In the War for Ukraine’s Donbas, the Ordeal of a Frontline Town

Far From Kyiv and Next to Donetsk, the Elderly of Pisky Get Daily Shelling, But No Pensions

Before this year’s war in southeast Ukraine, the town of Pisky, at the edge of the city of Donetsk, was home to about 3,000 people. Many were academics who worked at the local Donetsk Institute of Agricultural Production.

Now, Pisky is a debris-strewn combat zone, its homes and office buildings empty, with roofs blown off, windows smashed, and the few remaining inhabitants hunkered in frigid basements. Recent video reports, plus social media posts by soldiers in the area depict a desperate scene as winter sets in. Ukrainian government troops, national guard fighters, and militiamen of the ultranationalist Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector) defend Pisky from the Russian-armed forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic, as little as 350 meters away.

A video report from Pisky by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on December 3.

The explosions of artillery, both incoming and outgoing, have jolted the town daily for months, despite the truce declared in September. Pisky is so shattered because it is so important. It is on a critical supply route to Ukrainian soldiers defending Donetsk’s most violent combat zone: the Sergei Prokofiev International Airport. Pisky also adjoins the Karliv Reservoir, which provides water to the Donetsk vicinity. Even since a more effective cease-fire took hold this month in much of Donbas, Pisky and its environs have come under repeated artillery or tank fire.

The war has trapped Pisky’s remaining residents—from 100 to a few hundred people, according to visiting reporters—in an administrative no-man’s-land. Many who have stayed on are those too old, poor or feeble to flee.

Ukraine Halts Pensions

Beginning this month, Ukraine’s cash-strapped government halted all automatic pensions and other social payments to residents in localities controlled by the Russian-backed separatist forces. Officials said such payments were likely to be garnished by the Russian-backed Donetsk authorities to help finance the war against Ukraine. Press secretary Olena Hytlianska of Ukraine’s National Security Service (SBU) says the Cabinet will review and adjust monthly the list of occupied locales where payments are to be cut off.

At a strategic level, Kyiv’s move forces the Russian government to bear more of the cost of sustaining its proxy mini-states—the Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics.” But in the few still-inhabited homes of Pisky, the loss of pensions risks people’s survival. It’s not clear exactly why the town’s elderly have gone unpaid. Pisky was not on the official list of places to be cut off, and indeed the pension payments here failed months ago.

A couple in their seventies, Lydia and her bed-ridden diabetic husband, Petro, say they have received no pension for five months. They are living on handouts.

The government in Kyiv does not want to appear to abandon those who have ended up on the far side of the battle lines, and so has offered to help those citizens by registering them as refugees. But getting even that help requires that residents make hazardous journeys across military lines to register in areas controlled by the Ukrainian authorities.

‘Whom Do We Belong To?’

In Pisky, Ukraine’s government is providing little more than the troops defending it. The town has been without water for five months, and the remaining residents can’t remember when they last had electricity. The mayor fled—no-one knows where—and the city hall is a skeleton of a building with a caved-in roof.

“Whom do we belong to? What are we a part of?” demands a woman in a December 16 Radio Liberty video report.  “Are we a part of Donetsk, or do we belong to Kyiv?”

If government services are absent in Pisky, the troops defending it seem firmly attached to the place. One unit of volunteers from the National Guards’ Dnipro 1 Battalion has planted a Ukrainian flag where the road leading to Donetsk enters a no-man’s land. This is to annoy the separatists and proclaim Pisky Ukrainian territory, according to Ukraine’s TSN television, in a December 15 report. Invited to send messages home via the TV channel’s broadcast, the Dnipro troops smile and wave to their families. “Everything’s fine,” says a soldier identified simply as Shutt. “We’re going to win. Hello to everyone.”

Irena Chalupa covers Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the Atlantic Council.

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Image: In the largely abandoned town of Pisky, “We have no water, no electricity, no gas,” says a resident named Natalia. Residents say they get some food deliveries from humanitarian groups, but no government services. (RFE-RL/