KRYVYI RIH, Ukraine – A request to commit treason reached Oleksandr Vilkul on the second day of the war, in a phone call from his old colleague.
Mr. Vilkul, a scion of a powerful political family in southeastern Ukraine who had long been seen as harboring pro-Russian views, accepted this call as Russian forces were advancing a few miles from his hometown, Kryvyi Rih.
“He said, ‘Olksandr Yuryevich, you look at the map, you see that the situation is predetermined,’” said Mr. Velkul, recalling a conversation with another minister in a former pro-Russian Ukrainian government.
“They signed 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 show failed spectacularly. Once the war began, Mr. Vilkul said, a gray area leaked out of Ukrainian politics. Rockets bombed his hometown, making the choice clear: He will resist.
“I answered with profanity,” Mr. Failcol said in an interview.
If the first months of the war in Ukraine became a military disaster for the Russian army — denting the reputation of its leaders and troops in a forced withdrawal from Kyiv — the Russian invasion also highlighted another blatant failure: Moscow’s flawed analysis of Russia’s policies. the country it was attacking. Miscalculation led to mistakes that were no less costly in the life of the Russian army than the wrong tactics of tank operators who headed into the swamps.
The Kremlin entered the war expecting a quick and painless victory, predicting that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government would split and that senior officials in the largely Russian-speaking eastern region would gladly change their positions. This did not happen.
Political analysts say political myopia was more important in the east of the country.
In all but a small number of villages, Russia failed to turn local politicians to its side. Ukrainian authorities have opened 38 treason cases, all targeting low-level officials in individual cases of treason.
“Nobody wants to be part of this thing behind the wall,” said Kostyantin Usov, a former member of parliament from Kryvyi Rih, referring to Russia’s isolated authoritarian regime.
He said that this system had a bleak allure in Ukraine and noted the lack of extensive cooperation 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. “He is here, with us, in our group. And they have nothing to offer.”
Other prominent politicians who were Russian-oriented, including Ihor Terekov, mayor of Kharkiv, and Henady Trukhanov, mayor of Odessa, remained loyal and became fierce defenders of their cities.
Besides the leaders in the southeast, the Ukrainian people also resisted. Street protests against the occupation continued in Kherson despite the deadly dangers to the participants. A man stood in front of a tank. The miners and steelworkers of Kryvyi Rih showed no signs of pivoting allegiance to Russia.
“Before the war, we had ties with Russia,” said Serhiy Zihalov, 36, a steel plant engineer, citing family, linguistic and cultural ties. But he said no longer. “No one doubts that Russia attacked us.”
The southeastern regions of Ukraine, a stretch of steppes and stricken industrial and mining cities, became the focus of fighting in the war.
Driving south from Kyiv, the highway leaves behind the dense pine forests and reed swamps of northern Ukraine, and the landscape opens up to vast plains. Farm fields stretch out into the horizons, in bright yellow flowering rapeseed or black earth.
In many ways, the region is associated with Soviet and Russian history. Iron and coal industries formed the southeast of Ukraine. Iron ore deposits are found in and around the city of Kryvyi Rih; Coal in the far east, near the city of Donetsk.
The mineral basins, known as Kryvbas and Donbas, spawned a metallurgical industry that attracted many nationalities from across the Tsarist and Soviet empires from the late 19th century onward, with Russian becoming the lingua franca in the mining towns. The villages remained mostly Ukrainian speaking.
For years, the region elected Russian-leaning politicians like Mr. Velkol, the favorite villain of Ukrainian nationalists for their promotion of Soviet-style cultural events that angered many Ukrainians. He, for example, had a solo concert at Kryvyi Rih to delete “Katyusha”, a Russian song associated with the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II.
More importantly, Mr. Vilkol rose to politics under the pro-Russian ex-president, Viktor Yanukovych, in whose cabinet he served as deputy prime minister until street protesters ousted Mr Yanukovych in 2014.
Many of the rest of Yanukovych’s government fled with him to Russia. But Mr. Vilkol remained in Ukraine as the de facto political head of Kryvyi Rih while his elderly father was the city’s mayor.
He caught the eye of Moscow. In 2018, Mr. Failkoll said in the interview, he was told through a mediator that “the time for chaos was over” and that he must now follow Moscow’s orders if he wished to remain in politics in the southeast. He said he refused.
He said that the Russians did not bother to prosecute him, but only made demands. He said Moscow had taken the same approach with other politicians in eastern Ukraine. “They didn’t even try to convince us,” he said. “They just thought we were, a priori, on their side.”
On the eve of the war, Mr. Vilkul was likely a Russian-leaning politician in Ukraine with broad popular support. “I was alone at that level,” he said. Moscow also viewed him as a promising potential to turn on its side when it invaded Ukraine.
Then the call came to Mr. Velkul’s mobile phone from Vitaly Zakharchenko, a Ukrainian living in exile in Russia who had served as Minister of the Interior under Mr. Velkol in Mr. Yanukovych’s government. Mr. Filcol recommended cooperation with the Russians.
“I told him to get lost,” said Mr. Failcol. “I didn’t even think about that.”
Mr. Falkul said he was misunderstood – by the Russian leadership and his nationalist opposition at home. He said that the great-grandfather fought the White Russians in the Civil War. He said that the Faylkul family “has been fighting the Russians on this land for a hundred years.”
He said the Kremlin had misinterpreted its respect for World War II veterans and its support for the rights of Russian speakers as potential support for a renewed Russian empire, something he said was wrong. He called the Russians “classic paranoid.”
“They mistook common language and values such as attitudes from World War II and Orthodoxy as a sign that someone loved them,” he said.
The second offer, made publicly this time by another Ukrainian exile, Ole Tsarev, in a Telegram post, came about a week later, when Russian forces advanced within six miles of the city. “My party colleagues and I have always taken a pro-Russian stance,” the post read, referring to Mr. Vilkul and his father, adding ominously that “cooperating with the Russian army means saving the city and lives.”
Mr. Filcol responded with an obscene post on Facebook.
In the early days of the invasion, Mr. Failcol ordered mining companies in the area to park heavy equipment on the runway of the city’s airport, thwarting an air attack, and slowing tank columns on approaching roads. Then the tires were blown out and the engines disabled.
The city’s steel industry began with the production of tank bulkheads and armor plates. Mr. Zelensky, his hometown of Kryvyi Rih, appointed Mr. Vilkul as military governor of the city on the third day of the war, although they were both political opponents in peacetime.
Mr. Vailkoll used to wear a camouflage uniform and a camouflage headband. A procession of Ukrainian nationalists, including the leader of the paramilitary militia, Dmytro Yarosh, and the prominent activist and military officer, Tetiana Chernovol, archenemy of the Vilkol family, appeared in his office to shake hands with him.
He said, “If we fought the Russians, were we really pro-Russian, in essence?”
Maria Varnikova Contribute to the preparation of reports.
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