Stéphane Siohan on New Bridge in Ukraine's War-Torn Donbas
25 November, 2019

The restoration of a bridge on the only crossing point between Ukrainian government-controlled territory and the territory of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic has been one promise the Zelenskyy administration made good on. What this means for the people living in the area – explains Le Figaro correspondent Stéphane Siohan, who visited the bridge’s opening.

Stéphane, as I understand, you've been to Stanytsia Luhanska when there was this bridge opening, but also spent some days after the officials left, which is the most important moment to understand. So explain to us and our audience how important is this opening, what people think, and whether it matters or why it matters if so?

It was very important for the people. I mean I've been heading in a rush to Stanytsia Luhanska because the journalists have been announced in a pretty short notice that the bridge will be inaugurated, and I choose the last train to Lysychansk to get to Donbas. And actually I'd like to underline something: the journalists were not as numerous as the report is pretending because there were clearly Ukrainian journalists were covering such kind of events but I think I was the only foreign journalist who managed to get there, just because it was something organized in last minute. When I arrived in Lysychansk, I took the first marshrutka (shuttle bus -ed.) to go to Stanytsia Luhanska, and the people didn't have really clear information. There were some rumors in the bus that Zelenskyy was coming, so it was pretty exciting for the people, but even on the spot at the bus station of Stanytsia Luhanska, which is just behind the bridge, people were not very well informed that the president was coming. Just the news started to spread in the beginning of the afternoon, and of course the news that the bridge will be open started to spread among the people travelling between the two zones, between the LNR and between Ukrainian territories.

READ MORE: Zelenskyy Announces Completion of Stanytsia Luhanska Bridge

As I understand they opened it a few days earlier than they planned, and we probably need to explain that a pedestrian bridge was already restored early this summer, and this is the bridge for cars. Can you also explain how people reacted to that? Besides of course it's a good thing, you can't really challenge that, but how does it matter? We also see that it's highly symbolic. The separatists were just a few meters away, you know some dozens of meters between the separatists and the Ukrainian officials, as well the foreign diplomats. 

Yeah, I think the bridge has been finished in a rush, because just two days before the opening, I heard from very good sources on the ground that still 10-15 meters had to be repaired. You have to know that the most damaged part of the bridge was from the Ukrainian side of the bridge. The structure, from the separatist side on the other side of the bridge, is kind of pretty stable from what we can see from drone images from from the sky or even from the Ukrainian side. The situation was like this: I mean during for five years, it was very difficult to cross the line between separatist controlled territories, and Ukrainian controlled territories. You have to imagine, that according to the local administration, every day between 10,000 and 15,000 people cross from one side to another. Most of those people are elderly people who are pensioners. Most of them living in Luhansk territories and coming to the Ukrainian side, easier for little businesses or to get their pensions on the Ukrainian side. But between ten and fifteen thousand people a day, that's very important. And there were real questions of security, because during the previous month and years, many people have been falling on those provisional crossings, the question of the weather, it has been very misty. So what has been done, actually in the past days and weeks, the bridge has been repaired but it's a very very tiny bridge – only one car can cross this bridge, two cars cannot cross each other. So basically it's a pedestrian bridge, but in case it's important to do. Some one car or one bus can cross. So all the people we've been meeting during this day thinks it's very important because it will increase the security for the people crossing on a daily basis.

And Stéphane, to be short, of course now all the discussions are on the meeting in Paris between President Zelenskyy and President Putin, as far as we know with the German and French leaders. There are all this quite emotional discussions over the troops withdrawal. How is it all seen on the ground, when you stayed with the people on the contact line?

So, from the diplomatic side, it was clearly an operation of confidence-building. The fact that the German ambassador and the French ambassador were siding very close to Zelenskyy, was a sign that France and Germany wanted to back the president in this action, but also Germany and France need to show some deliveries. Germany and France have been very active, very proactive in the past three month to organize this meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy. On the same day Zelenskyy received on the Azov Sea, in Ochakiv, the boats which have been returned by Russia, so this is clearly a political small steps to build confidence before the meeting of the 9th of December. Now, from the side of the population, it's something a little bit different. People are waiting to know what's gonna happen. And one of the main reason, and I've been really struck by this, it's something I knew, but after five years Ukrainian media have no access in Stanytsia Luhanska. I stayed overnight in Stanytsia Luhanska, in the place I was sleeping in there were 10 television channels on the TV, and there was not a single Ukrainian television channel. To get some information about what happened during that day in this very important city, I had to watch the Russia First television channel, and the television channel called  Luhansk 24. It's a copycat of Russia 24, and of course the media were giving biased information to the people who are watching this. And I understood that in Stanytsia Luhanska, most of the people who watch the TV watch Russian news. Just young people take their news from the internet, so they are basically a little bit more balanced than their parents and grandparents. But people are still waiting, in the waiting position, because they still don’t know what’s gonna come next. And the last thing that I'd like to mention, Stanytsia Luhanska is a place of disengagement, but a few days before the inauguration of the bridge, 8 kilometers away from the bridge – Russian drone launched some explosive grenades on the military positions of Ukrainian army, wounding a Ukrainian soldier. So there are these disengagement positions in Stanytsia Luhanska, in Zolote, in Petrivske, but it doesn't mean that the fights are stopping 5 or 10 kilometers away from those positions.

READ MORE: Ukraine's War-Torn Stanytsia Luhanska Sees Historic Separation of Forces

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Text by Romeo Kokriatski

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