Vilkul, the scion of a powerful political family in southeastern Ukraine that was long seen as harbouring pro-Russian views, took the call as Russian troops were advancing to within a few miles of his hometown, Kryvyi Rih.
“He said, ‘Oleksandr Yurivich, you are looking at the map, you see the situation is predetermined,’” Vilkul said, recalling the conversation with a fellow minister in a former, pro-Russian Ukrainian government.
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“Sign an agreement of friendship, cooperation and defense with Russia and they will have good relations with you,” the former colleague said. “You will be a big person in the new Ukraine.”
The offer failed spectacularly. Once war had begun, Vilkul said, the grey area seeped out of Ukrainian politics for him. Missiles striking his hometown made the choice obvious: He would fight back.
“I responded with profanity,” Vilkul said.
If the first months of the war in Ukraine became a military debacle for the Russian army — deflating the reputations of its commanders and troops in a forced retreat from Kyiv — the Russian invasion also highlighted another glaring failure: Moscow’s flawed analysis of the politics of the country it was attacking. The miscalculation led to mistakes no less costly in lives for the Russian army than the faulty tactics of tank operators who steered into bogs.
The Kremlin entered the war expecting a quick and painless victory, predicting that the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky would fracture and that leading officials in the largely Russian-speaking eastern region would gladly switch sides. That has not happened.
The political myopia was most significant in the country’s east, political analysts say.
In all but a tiny number of villages, Russia failed to flip local politicians to its side. Ukrainian authorities have opened 38 cases of treason, all targeting low-level officials in individual instances of betrayal.
“Nobody wanted to be part of that thing behind the wall,” said Kostyantyn Usov, a former member of Parliament from Kryvyi Rih, referring to Russia’s isolated, authoritarian system.
He said that system had dismal appeal in Ukraine and noted the absence of widespread collaboration with Russia, including among Ukrainians who speak Russian and share the country’s cultural values.
“We are part of something bright,” he said of Ukraine. “It is here, with us, in our group. And they have nothing to offer.”
Other prominent, once Russian-leaning politicians including Ihor Terekhov, the mayor of Kharkiv, and Hennady Trukhanov, the mayor of Odesa, also remained loyal and became fierce defenders of their cities.
Along with leaders in the southeast, Ukrainian people also resisted. Street protests against occupation in Kherson continue despite lethal dangers for participants. One man stood in front of a tank. Kryvyi Rih’s miners and steelworkers have shown no signs of pivoting allegiance to Russia.
“Before the war, we had ties to Russia,” said Serhiy Zhyhalov, 36, a steel mill engineer, referring to familial, linguistic and cultural bonds. But no longer, he said. “No one has any doubts that Russia attacked us.”
Ukraine’s southeastern regions, an expanse of steppe and blighted industrial and mining cities, is now the focus of fighting in the war.
Driving south from Kyiv, the highway leaves behind the dense pine forests and reedy swamps of northern Ukraine, and the landscape opens into expansive plains. Farm fields stretch out to the horizons, in brilliant, yellow blossoming rapeseed or tilled black earth.
In many ways, the region is entwined with Soviet and Russian history. The iron and coal industries shaped southeastern Ukraine. In and around the city of Kryvyi Rih are iron ore deposits; the coal is farther east, near the city of Donetsk.
The two mineral basins, known as the Kryvbas and the Donbas, gave birth to a metallurgical industry that drew in many nationalities from around the Czarist and Soviet empires from the late 19th century onward, with Russian becoming the lingua franca in the mining towns. Villages remained mostly Ukrainian-speaking.
The region for years elected Russian-leaning politicians such as Vilkul, a favourite villain to Ukrainian nationalists for promoting Soviet-style cultural events that angered many Ukrainians. He staged, for example, a singalong party in Kryvyi Rih to belt out “Katyusha,” a Russian song associated with the Soviet World War II victory.
More substantively, Vilkul ascended in politics under the former, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in whose government he served as deputy prime minister until street protesters deposed Yanukovych in 2014.
Much of the rest of Yanukovych’s Cabinet fled with him to Russia. But Vilkul remained in Ukraine as a de facto political boss of Kryvyi Rih while his ageing father served as the city’s mayor.
And he caught Moscow’s eye. In 2018, Vilkul said, he was told through an intermediary that “the time of chaos is over” and that he should now follow orders from Moscow if he wished to remain in politics in the southeast. He said he refused.
The Russians, he said, had not even bothered to court him, they only levelled demands. He said Moscow took the same approach to other politicians in Ukraine’s east. “They didn’t even try to convince us,” he said. “They just thought we would be, a priori, on their side.”