It started as an argument. On Oct. 26, President Volodymyr Zelensky locked horns with war veterans in the front-line town of Zolote in Luhansk Oblast.

The president was pushing a mutual disengagement of troops and armaments at the front line flashpoint. The veterans opposed this plan.

Soon, however, a video of their disagreement shot through Ukrainian social media, fueling passions across the country.

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It left little understanding, however, of the real prospects that both Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed militants would pull one kilometer back shortly. That clarity is particularly lacking after the planned withdrawal was postponed several times due to shooting.

And locals remain as puzzled — if not more so — than observers. They don’t know what to expect in the near future.

Viral argument

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Zolote is a town of 14,000 people some 700 kilometers southeast of Kyiv. It is cut in two by the front line of Russia’s war against Ukraine. In some parts of Zolote, the military positions of Ukrainian and Russian- led troops are less than 100 meters apart.

On Oct. 25, Zelensky unexpectedly arrived in Zolote for an overnight visit. He met with soldiers, residents and a group of army veterans who came there earlier this month to prevent Russian-led troops from taking control of the town when Ukraine’s army withdraws.

Video from Volodymyr Zelensky’s two-day visit to the front-line city of Zolote, posted on his official Facebook page. (Facebook/Volodymyr Zelensky) 

Some locals fear they may be in danger once the Ukrainian army pulls back. Others believe the greater distance between the two sides’ positions will make their town safer.

That controversy rose to the surface when Zelensky met with the veterans, who took up residence in an abandoned house. Their first disagreement was about what residents of Zolote want.

Zelensky claimed that locals want disengagement and that the larger distance between the sides would decrease the number of soldiers being killed each month. But the veterans argued that troop withdrawal is effectively capitulation and that locals don’t support it.

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However, the biggest argument erupted when someone informed Zelensky that the veterans had illegal arms, which they allegedly stored under their beds. The president then demanded they remove the weapons from Zolote.

When one veteran, Denys Yantar, said they had no arms and wanted instead to discuss protests against the planned disengagement that had taken place across Ukraine, Zelensky became furious.

“Listen, Denys, I’m the president of this country. I’m 41 years old. I’m not a loser. I came to you and told you: remove the weapons. Don’t shift the conversation to some protests,” Zelensky said, videos of the exchange show. As he said this, Zelensky aggressively approached Yantar, who heads the National Corps, a political offshoot of the far-right Azov volunteer battalion, in Mykolaiv city.

“But we’ve discussed that,” Yantar said.

“I wanted to see understanding in your eyes. But, instead, I saw a guy who’s decided that this is some loser standing in front of him,” Zelensky said.

Reaction

Captured on video, the incident sparked significant criticism on social media. Many claimed that Zelensky should have spoken more politely to war veterans. Shortly after the conversation, Zelensky admitted on social media that some of the talks were “emotional.”

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Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, a rock musician and leader of the Voice party, which has 20 members in parliament, wrote on Facebook that disrespectful conversations with veterans “would not bring peace but rather would bring rage.”

Andriy Biletsky, head of National Corps and the Azov Battalion, threatened Zelensky on his YouTube channel that more veterans would head to Zolote if the president tried to evict them from the town. “There will be thousands there instead of several dozen,” he said.

Meanwhile, National Police Deputy Chief Vadym Troyan, who was previously Biletsky’s deputy in Azov in 2014, reported on Oct. 27 that the veterans had removed their weapons from Zolote. Troyan claimed the veterans had held the weapons legally, although military officials had previously stated the opposite.

Singer Sofia Fedyna, who is a lawmaker with the European Solidarity party of former President Petro Poroshenko, which has 27 seats in parliament, was particularly aggressive in her response. She issued physical threats against Zelensky.

“Mr. President thinks he is immortal,” she said in a video shared on Facebook. “A grenade may explode there, by chance. And it would be the nicest if this happened during Moscow’s shelling when someone comes to the front line wearing a white or blue shirt.”

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Zelensky has previously visited the front line dressed in civilian clothing, rather than military fatigues.

Ruslan Stefanchuk, deputy speaker of parliament from Zelensky’s party, called on Ukrainian police to investigate Fedyna’s comments.

The Kremlin claimed that it was following Zelensky’s visit to Zolote. Dmitri Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the future of the talks between Zelensky and Putin would depend on the disengagement.

President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Zolote in Luhansk Oblast on Oct. 26, 2019. (Press service of the president of Ukraine)

What locals think

For all the public resonance of Zelensky’s visit, it came out of the blue for residents of Zolote.

They were simply told that some VIP would arrive in their town. In a YouTube video filmed by the presidential office, the owner of the house where Zelensky spent the night appeared shocked to find out that the president would stay in his house.

Halyna Yeremeyeva, the principal of a school located in the most dangerous part of town, said she had a positive impression after meeting with Zelensky. However, Yeremeyeva said she had no idea which parts of the town would wind up in a gray zone between the two sides after disengagement.

A video posted by Zelensky’s team on YouTube stated that the disengagement would be a maximum of one kilometer on both sides of the front line and Zolote would not become part of the gray zone. But the nearby village of Katerynivka would partially be in the zone.

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Residents remain divided on disengagement. While Yeremeyeva says she supports it, Maryna Danylkina, a volunteer who is helping needy residents of the town, says she is collecting signatures against disengagement there.

Danylkina says she and other anti-disengagement residents of Zolote didn’t know about the meeting with Zelensky. Had they known, they would have gone to meet with him, and his team’s videos from the meeting would have looked less one-sided.

“We are for peace, but not for peace at any price,” Danylkina said.

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