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On

ON A SUNNY AFTERNOON IN TORETSK, A MINING TOWN NEAR THE FRONT LINES IN EASTERN UKRAINE, A SMALL, WIRY MAN IN HIS 60S S TAGGERS DOWN A POTHOLED STREET, PLAYING THE ACCORDION AND BUSKING FOR CHANGE.

HE’S UNSHAVEN and disheveled, sporting a camoulage cap, baggy sweatpants and a grubby telnyashka—the striped undershirt worn by Soviet and Russian troops. He passes by as I chat with a group of Ukrainian government soldiers on a corner opposite the local barracks. The men eye him with disdain; one tosses him a cigarette, and he drifts of.

Lumpen proletariat,” says Aleksandr Lubichenko, a Ukrainian military press officer. “He’s an old separatist—I can tell a mile of. Small man, big gun.”

“But he’s only holding an accordion,” I say.

“He’s only holding an accordion now. But give him some money, and the first thing he’ll buy is an AK-47.”

Strained encounters like this are common here in Donbass, Ukraine’s easternmost region on the Russian border. This is the nation’s industrial heartland—a windblown steppe of coal mines and smokestacks that tower over vast fields of sunlowers. For three years, government forces and Russian-backed separatists have been locked in a war that’s killed roughly 10,000 and forced 2 million from their homes. Despite a 2015 peace deal, the two sides continue to trade ire along a 280-mile front line.

The unrest began in March 2014, not long after massive, pro-European demonstrations in Ukraine toppled the authoritarian government of Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin loyalist. In response, Russia seized Crimea and stirred up counterprotests in Donbass. These morphed into a full-ledged insurrection as the Kremlin sent arms, soldiers and intelligence to help separatist forces.

War has turned large swathes of the area into a militarized rust belt full of contested ghost towns, bombed-out factories and looded mineshafts. But even before the conflict, jobs were scarce in eastern Ukraine, which had been crumbling since the fall of the Soviet Union. Many here feel abandoned by their government (despite the billion-dollar subsidies Kiev has injected into the region’s ailing coal-industry). While activists in the capital’s Maidan Square rallied against corruption and Kremlin inluence, striving to become a part of Europe, many in the east have more in common with their neighbors in Russia. Some in governmentheld Donbass see the Ukrainian soldiers patrolling the streets as guardians against the Kremlin’s machinations, but others regard them as part of an unwanted, even foreign, occupation.

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About Newsweek International

SPLITTING HEADACHE: IS FBI DIRECTOR JAMES COMEY FIR TO TAKE ON TRUMP Many say FBI Director James Comey torpedoed the presidential aspirations of Hillary Clinton, and he may soon do the same for Donald Trump. As the bureau’s investigation of Russian interference in the election and the possible collusion of Trump’s camp builds toward a confrontation, America needs to know if their top G-man is a righteous warrior or a self-righteous prig.
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