaneously along the entire line of contact. But then I did not have time to think: I had to join the ranks of the defenders of the town, to do everything possible and impossible to strengthen our defences. In general, I had a feeling that 24 and 25 February fit in the events of at least two weeks. And I still recall almost every minute of those horrible days... On 23 February, I fell asleep thinking that the next morning I would submit a proposal to immediately evacuate vulnerable populations, government officials, children, and so on to the Luhansk Military Administration. But the Russians were faster, and later we had to organise this evacuation almost under fire.
Why were you assigned to Kreminna? What happened to the local authorities?
They abandoned the town right when they were needed the most. Deputies hid, and the mayor, known for his separatist views since 2014, first disappeared and was later found dead. Meanwhile, the town needed to be provided with humanitarian aid, manage all necessary social payments and do everything possible to strengthen its defence. As Shchastia was captured, I was ordered to head the military administration of Kreminna which was defended by a battalion of the brigade I had previously served in.
How was Kreminna captured?
Our defence was quite strong, and we could hold on for a very long time. Our forces counterattacked the enemy many times, so some villages of the Kreminna municipality changed hands several times. Fierce fighting, including urban ones, raged on for three days. The orcs lost a large number of their equipment near Kreminna: motor and armoured vehicles, artillery and several aircraft. The commander of the battalion defending Kreminna later received the title of Hero of Ukraine for his actions. However, the Russians then drew strong reinforcements, and just one of our platoons alone had to face more than 40 armoured vehicles: tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, multi-purpose light-armoured towing vehicles… Later, the invaders managed to cut the road Kreminna – Rubizhne, as well as to break through the battle formations of Ukrainian troops in the direction of Torske. This posed a serious threat of encirclement of the town, so the command decided to retreat to pre-prepared positions. It is better to live heroically than to die heroically. Only enemies should die!
When did Ukrainian troops leave Kreminna? How badly did the town suffer during the fighting?
Our defenders retreated on Monday, 18 April. At that time, urban fighting continued on the outskirts. There are some destroyed, burned and damaged houses in Kreminna, but in general, the town has not suffered such terrible destruction as Lysychansk, Sievierodonetsk, Rubizhne and others. Popasna, for example, was almost completely destroyed. In Kreminna, private houses on the outskirts, which had been on the front line for some time, suffered the most. The town is located in the lowlands, with its outskirts on the hills. And these very hills were bombed by aircraft and shelled by artillery during the fighting. There also were several missile strikes against the town centre.
Is there electricity, running water and gas in the town?
For reasons unknown to me, in the first days of the occupation, the Russians did perhaps the most ridiculous thing: they damaged our power substation. Apparently, they thought that they would be able to connect the town to the electricity grid of the so-called ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ in Svatove. However, this is impossible, because this is a very low voltage network. So the electricity is now fed into the Kreminna’s grid for several hours at a time, one district at a time. And this voltage is not enough to power even an electric kettle; it can only provide dim lighting of light bulbs. As a result of the hostilities, transformer substations and power lines were also destroyed. Fortunately, the pumping station has survived, and the occupiers are now supplying water with the help of a diesel generator, which we did not take when leaving the town, because the people who stayed behind were the priority.
How many locals are left in the town?
About 16,000 to 17,000 people left, another 3,000 or 4,000 people remained, including about 250-300 children. On 18 April, when the Russians entered the town, additional 150 residents wanted to evacuate, but at that time we were no longer able to move them. Mostly older people are the ones who remained. However, I would not call them all traitors. Some hoped to the last that everything would be fine, while others were afraid to leave their houses and farms unattended. In addition, there were rumours that people were being evacuated ‘to some random field’ and left to fend for themselves. We did our best to disprove this. The decision of many to stay was also influenced by the shelling of the Kramatorsk Railway Station on 8 April. At that time, many locals changed their minds, fearing for their lives. Now, under occupation, all of them are suffering.
How many collaborators with Russia are there in Kreminna?
After the victory, I would award Putin with some honorary medal ‘For Ukrainianisation of Ukraine’. After all, there were so many Russia loyalists in our region before the war. Ironically, it was these people that Russia began to destroy in the first place, without even trying to engage with them. When Russia took off its mask of ‘brotherly friendship’, many saw the light. Moreover, this revelation occurred regardless of the intensity of the hostilities in a particular area. People now realise who they are dealing with. Those who continue to tolerate ‘Ruskiy Mir’ mostly fled to the so-called ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’, and the most ardent ruscist supporters were killed or injured during the famed explosions in the town council and the occupiers’ police station on 25 April.
Tell us more about those explosions. After all, they discouraged many a Russian collaborator throughout Ukraine from cooperating with the enemy. Anton Gerashchenko, Adviser to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, said that none of the victims of these explosions survived.
There is nothing to talk about here. Some ‘booms’ happened for unknown reasons, right when the Russians were meeting with traitors to learn how to run Kreminna better. They were also dividing gas stations, mistakenly believing that there was a lot of fuel left (when, in fact, we took everything). Maybe the cause of the explosions was the occupiers’ failure to observe safety precautions, say, when handling household gas, or maybe it was something else. I don’t know. One thing is important: the most notorious collaborators faced their well-deserved punishment after all. The Russians later tried to appoint three different mayors in a row from those locals who remained. But they failed, as people flatly refused to deal with them. Eventually, someone from a remote village answered the call, but his work can hardly be considered effective. He holds operational meetings in a different place each time, choosing the most crowded locations. Both this man and those like him realise that there are still a lot of free seats at the Kobzon’s concert in hell, and Ukrainian law enforcement agencies are happy to hand out tickets for them.
What is the food situation in the Kreminna municipality?
We had considerable stocks of flour and baked bread as long as we could. Now the occupiers are distributing this flour to people, trying to present it as their own humanitarian aid. We also had several small warehouses with food scattered throughout the town. Now I recognise products from them in the videos of the occupiers. But one way or another, people have food. There is currently no way to deliver any humanitarian aid from the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government: there are hostilities in Lyman, bridges have been blown up in Torske, and the only way to our municipality is through temporary pontoon bridges built by the Russians across the Sieverskyi Donets for their troops. But civilians are not allowed anywhere close to these bridges.
How are local businesses faring? Do entrepreneurs go to Luhansk for goods?
I believe that all of Kreminna’s entrepreneurs left the town. And thanks to the stubborn defence of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, they also managed to relocate their businesses. Particularly significant in this regard was the Ukrainian counterattack in early March, which repulsed the Russian orcs 6-7 km from Kreminna. Then both locals and local businesses began to be actively evacuated. We were even able to move horses from the Kreminna’s elite stable to the Ternopil region. Now everything in the town is closed down. The bakery was the last to close as it finally ran out of flour. As far as I know, the occupiers are now bringing bread to Kreminna from Svatove and Starobilsk.
Does the town hospital work? What about its staff?
Our hospital is overflowing with wounded orcs, and its morgue is full of the bodies of their dead. Due to this transformation into a field hospital, Kreminna residents are virtually deprived of access to medical services. But as far as I know, the wounded are being transported to hospitals in Luhansk, Svatove and Bilovodsk this week. The invaders shot themselves in the foot by looting our hospital in the first days of the occupation. Now there is nothing there to treat their wounded with or at, as most of the expensive equipment has been removed.
Are Russians committing crimes against locals?
There are cases of murders and robberies. However, it is very difficult to know the details, because there is no connection in the community. And even when phone signal is available, I do not dare to call our patriots, who for one reason or another remained under occupation. What if their phones are somewhere in the military commandant’s office when I call? I don’t want to endanger people needlessly. It is well known that when the Russians entered a town that no longer resisted due to the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops, they shot all the cars they saw on their way, both those that simply stood by the roadside and those that were moving. Four people were killed in one of these cars: all of them trying to break through in the direction of Torske. The driver of the shot car—the only survivor—told me about it. With a leg injury, he had been crawling to Torske for a day and a half until he was eventually rescued by locals. The occupiers are currently not in the mood for crimes as they are waiting to be sent to the grinder. Kreminna is the hub where they accumulate reserves that are going to attack as soon as other fighters are killed or wounded. In anticipation of this, the occupiers, who now live mainly in suburban wellness centres and hostels near the Sieverskyi Donets, prefer getting drunk to looting.
What can you say about their military prowess in general?
As an officer, I see that the bubble of Russian aggression will soon burst. From what I know, I can say that the soldiers of the invading state are no longer eager to fight. They get drunk and shoot at each other, sometimes looting on the side, so this entire crowd looks less and less like the army with time. There is a well-known rule: when a soldier took possession of something in enemy territory, the military in him ended. Because from then on, he will try to do everything to survive, to bring this thing home. He no longer wants to go to a deadly duel, believing that he ‘won his’. So looters are by definition bad soldiers. This is evidenced by the recent battles near Kharkiv, where Russians often throw away stolen washing machines, TVs and other household appliances right in the middle of the fields. So, although I condemn the looting done by the Russian army, I understand that it destroys it from within no worse than our guns.
For two years, you headed the military administration of Shchastia. Is it possible to compare your work there with the work in Kreminna?
First, Shchastia is a predominantly Russian-speaking town, while Kreminna is Ukrainian-speaking. Second, I worked in Shchastia in relatively peaceful times. We could make plans and had a budget for them. My work in Kreminna was quite different; we basically served as an ambulance from the local self-government, military self-government at that. We had to immediately provide our defenders with everything they needed, to organise the evacuation, to deliver food to those who remained and to enable remote work of the town administration and other state institutions of the Kreminna municipality.
So the Kreminna administration continues to work?
Indeed, we work now in Rivne, whose mayor provided us with premises. This allowed many residents of Kreminna to move to the Rivne region. Our schools work online and provide distance learning. We have already prepared certificates for graduates and will soon send them to their current addresses. Our family physicians communicate with their patients by phone and try to provide them with all possible assistance, even issuing electronic prescriptions. Kreminna Military Administration has set up chatbots to help locals. They now have a variety of problems, from food to electricity. Because, for example, some companies have been reimbursed for energy costs, while some have not. Sometimes clarification is needed, and some cases require the assistance of certain government agencies. This is our main job now.
To what extent has decentralisation changed the Shchastia and Kreminna municipalities?
Now the occupiers are actively destroying the results of this reform, which means that we’ve been doing everything right. The first thing the Russians did in Shchastia was to restore the Soviet administrative and territorial system, making the town a part of the Zhovtnevyi district of Luhansk again. Every local will tell you that the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which were under the control of Ukraine, have flourished over the past eight years. We did a lot, and were to do even more. We even prepared a small reformatting of municipalities—through the Verkhovna Rada, of course—to empower all of them. We have been committed to the development of the region, and Russia is now doing everything for its decline. It is physically destroying all achievements, both ours and of the Soviet era. Under the rule of Russian orcs, the Luhansk region will turn into barren grounds, which should be prevented at all cost.
What is the sentiment among the people in the Kreminna municipality?
They are looking forward to the return of the Ukrainian authorities. And I am looking forward to their return to Shchastia. I am also convinced that this war will liberate all occupied Ukrainian territories, including Donbas and Crimea. Residents of these regions have been waiting for this for a long time. They write about it in chats, openly nostalgic for the times when they lived in a developing country, when they could participate in the formation of the public budget, when they saw their communities grow. ‘Ruskiy Mir’ has brought them nothing but destruction and death, and that is why we simply must win. Everything will be Ukraine! May God protect Ukraine and us!
* Volodymyr Struk was a majoritarian MP of the Verkhovna Rada of the 7th convocation, a member of the Party of Regions faction. In May 2014, the Luhansk Regional Prosecutor’s Office opened criminal proceedings against him ‘on the grounds of calls to violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine,’ which, however, did not prevent him from winning the 2020 local elections to the Kreminna Town Council. On 1 March, Volodymyr Struk’s wife told police that her husband had been “kidnapped by unknown individuals wearing camouflage uniform”. The next day, the mayor was found dead in the village of Zhytlivka near Kreminna, with a gunshot wound to the heart. Anton Gerashchenko, Adviser to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, wrote about it on his Facebook page.
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