Embracing the bitter reality in Eastern Ukraine

At the very moment when in Aleppo, men, women, and children are massacred by government troops, the war in the Ukrainian Donbas(s)[1] region continues. Unbelievable suffering by the civilian population and an overriding proportion of civilian victims are some of the sad parallels between the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts. Another one is the role of other states in supporting the warring parties, and the failure of the international community to effectively prevent the bloodshed. In terms of the role of the Russian government, the current tragedy in Aleppo illustrates like nothing else its cynical practice to speak of one thing and do another. The Kremlin does its utmost to confound the attention of the international community from its geopolitical interventionism with the pretence of diplomacy. Simultaneously the international community is responsible for letting playing along with the game staged in the halls of New York, Brussels, or Geneva.

What does that mean in the context of Ukraine? On 5 September 2014, after extensive negotiations in Minsk, the representatives of Ukraine, Russia, and the self-declared „Donetsk People’s Republic“ (DPR) and „Lugansk People’s Republic“ (LPR), under the auspices of the OSCE, signed the Minsk protocol. Aside from ten further steps the protocol foresees an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of armed groups and military equipment from Ukraine. In spite of temporary positive signs visible on both sides, none of these essential conditions for peace have been realized up to date.

Nevertheless, both Moscow and Kyiv officially continue to emphasize that „there is no alternative to the Minsk agreements“. Why so? Not because they genuinely believe in the spirit and the substance of the accord concluded, but to please the international community, to provide to the outside world a picture of good will, and to keep on communicating. The conflicting parties keep up pretences of searching for a mutual solution, while on the ground contradictory facts are being made.

On 11 February 2015 in Minsk, the conflict parties concluded a second agreement called „package of measures“ to revive the 2014 protocol and end the war in Donbas(s). Measure 9 of the package foresees the restoration of the Ukrainian state border – as prior to the conflict (following local elections and a change of Constitution establishing a „special status of particular districts of Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts“). This means, in principle, that the ultimate goal of the Minsk agreements is the restoration of the „status quo ante“ in East Ukraine. This article considers that this goal is unrealistic and that letting go of the idea of re-integration of the self-declared republics into Ukraine is a necessary first step towards lasting peace in the region.

People in Donbas(s) are tired of war, but after two and a half years of military and economic blockade of the self-declared republics by Ukraine, the option of reuniting has withered away. A new de-facto border has been established. Today, there is merely one crossing point for pedestrians in Lugansk oblast, and four crossing points for cars and pedestrians in Donetsk oblast. People wanting to pass from one side to the other have to wait for hours or even days in the queues and bribe the soldiers at the checkpoints. In spite of attempts by Ukrainian authorities to simplify the procedure, controls have become more rigorous in recent months.

Map of the war in Donbass.svg

Map of Donbas(s) region.

In the cities and towns of DPR and LPR away from the front line, life is taking place with certain day-to-day normality. Shops and restaurants are open, people go to work, and children visit school. But in the „grey zone“ along the 500 km long front line, shelling, fighting, and survival in basements continues. On both sides of the war there are a huge number of combatants and civilians who continue to suffer from severe trauma, and appropriate treatment and support systems to address these traumata are basically inexistent.

During the past months and years, Russia strengthened its control over many aspects of life within the self-declared republics. The Ruble has replaced the Ukrainian Grivna as the sole currency in DPR and LPR. The time zone in the area has been changed from Kyiv (GMT+2) to Moscow (GMT+3) time. As ZDF and Die Zeit reported in September 2016, a data leak within the DPR administration revealed further evidence for a strict line of command from the Kremlin to the leaders of the self-declared republics. According to Ukraine Analysen[2], in October, field commander Arseni Pawlow, well-know as “Motorola”, was killed by an explosion in his apartment block in Donetsk. The murder comes in a series of unresolved deaths of former rebel commanders, who had enjoyed a high level of recognition and independence in the self-declared republics.

In the rest of Ukraine, people have little understanding for the suffering of those trapped in the limbo between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. As a recent study of the Rahmonov Centre[3] highlights, people’s positions towards the rebels are tougher, for instance regarding the question of amnesty, the further they live from the front lines. A good indicator for shifting attitudes in Ukraine is the attitude of local populations towards internally displaced peoples (IDP). While in the beginning of the conflict, IDPs from Donbas(s) were mostly welcomed in the rest of Ukraine, they now often face prejudices and open discrimination. For instance, being from Donetsk can be a sufficient reason for refusal when applying for an apartment in Kyiv or booking a holiday room in Odessa.

The regional circumstances combined with debates in the Verkhovna Rada[4] show that many Ukrainians, or at least the publicly noticeable parts of the political elite, have mentally already given up on Donbas(s). According to an adviser close to Ukraine’s Presidential Administration, the post-Maidan Ukrainian government has actually made a conscious choice to give up the parts of the country, which would obstruct reforms and a Western-oriented course of development. Some Ukrainian opinion leaders compare Donbas(s) with “rotten meat” or “a cancer” that needs to be cut off.

This brings us to the underlying issues of identity and self-identity which represent some of the key root causes of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. According to Von Bruno De Cordier, University of Gent, identification with the Soviet heritage as well as the Great Patriotic War (Second World War) and anti-fascism are two of six aspects of self-identity of the people in Donbas(s). Ukraine, on the other hand, in an attempt to cut clear from its past as one of the leading republics of the Soviet Union, officially defines itself “negatively” as “not Soviet” and “not Russian”. In the so-called “De-communization laws”, the Communist and the National-Socialist regimes are equally condemned as totalitarian, and the fighters for Ukrainian independence in the 20th century – the groups around nationalist leader Stepan Bandera – are glorified in spite of their collaboration with the Nazis in the massacre of 60’000 Poles in Western Ukraine.

The anti-Soviet self-definition and the use of historic figures for identity building express the current lack of an integrative national vision that is inclusive for all Ukrainian citizens. In combination with the existing lack of opportunities for economic and political participation, it is not surprising that many people in Donbas(s) feel better supported by Russia than by the political elite in Kyiv.

It can be concluded that currently there is no space for political rapprochement in Kyiv or in the self-declared republics “DPR” and “LPR”. Only a handful of people are actively working towards this end and their efforts lack public recognition and support, including from the international community. Thus, the full re-integration of the self-declared republics of Donbas(s) into Ukraine is not a realistic option for the future. But accepting the present situation, giving up resistance to what is and embracing the reality does not mean one cannot do anything about it. In contrary, it might open up minds and hearts and re-orient attitudes towards greater inclusiveness. In the long term this may lead to normalization of social relations and eventually peace in the region.


[1] The writing „Donbas(s)“ is chosen to demonstrate impartiality between the Ukrainian („Donbas“) and Russian („Donbass“) versions.
[2] Ukraine Analysen is a joint initiative of several Eastern Europe research institutions in Germany.
[3] The Rahmonov Centre is a Kyiv based think tank.
[4] Ukrainian Parliament.