What’s behind pro-Russian attitudes in eastern Ukraine?

Seven weeks after Kreminna’s pro-Kremlin mayor was found dead with gunshot wounds, Russian forces seized the Ukrainian town on Tuesday as part of a renewed eastern offensive.

Volodymyr Struk, a truck driver-turned brewery owner, was a lawmaker with the Party of Regions, Ukraine’s largest pro-Russian force, from 2012 until 2014, in the southeastern region of Luhansk.

After separatists turned part of the area into a Moscow-backed “People’s Republic”, Struk moved there from Kreminna, a Ukraine-controlled town of 18,000 two hours northwest of Luhansk.

Ukrainian prosecutors charged Struk with separatism, but he returned to Kreminna – and was elected its mayor last November with nearly 52 percent of the vote.

Who are the pro-Russian Ukrainians in the east?

Between 2014, when the pro-Russian separatist uprising began and February 24, 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, more than 13,000 people were killed in the conflict between the two nations.

Millions were displaced, and the rebel-held “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, became totalitarian quasi-states, where hundreds have been jailed and tortured for pro-Ukrainian sympathies.

A stone’s throw away from the rebels, there are Ukrainian adherents of the “Russian world”, the Kremlin’s theory that denies the very existence of Ukraine – and prescribes its “liberation” through subjugation to Moscow.

Its residents were used to Soviet-era benefits such as free healthcare and education, and now feel abandoned by the cash-strapped central government.

He said “centrist” Ukrainian parties are not able to address the population’s needs and “oligarchic” forces such as the Party of Regions and its political scions filled the niche.

“Our electorate is pro-Russian,” Sergey Vaganov, a 63-year-old retired photographer from Mariupol, told Al Jazeera. “No major Ukrainian party even tried to work here, honestly. No one was fighting for the voters.”

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