In Donbas, amid devastation, former Ukraine PM sees no hope for negotiations with Russia

Anna Nemtsova

In the Donetsk region of Ukraine Thursday, children hiding in a basement from bombs gave a drawing of a wreath of flowers and a blue and yellow flag to former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, national symbols of a country now devastated by Russia's unprovoked invasion. "Glory to Ukraine," read one of the pictures.

"The entire country is fighting together against the ultimate evil," Tymoshenko, 61, told USA TODAY. In Donbas - the greater region encompassing Donetsk and other areas - "the region will defend itself, since the survival of Ukraine depends on the survival of Donbas."

Tymoshenko had traveled to eastern Ukraine, the area where she grew up, to see how the brutal attacks on the area were affecting children and teenagers. Russia's invasion has especially focused on targeting civilians; nearly a quarter of the nation's 43 million people have fled the country or have otherwise become internally displaced. 

That barrage of destruction is visible in haunting photos, homes and apartment buildings bombed out, neighborhoods razed, sometimes even bodies in what used to be ordinary streets.

“There are no undamaged windows or buildings" in the ruined city of Chernihiv, Tymoshenko told USA TODAY. "A lot of people suffered. Little kids spent weeks in basements without food."

Women look at houses damaged by shelling in Chernihiv, Ukraine, on April 7, 2022.

Tymoshenko is one of Ukraine’s most high-profile politicians. She was twice the country's prime minister, serving nonconsecutive terms between 2005 and 2010. Later, she spent two and a half years in prison for striking a gas deal with Russia, which was largely viewed as retribution by then-President Viktor Yanukovych.

While she is perhaps Zelenskyy's greatest political rival, Russia's invasion has made the two political allies in this moment of crisis for Ukraine.

“Donbas was, is and will always be Ukraine’s,” she told USA TODAY.

On Friday, Donbas was again shaken: Rockets struck the only railroad in Donetsk, killing dozens of people at Kramatorsk railway station, where hundreds of people were waiting for the evacuation.

Moscow denied involvement, blaming the Ukrainian military.

Personal belongings of victims and blood stained tarpaulins are seen on the platform in the aftermath of a rocket attack on the railway station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, in the Donbass region on April 8, 2022.

The war is far from over, Tymoshenko said. But peace largely depends on the international community, she added. 

“After the violence we saw … no negotiations are possible, neither from moral nor from diplomatic point view. They (Russia) should be defeated, there is no other way,” Tymoshenko said.

She does not believe in the possible success of peace talks with Russia after speaking with deeply traumatized people in “bottomless trouble,” after seeing hospitals crowded with wounded young women and men, after talking with doctors living at work and working without sleep on the front lines.  

“The West should not fear and should act today," she said. "We need artillery to defend Ukraine, we need rocket and missiles, we need drones and weapons to fight back naval attacks.”

“The ongoing negotiations take place under missile fire, with tanks targeting their guns at Ukraine,” Tymoshenko said. “Instead of negotiating with Putin, the world should unite to stop the evil once and for ever.”

Contributing: Associated Press, Ella Lee

KYIV, UKRAINE - MARCH 02: Ukrainian politician Yulia Volodymyrivna Tymoshenko looks at a child as children and their relatives wait to be evacuated from the Ohmatdyt children's hospital to Poland by bus on March 2, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The medical staff could not guarantee accurate health care and safety to 50 children with cancer due to the effects of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian and Belarusian armed forces. On February 24, 2022 Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with explosions reported in multiple cities and military convoys seen encircling the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in the first week of the war.