Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a ceremony to launch a new pharmaceutical substance large-scale production department at the Bratskkhimsintez plant of Russian drugmaker Pharmasyntez, via video link at Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow on November 26, 2020. (Photo by Alexey NIKOLSKY / Sputnik / AFP) (Photo by ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
'The crown jewel that was lost': This is why Putin wants Ukraine
02:21 - Source: CNN
Rostov, Russia CNN  — 

Nikolai Fyodorovich is one of the few men allowed to cross the border into Russia from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine. His age – he’s 59 – has spared him from the mobilization ordered by separatist leaders on Friday.

Nikolai Fyodorovich, who declined to give his full name, drove across the border at the Avilo-Uspenka crossing, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) from Donetsk’s capital, on Sunday.

He and his wife were taking their daughter-in-law and 4-year-old granddaughter to stay with relatives in Rostov-on-Don, and had stopped to eat lunch at a cafeteria established near the crossing by Russian emergency services.

Last Friday, the leaders of the Russian-backed self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics – which are not recognized by the West – ordered the mass evacuation of women, children and the elderly, while barring men aged 18 to 55 from leaving.

The evacuation announcements alarmed many in the West, who feared they may be part of a pretext for war with Ukraine.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees recognizing the independence of the separatist regions and ordered troops into them on what the Kremlin called a “peacekeeping” mission.

The move marked a sharp escalation in Russia-Ukraine tensions that have been rising for months.

Nikolai Fyodorovich said that he and his wife did not plan to stay in Russia and would return home to Donetsk the same day instead.

“Everyone decides for themselves whether they want to leave or not, but we survived 2014,” he said, alluding to the de facto war that broke out in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine eight years ago between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces.

Tensions escalating

More than 14,000 people have died in fighting in the Donbas since 2014. Ukraine says 1.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes, with most staying in areas that remain under Ukrainian control.

Nikolai Fyodorovich said his 33-year-old son had no choice but to stay behind amid the restrictions and the mobilization order. “A lot of parents with sons are staying in Donetsk,” he told CNN.

Russian-backed separatists have blamed Kyiv for unsubstantiated military “provocations” and say Ukraine is planning a large military offensive in the area – something repeatedly denied by Ukrainian officials.

Last week, Putin said – without evidence – that “what is happening in the Donbas today is genocide” – a claim swiftly denied by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The breakaway regions’ leaders announced plans to evacuate some 700,000 civilians, but it is unclear how many have reached southern Russia in recent days.

Local estimates vary, but Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti, quoting the FSB (Russian Security Service) border department for the Rostov region, said on Monday that more than 21,000 evacuees from Donbas had crossed checkpoints on the border with Russia in the past 24 hours.

Now that Russia has recognized the two self-declared republics as independent of Ukraine, it seems likely they will soon return.

The pretext for their departure - the threat of a Ukrainian offensive - appears to have evaporated, even if it was largely imagined in the first place.

Russia's Emergency Services Ministry has set up around 30 tents, seen here on Sunday, near the border crossing.

Evacuees interviewed by CNN at the Avilo-Uspenka border crossing on Sunday said they had left the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic voluntarily.

Those with nowhere to go can stay in the improvised camp here: Toilets, showers and two rows of inflatable tents inside which evacuees sleep on bunk beds while waiting to be taken on to other accommodation.

The Russian government has promised a stipend of 10,000 rubles ($130) for new arrivals, but none of the evacuees CNN spoke to knew how to claim it.

Toilets and showers have been built near the border for those making the crossing into Russia.

Families crossing border

A convoy of military trucks filled with army personnel was spotted heading toward the Ukraine border by a CNN reporter on Sunday. Cars with license plates from the self-proclaimed republic could be seen traveling in the other direction.

The flow of traffic – mostly buses and civilian cars – leaving Donetsk for Russia on Sunday morning was moderate. Every now and then small groups of evacuees – mostly families with young children – crossed the border on foot.

Tatiana Zygankova, 22, was there to greet the young new arrivals with gifts of Alyonka chocolates – a nostalgic Soviet treat.

Zygankova is part of a pro-Putin youth movement, the All-Russian People’s Front. Its members, easily identified by their red hats, have been mobilized to help in the improvised evacuation camp.

“We help people in crisis situations,” she said. She and other volunteers are working 12-hour shifts, “greeting people, offering any help or assistance.”

Irina, 35, and her son Danil, 5, crossed the border into Russia on Sunday morning.

Irina, 35, a kindergarten teacher from Donetsk, fled with her son Danil, 5, after hearing shelling in the middle of the night.

“Everything happened spontaneously, we heard sounds of shelling around 1.00 a.m., I grabbed my baby and ran,” Irina told CNN near the border.

Irina, who declined to give her last name because of safety concerns, said she had been driven to the checkpoint before crossing into Russia on foot with her son.

She said relatives had called some acquaintances in Rostov and asked them to host her and her son for a while. “We are waiting for people we never met to pick us up.”

Gesturing to her son – who seemed more interested in the Alyonka chocolate than the confusion around him – Irina explained: “He wasn’t even born in 2014-2015, so he does not understand. He heard about the war, but he does not know what it means.”

“I stayed in 2014 but I don’t want him to hear or see any of it,” she added.

Confusion and uncertainty

Nearby, two young women – Sveta, 19, and Natalya, 20 – were standing at the border crossing, bags at the ready, preparing to cross back to Donetsk, after staying at the makeshift camp for only a day.

“We decided that we want to go back because there is nothing for us here and my house and my parents are in Donetsk,” Sveta, who declined to give her full name, told CNN. The pair said they had stayed in Donetsk in 2014 and had grown used to the shelling.

When a large group of evacuees – mostly women and children – arrived at the makeshift camp early Sunday morning, volunteers gathered them in a circle to wait for a bus. They were being taken to the port city of Taganrog to catch a train further into Russia – and away from their homes.

The leaders of several Russian regions have offered to host those who opt to leave the breakaway republics as tensions rise.

Some evacuees are planning to stay with friends or family in Russia, while others are loaded into buses and taken to nearby summer camps and sanatoriums in the Rostov border region, which are being repurposed as temporary housing.

About 52 miles (84 kilometers) from the Avilo-Uspenka crossing, in the village of Krasniy Desnat, some evacuees were being settled into the Kotlostroitel sanatorium, its tall gates cordoned off by police to deter unwanted visitors.

Olga, one of the Donetsk evacuees who is staying at Kotlostroitel, spoke to CNN outside the sanatorium.

“We were settled in fine, but there was a lot of confusion,” said Olga, 25, who declined to give her full name.

“Our leadership told us to evacuate and then Russian authorities met us at the border,” she added. “We are not sure what is going to happen next and how long we will be here for.”