KOSTYANTYNIVKA, Ukraine — Standing outside her home, pointing out the rocket crater in her driveway, a Ukrainian resident of the frontline town was angry, and quick to assign responsibility for the attack.
“They are killing us,” she said. “Our own guys are shelling us.”
The woman, named Natasha, blamed the rocket strike in Kostyantynivka not on the Russian forces that have been attacking the nearby city of Bakhmut and surrounding towns for the past eight months, but on her own forces, the Ukrainian Army.
A year into the war, despite suffering months of artillery and rocket strikes at the hands of the Russian military, some residents of towns along the front line in eastern Ukraine still confound officials and the police with their support for Russia.
They repeat Russian propaganda lines, accusing the West of causing the war and the Ukrainian Army of shelling homes in order to force people to leave.
“They are doing it on purpose,” Natasha said. “They said people need to be evacuated. They need the land.”
Ukrainian soldiers call them “waiters,” people who refuse to be evacuated and are holding out in their homes in anticipation of a Russian takeover of their region, even as the Russian bombardment endangers their lives. They represent a diminishing minority in Ukraine, which overwhelmingly supports independence from Russia, but nevertheless amount to thousands of civilians.
The eastern Donbas was already the most pro-Russian region in Ukraine, close geographically to Russia and featuring families with ties to both countries. Russian was spoken more often than Ukrainian in the cities.
But the local police chief, Dmytro Kirdiapkin, attributes the view of civilians like Natasha largely to the relentless and insidious Russian propaganda campaign that has been imposed on the local population for more than a decade. It has turned them against their own government, he said, and pushed them into the arms of the Russian proxy forces that took hold of parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014.
“In my opinion, it’s the most brutal weapon the Russian Federation uses on our people,” Chief Kirdiapkin said in an interview last month in his office in Kostyantynivka.
A native of Donetsk region, Chief Kirdiapkin, 35, has seen firsthand the effects of the Russian information war while serving in the police force in the frontline Ukrainian cities of Mariupol, Druzhkivka and, now, Kostyantynivka.
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He recalled turning on a television set in a recaptured town in 2014 and finding only a pro-Russian channel that showed a drumbeat of horrific images of nuclear destruction and terror, juxtaposed with a Ukrainian flag. The images were not even from Ukraine, he said, but the messaging was designed to stir fear of the Ukrainian leadership and to push people to support union with Russia.
“We lost the information war in 2014,” he said.
He also recalled a false tale that was promoted on Russia’s main television channel, available to many Ukrainians, of a small boy being crucified by Ukrainian soldiers.
“I don’t understand how back then and still now, a lot of people believe in those tales,” he said.
President Volodymyr Zelensky has often been praised for his communication skills and his success in uniting the country behind the Ukrainian cause. But in parts of the east, most officials concede that Russia still has the upper hand in the propaganda war.
Russian television channels, which dominate the airwaves in Russian-controlled territory, have long been banned in Ukraine, as have popular Russian social media networks. Yet in eastern Ukraine, anyone with a satellite dish can still watch pro-Russian channels or tune in to pro-Russian radio programs in towns even 50 miles from the front line.
The police have found that social media channels are used by Russia to directly manipulate the residential community, Chief. Kirdiapkin said. The Ukrainian intelligence service has blocked social media accounts it considers hostile, but many more remain unchecked.
One pro-Russian channel, the Kostyantynivka Telegram channel, has 4,500 subscribers and posts a strange mix of pro-Russian images and videos, warnings of artillery and rocket strikes, Orthodox prayers and threats against local officials for not providing adequate utilities.
The channel often announces that the Ukrainian Army is firing mortars just before a Russian missile strike hits, and then claims afterward that the crater is from a mortar when it is the size of a much bigger missile, Chief Kirdiapkin said. Hours before the shells slammed into Natasha’s neighborhood, for instance, someone posted a warning on the Kostyantynivka channel that Ukrainian troops were preparing to shell the city and advised residents to stay inside.
“#Konstantinovka — we received information that tonight the Ukrainian Armed Forces could again shell the city,” the message read. “Be careful, don’t go to balconies and courtyards. Stay away from windows.”
Around 10 p.m., when the shells hit, the channel posted comments that it was “loud” and a fire was burning. In the morning, the channel listed the damage.
Chief Kirdiapkin said he spent much of his time rescuing victims from missile and rocket attacks and tracking down the informants who work as Russia’s eyes and ears on the ground.
The police chief has a team monitoring the Telegram channel to try to catch the informants, whom he described as “scoundrels.”
Last summer, when he was in charge of the neighboring town of Druzhkivka, his force arrested five local residents; the authorities discovered that they were providing targeting information to Russian intelligence, he said.
They were a diverse group of people: a factory engineer; a young woman; a 30-year-old man; a registered psychiatric patient; and a former taxi driver, the police chief said, adding that all five went through a judicial process and were found guilty.
The former taxi driver, a 50-year-old woman, was detained by the police after they noticed her visiting bomb sites in different parts of the town, he said. The woman admitted supplying information to Russian intelligence, he said, and a voice message on her cellphone from her Russian handler asking for confirmation of the number of victims gave her away.
Some of the other informants had been motivated by money. The police traced payments and messages to and from Russia. One man said he had been offered $5,000 to pass information on Ukrainian military movements, Chief Kirdiapkin said.
But the female taxi driver denied being offered any incentive and seemed to have been swayed by Russian propaganda, the police chief said. He showed Times journalists a video recording of her interrogation. She had been recruited in 2014 by a Russian intelligence agent, who contacted her again last year after the full-scale invasion.
The woman, whom the chief did not name, said her Russian handler had promised the strikes would be precise and would only damage equipment.
“I thought maybe something would change for the better in my country this way, and peace would come,” she says in the video recording. “I didn’t want my children to live in war.”
The police chief dismissed her comment as insincere. “She wanted world peace, but she decided to direct enemy fire,” he said.
The Russian strikes became less frequent after the arrests, Chief Kirdiapkin said.
He also said that his force had worked to help people evacuate to safer cities and that word had spread that the Ukrainian government was not all bad.
Fighting the propaganda war is costly in time and money and not the immediate priority as they face a full-scale confrontation on the battlefield, Ukrainian officials said. But there are some signs of a battle for minds on the streets of frontline cities.
The Ukrainian Army has put up glossy billboards on the main streets of many cities celebrating military heroes as part of a campaign to encourage enlistment. Graffiti scrawled on the walls of residential buildings in Kostyantynivka is mostly pro-Ukrainian, repeating familiar phrases such as “Glory to Ukraine” and “Russian warship, go screw yourself.”
But one piece of graffiti stands out for its message to the pro-Russian community. “The Russians are traitors!” it reads, a reference to the betrayal felt by the pro-Russian population at Moscow’s failure to meet its promise of a better life.
No one is sure who wrote the graffiti, but most agree that Russia’s own actions — its indiscriminate bombing and shelling of Ukrainian civilian centers — have slowly turned many former supporters in eastern Ukraine against it.
“If people were for Russia before, now they have changed,” said Olha, 67, one of a few residents still living in a central apartment block. “Now they are for Ukraine and for some calm.”
The police chief said he had also seen a change in the townspeople. “They understand many people died around them; everything is destroyed in their city,” he said. “They are convinced by their own eyes..”