A Russian military plane flew over the city of Berdyansk in southeastern Ukraine, but did not raise a frightened look to inspect it. An elderly woman sitting on a bench smiled: “Don’t worry.” “He is one of us.” Moscow forces took control of this important port city on the Sea of Azov, the largest after Mariupol, in the first days of their offensive. Almost without meeting any resistance. AFP had rare access to Berdyansk, as well as to Melitopol, a town a little more than 100 km to the west, and also conquered it at the beginning of the offensive, as part of a trip organized by the Russian army.
For Russia, these two cities are of strategic importance, because with Mariupol to the east, they allow it to ensure territorial continuity towards Crimea, which has been annexed since 2014. Pro-Moscow administrations have been installed there, tasked with restoring some semblance of normalcy while they wait. The decision of their fate, which must imply dependence in one form or another on Russia.
We are in a transitional stage between Ukraine and Russia.
“We are in a transitional stage between Ukraine and Russia,” explains the head of the new administration in Berdyansk, Alexander Solenko. “We see our future with Russia.” The new administration has already decided to pay civil servants’ salaries and pensions in rubles, the Russian currency, rather than the Ukrainian hryvnia. “The city budget does not allow us to make all the payments,” so “we will turn to Russia for help,” Alexander Saulenko notes.
In Melitopol, a communist banner was raised over Victory Square to replace the Ukrainian flag. The sound system of a Russian military truck spits out Soviet patriotic songs. In these two cities, AFP found no trace of fighting or destruction. The city of Mariupol and its siege of terror is only 70 kilometers east of Berdyansk, but the conflict seems far away.
“All the troops left the city” before the arrival of the Russian troops, refers to Berdyansk Svetlana Klimova, a former employee of a service station for 38 years. “If they had stayed, it would have been the case in Mariupol.” Like her, many residents interviewed by AFP said they were relieved to escape the fate of the besieged city. But are they happy to see Moscow reigning here?
“When I learned (the arrival of the Russians), I had tears in my eyes, I was so happy,” says Valery Berdnik, a 72-year-old former docker with a big gray moustache. While armed Russian soldiers patrol the ocean and sometimes listen to interviews, it is difficult to voice opposition. But, in a sign that not everyone shares Valery Berdnik’s enthusiasm, Berdyansk, which had a population of over 100,000 before the arrival of the Russians, only has “between 60,000 and 70,000 nowadays,” the new mayor points out.
In Melitopol, “the city is divided,” says Elena, a 38-year-old teacher who wears large sunglasses and a cross-earring. “There are those who are happy and those who criticize the situation,” he added. Another resident said that last month several protests against the Russian presence in Melitopol, whose elected president had been kidnapped before being exchanged for Russian prisoners, had stopped.
New ice rink and weddings
Berdyansk also hosts a few thousand survivors from Mariupol, such as Olga Chernenko, 50, residing in a former colony center for communist youth. Still traumatized by the siege of Mariupol, from which she managed to escape at the end of March, she hopes to “come home by the fall.” She would have preferred that her city “surrender without a fight” like Berdyansk, in order to “save lives”.
In the common room, the only television broadcasts a Russian news channel constantly. If calm seems to prevail, many closed businesses and queues in front of banks in Berdyansk remind us that the situation is not normal. “There is no money, distributors are not working,” laments Svetlana Klimova, who hopes to “help Russia by paying social assistance and pensions.”
Thus, the priority for the new authorities is to restore as much normality as possible to win the support of the population. In Melitopol, the pro-Russian city council reopened an ice rink that day with great fanfare. Dozens of people make circles on the ice, then disappear once the cameras are turned off. In Berdyansk, in the wedding palace over which the Russian flag flutters, the unions are celebrated, the first in more than a month. One, then two loud explosions: fireworks explode and throw confetti at the smiling newlyweds. Again, no panic reaction.