It’s rare to hear firsthand accounts of daily life amid the conflict in Donbass. But we do have a few. The photographer Paula Bronstein captured the broken bodies and tormented souls of elderly people. The documentary filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont shot the war through the eyes of a 10-year-old orphan boy living in a small village with “The Distant Barking of Dogs.” My colleague Ioulia Shukan, a French sociologist, keeps a blog on ordinary citizens affected by the war in Eastern Ukraine. She recounted the everyday life of three female villagers in the grey zone, their fear of shells and their cohabitation with soldiers. She also told the story of a young family that left the little Ukrainian town of Marinka — where there is still no heating and no drinking water — for the separatist-held city of Donetsk to escape immediate danger and precarious conditions. These Ukrainians’ stories highlight not only the human cost of the ongoing war, but also the perils of the Ukrainian government — and its Western partners — ignoring that cost.
The recent election of stand-up comedian Volodymyr Zelensky as president puzzled many observers. But in Ukraine, where a recent survey showed that 9 percent had confidence in their government and 91 percent said that corruption is widespread in the state apparatus, it is no surprise that a comedian known for parodying the duplicity of politicians and the shenanigans of tycoons with lighthearted satires won the race. Zelensky’s landslide victory feels somehow in line with the quest for dignity and justice that the Maidan protest expressed in 2013 and 2014. It remains to be seen whether the newly elected president will have the political will and skills to fight corruption, pursue necessary structural reforms, and build a majority in the Rada, the unicameral parliament of Ukraine. The greatest unknown, however, is his ability to end the war in Eastern Ukraine and negotiate with his crafty Russian counterpart.
According to opinion surveys, the war was among Ukrainians’ top concerns during the presidential campaign. Yet the leading candidates did not articulate a clear strategy to put an end to the conflict. Beyond a few relatively vague statements of intention, there was startlingly little, if any, reflection about the ends, ways and means of the government’s actions in the Donbass. In fact, Ukraine’s aim has been poorly defined since the outbreak of the conflict in 2014: Is it to insulate the separatist territories? Is it to reconquer them militarily or is it to reintegrate them peacefully? Is it to keep the Russians at bay and the sanctions in place? Despite the confusion, most Ukrainian politicians emphasize territorial integrity as a matter of principle, notwithstanding some nationalist-minded politicians who would eagerly get rid of this “never de-Sovietized” millstone. Overall, the constant focus is on territory.
Zelensky, on the contrary, positioned himself during the campaign as a “strong proponent of a ‘winning hearts and minds’ strategy for reintegration” and of initiating direct negotiations with Putin to end Russian support for separatists. In his inaugural speech, he bluntly recognized: “History is unfair, it’s true. It wasn’t us who started this war, but it is us who will have to stop it.” He is one of the only recent political figures in Ukraine to talk about the people of the Donbass and their basic needs, and this surely played a role in his victory.
This essay argues that a people-centered approach to conflict resolution and a focus on the safety and well-being of people on both sides of the contact line are much needed if Ukraine wants to restore peace and recover the separatist territories at some point in the future. Moreover, there may be a window of opportunity to improve the situation on the ground, as the political will to do so is now present.
A War with No End in Sight
Despite its disappearance from the media spotlight, the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is far from frozen. Intensive shelling and heavy weapon fire happen on a daily basis. Over 40,000 ceasefire violationsoccurred in the month preceding the first round of the 2019 presidential elections.
The line of contact that divides the separatist territories — 310 miles or 500 kilometers long — from the rest of Ukraine has held largely steady for the past two years, but the proximity of the two opposing sides leads to constant skirmishes. Better trained, better equipped and better led than in 2014, the Ukrainian army defends its positions and seeks to regain territory. The separatist forces, backed and armed by Russia, occupy a continuous strip that runs from north to south along the Russian border. Located in the far southeast corner of the country, the separatist-held territories represent only 4 percent of Ukraine’s surface area. However, Ukraine’s fighters, be they volunteers in 2014, conscripts in 2015–2016 or contract soldiers nowadays, come from all parts of the country. So every single village has been struck by war. Not only veterans, but the whole country is fraught with trauma.
Indeed, the human cost of the war is immense. The death toll amounts to 13,000 people, including 260 children. More than 3,300 civilians lost their lives between 2014 and 2018. Around 20,000 soldiers and 9,000 civilians were wounded. In the early stages of the war, many inhabitants fled, finding refuge in other cities of Ukraine or moving to Russia and Belarus. Around 1.5 million people are officially registered as “internally displaced persons” (IDPs) in Ukraine; many more left the Donbass without obtaining this status.
A Severe Humanitarian Crisis
Five years after the beginning of hostilities, civilians continue to pay a heavy price. Two million peoplecurrently live in areas where danger is everywhere: in the air with constant shelling, in the soil with chemical contamination, or on the ground with landmines. Nadejda Khomenko, founder of “The Country of Free People,” a volunteer organization that brings humanitarian aid to people living in the grey area on both sides of the contact line, describes vividly the practical problems that affect the people stuck in the conflict zone. The elderly often do not have enough to eat. Unemployment is endemic, as coal mines and large factories are closed. Schools are regularly targeted on both sides, and 750 education facilities have so far been damaged.
The housing crisis is also glaring as 50,000 civilian homes were destroyed and another 40,000 were damaged on both sides of the contact line. Before the war, the Donbass was a densely populated and heavily urbanized area, organized around mines and large factories. Nearly half of the area’s infrastructure is in need of repair, impeding water and electricity supply.
The situation is particularly acute in the area that stretches for 15 kilometers on both sides of the demarcation line with many small cities and two big cities in its vicinity: the government-controlled city of Mariupol and the separatist-held city of Donetsk. Mariupol has some 500,000 inhabitants, including 100,000 IDPs. It experiences numerous logistical problems linked to its hemmed-in position. As the main port city of the Azov Sea, it also bears the brunt of the maritime blockade imposed by the Russian Black Sea Fleet since the opening of the bridge connecting Russia to Crimea. As a result of the sharp decline in steel exports, unemployment increased and youth migration accelerated.
The areas under government control have also suffered from the full economic blockade imposed by their own government under then-President Petro Poroshenko in 2017, in response to the pressure exerted by Ukrainian nationalist and veteran groups and to the nationalization of 43 enterprises by separatist authorities. The ban on economic transactions across the contact line has not only worsened Ukraine’s trade balance, but also weakened the local economy in the entire region. The lack of infrastructure and economic opportunities add to a growing sense of abandonment among the population.
Concurrently, Russia invests in the separatist territories, where, according to some returnees surveyed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and to my own private discussions, the social and sanitary situations have improved. Buses run regularly and on time, medical facilities and hospitals operate, and the prices are generally much lower than in the rest of Ukraine (for instance, water is three times cheaper, and medical care remains affordable). This assessment should be interpreted cautiously, however, as a Ukrainian survey contradicts those accounts.
Russia also tries to appeal to civilians from the other side. Since 2018 a program called “Reunification of the Donbass people” has allowed civilians living on the government-controlled side to get medical treatment for free in the separatist territories, including oncology patients. The program was launched around the time that health-care reform entered into force in Ukraine and increased prices for consultations and medications. Furthermore, this past spring, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a fast-track process for acquiring Russian citizenship to people living in separatist territories. These developments may make Russia more attractive and erode the legitimacy of the Ukrainian state in the eyes of a population in desperate straits.
A Deepening Divide
People living in the separatist-controlled areas are increasingly isolated from Ukraine and dependent on Russian assistance. To the east, the 250-mile-long border with Russia is highly porous and easily crossed. To the west, the contact line with the rest of Ukraine is highly militarized and extensively mined, and there are only five checkpoints for crossing. An estimated 200,000 people living on the Ukrainian side and 600,000 people living in the separatist territories regularly cross these checkpoints both ways, as shown on this map. There were around 1.2 million crossings in May 2019. People wait up to nine hours in summer heat and winter cold to cross for a variety of reasons: to get pensions, to register a newborn baby, to visit family members, or to check on properties.
The Ukrainian parliament and government under Poroshenko made policy choices that had their political rationale, but have negatively affected the population. They enforced a rigid crossing regime that hampers freedom of movement and suspends the pensions of the Ukrainian citizens registered in the separatist territories. Therefore, people need to cross the contact line every two months if they want to maintain their IDP status. Indeed, if they reside for more than 60 days in the separatist territories where their homes are located, not only do they lose their monthly 800-hryvnia ($30) IDP allowance, but they are also deprived of any social benefits, including their hard-earned meager pensions. Consequently, they resort to various survival strategies: For instance, one can buy a residency permit (propiska) or an “all-inclusive package” with a taxi service, a place in the queue, and housing accommodations, according to Oksana Mikheieva, a Lviv-based sociologist from Donetsk who conducted fieldwork at the crossing points. Not surprisingly, a high number of IDPs are registered near the contact line, as shown on the map.
The difficulties faced by the region’s main water supply company, which provides drinking water and collective heating to 4 million people on both sides of the front line, are another example of policymaking that negatively affects the population. Voda Donbassa has to deal daily with intractable technical issues and insoluble administrative problems. To deliver water to Mariupol, the pipeline must pass through a separatist area. To perform repairs, workers expose themselves to mines and sometimes to heavy-weapons fire. Indeed, to provide water to all people, the company has to break Ukrainian law: Any payments from separatist territories are prohibited since the Rada passed, in January 2018, a law on “occupied territories” that stated that separatist territories are occupied by Russia. To find a solution, France recently agreed to provide financial and technical support for a project to supply Mariupol with drinking water and wastewater disposal. A political solution is urgent not just because of the humanitarian disaster, but also because of the subsequent contradictions and problematic local dynamics that have arisen.
A Questionable Strategy, a Negotiation Deadlock
Ukraine’s political landscape has evolved significantly since 2014. Both elites and the population now largely agree on a pro-European stance. Russia won’t regain anytime soon the influence it used to enjoy before Maidan. Yet the Kremlin will retain some leverage as long as Ukraine’s state institutions remain imperiled by more corrupt political games among a handful of oligarchs. War delays structural reforms(or serves as an excuse for not achieving them). The European Union brought unprecedented assistanceto Ukraine, spending 14 billion euros ($15.8 billion) in grants and loans, mostly for macro-economic stabilization, but most experts believe there is no guarantee the reforms will last.
The Poroshenko administration’s general approach to conflict resolution was a tit-for-tat policy: While maintaining diplomatic negotiations within the “Normandy Format,” it lobbied to keep significant external pressure on Russia and sought to increase the military and economic pressure on separatist territories. This strategy, necessary as it was at the beginning of the war, has proved inefficient in achieving a lasting ceasefire.
There is obviously no military solution in the Donbass. But as the tug-of-war drags on, the scope of the confrontation with Russia is widening. The Kremlin keeps increasing the pressure on Ukraine with old and new means. On the one hand, it has developed a twofold aggressive approach to stifle the Ukrainian economy: In the south, the strangling of ports hinders metallurgical and agricultural exports and hampers economic growth, while in the north, the construction of the North Stream 2 pipeline will dry up the diminishing state revenues coming from Russian gas transit through Ukraine ($2 billion in 2017). On the other hand, Russia pursues its annexation of the separatist territories: The separatist military forces continue to benefit from Moscow’s military assistance and financial help, while the population is now offered Russian citizenship.
All negotiation avenues, official or informal, have been in a stalemate until recently. The Normandy Format has not resulted in any breakthrough since the signature of the Minsk II Agreements in February 2015. So far, the lack of political will has been evident on both sides: In Moscow, the agreements are considered Putin’s personal victory, an illustration of his ability to take on his adversaries, while in Kyiv they are seen as a bad deal, negotiated from a position of weakness after a military defeat. Similarly, the monthly discussions held in Minsk by the trilateral “contact groups,” which gather representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have proven fruitless. Even talks on prisoner exchanges were stalled. The Ukrainian side demands the release of all jailed prisoners, including the 24 sailors captured in the Kerch strait in late 2018 and kept in prison despite the recent U.N. tribunal ruling ordering their release, and all people arrested in annexed Crimea, including the movie director Oleg Sentsov, who is serving a 20-year sentence in a Russian penal colony on the Arctic Circle.
However, there have been several recent signs of a reversal to the prevailing trend of stalemate. In late June, the OSCE mission observed the beginning of disengagement from a position that the belligerents had held for more than four years near Stantsia Luhanska: They now face each other across a distance of 1.2 miles, five times farther than before. While Russia was reinstated in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the separatist authorities released four Ukrainian prisoners. Finally, a Normandy Format summit is expected to take place soon.
A Novel Approach to Conflict Resolution
For peace to happen, new thinking is needed. Giving up a military stance in favor of more humanistic and humanitarian approaches is not a sign of weakness; it requires strength and faith. It is, in fact, a way for an increasingly pro-European Ukraine to embrace European values, promote fundamental freedoms, and break with the Soviet past.
The new Ukrainian president’s pragmatism may help reset the negotiations and favor reconciliation. He already took part in the opening of a de-mining center in Mariupol and proposed to rebuild the damaged bridge at the infamous checkpoint on the contact line near Luhansk. A few months ago, Ukraine’s minister of the Interior, Arsen Avakov, proposed a “Small Steps Mechanism” that focuses on the creation of a demilitarized security zone. Freezing the conflict would bring hope and comfort to the local population and allow reconstruction work to start.
The parliamentary elections later this month will be a milestone, with the Rada playing a crucial role in the political process. Public opinion seems to be shifting, as 70 percent of Ukrainians now think a peace settlement will require making compromises with Russia and separatist authorities, and 16 percent reporting that they would even agree on “any compromise.” Still, the idea of holding a consultative referendum on the opportunity to broker a deal with Russia inflamed controversy in Kyiv. Similarly, the possibility of lifting the economic blockade of the separatist territories remains very contentious.
The unrelenting question remains how to obtain a sustainable ceasefire without compromising security and deterrence, in a situation where you face reluctant and pernicious opponents. There is, of course, no easy answer. In Russia, the political leadership is in a “wait and see” position because time is on its side. However, it is not inconceivable that the Kremlin may be interested in some settlement in order to decrease spending on Donbass and to strengthen its political influence in Ukraine. As for the self-proclaimed authorities of the separatist entities, they will not voluntarily give up their power. Some recalcitrant locals have already died under troubling circumstances, supposedly because they were not docile enough; Alexander Zakharchenko, the “prime minister” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, is only the latest separatist leader to have been assassinated.
Despite these uncertainties, it is time to move forward with the negotiation process and pay more attention to the Donbass inhabitants. There should be, in addition to diplomatic and military efforts, a people-centered approach to conflict resolution that focuses on the basic needs and rights of Donbass people on both sides of the contact line. As diplomats from France and Germany — the two Western European countries involved in the Normandy process — have emphasized, as first steps it is important to make progress on security and humanitarian issues, especially to proceed with prisoner exchanges, make it easier to cross the contact line, share information about missing persons, and deliver drug supplies to separatist territories. In addition, new discussions about a U.N. peace mission could be initiated to facilitate the withdrawal of heavy weapons and the clearance of mine-infested areas.
If the ultimate objective is to reintegrate the population of the separatist territories, some concrete steps could make a difference. The Ukrainian government should stop linking the payments of pensions and social entitlements with IDP registration, a system that punishes and weakens the most vulnerable, especially the elderly, and stirs up resentment against Kyiv. The creation of administrative centers in the separatist territories, as Zelensky suggested during the presidential campaign, could improve living conditions, even though the delivery of cash would be a problem. The opening of new checkpoints on the contact line would foster people-to-people links. The de-mining of the grey zone where mine plans are nonexistent — or unreliable after five snow melts — should be a priority.
Lastly, the Ukrainian government and the international community could more boldly support grassroots organizations that help IDPs and affected people or bring humanitarian relief on both sides, as well as organizations founded by people from the Donbass itself to spread information and monitor human rights violations in the region. Ukrainian officials and analysts could start to elaborate a roadmap for reintegration that would envision how to deal with the grievances of the past, how to set up truth and reconciliation commissions, and how to help demobilized combatants find a place in society.
In fact, if there is one reason to be optimistic about the prospects for peace, it is the resilience of people living in the conflict zone. As officials, researchers, and civil society activists have all noted, people living on both sides of the contact line express solidarity and have no animosity toward each other, which is unusual in this type of conflict. It is not “their” war. They all long for peace and stability. By taking steps to acknowledge this, Ukraine can make some progress toward ending the longstanding conflict — not a perfect solution, but a path to regaining some trust in the Ukrainian state.
About the Author
Céline Marangé is Russia and Ukraine research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM, Paris).
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