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A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces stands guard at a checkpoint at the frontline with the Ukrainian armed forces near the town of Avdiivka, outside Donetsk, Ukraine, 17 March 2016. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Ukraine: The Line

The 500km line of separation between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels suffers heavy daily violations of the ceasefire agreed in Minsk in 2015. Escalation is possible, and the status quo risks a political backlash against the Kyiv government and no way out of sanctions for Moscow. All sides should pull back heavy weapons from front lines, take responsibility for civilians trapped there, and return to other steps toward peace set out in Minsk.

I. Overview

The 500km line of separation between Russian-supported separatist districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and the rest of Ukraine is not fit for purpose. The ceasefire negotiated at the February 2015 Minsk talks is being violated daily and heavily. Tens of thousands of well-armed troops confront each other in densely populated civilian areas. The sides are so close that even light infantry weapons can cause substantial damage, let alone the heavy weapons they regularly use. This presents major risks to civilians who still live there – about 100,000 on the Ukrainian side alone, according to an unofficial estimate – often next door to troops who have taken over unoccupied houses. It also heightens the risk of an escalation. Kyiv, Moscow and the separatists all bear responsibility for the security and well-being of civilians living along the front line.

Likewise, Kyiv’s European allies, Washington and Moscow all have crucial roles to play in addressing the overall situation. They should insist that both sides withdraw their heavy weapons, as Minsk requires, from the front line to storage areas monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). They should also press their respective allies – the Ukrainian government on one side, and the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR) on the other – to separate troops from civilians and to substantially widen the line of separation. Russia’s role in this is vital. It insists it is not a party to the conflict, but its military intervention in early 2014 triggered the crisis; two major incursions by its armed forces in 2014 and 2015 deepened it; and it is now the sole source of military, economic and other assistance to the two entities. Its officers train and largely command the separatist forces, and it continues to assure the separatists that it will intervene again if Ukraine attacks. Given Russia’s continued role in the conflict, international sanctions need to be maintained.

There is little doubt that the death toll is significantly higher than either side admits. Fighting takes place daily along large parts of the line, much of it unreported. Both sides often use howitzers, heavy mortars and rocket systems or park them menacingly in the centre of large urban areas where they risk at the least becoming targets for the other’s artillery. The Minsk agreement to withdraw heavy weaponry, meanwhile, is violated daily.

Both sides should take urgent measures to address the security and humanitarian, including health, needs of the civilians stranded along the front line. Troops and military equipment should be moved out of civilian buildings and settlements. It would be helpful if the OSCE, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) specifically identified in their public monitoring reports those locations where civilians and military are intermingled. Ukraine also urgently needs to address the humanitarian fallout of the conflict, including clear signs of psychiatric distress in front-line villages. If it is unable to do this, an experienced international organisation like Doctors without Borders should be encouraged to survey the needs. And the Ukrainian government should order local civil administrators, most of whom seem to have abandoned settlements on the front line, to return to work and at least be in contact with the population concerned.

The humanitarian crisis on the front line is also a political one. President Poro­shen­ko’s poll ratings in the east, including those areas Kyiv controls, have declined substantially. One oft-cited reason is the sense that the country’s leadership is not interested in the east. Ukraine, whose sovereignty over the occupied territories is internationally recognised, needs to take the lead in addressing these problems. Doing so would not be a sign of weakness, as some Ukrainian voices argue, or imply equal guilt with Moscow for the damage inflicted by the conflict. On the contrary, it would be proof that Kyiv was acting as a legitimate and responsible member of the international community that cares for the well-being of all its citizens.

The government-controlled areas of the two oblasts are also the stronghold of one of Ukraine’s main opposition parties, the Opposition Bloc. Widely described as pro-Russian and oligarch-funded, the Bloc is running nationwide ahead or neck and neck with the president’s party in many polls. Failure to help its own citizens on the border thus could well have political cost for the Kyiv leadership and fuel conflict by strengthening anti-government feelings in Luhansk and Donetsk.

This briefing, based on travels along the Kyiv-controlled side of the line of separation in April-May 2016, focuses on the intermingling of civilians and military in front-line areas on the Ukrainian side. It also surveys the views and outlook of Ukrainian military officers stationed along the front line. The officers are younger and more confident than those encountered two years ago. But their opinions were bitingly critical of the country’s political and military leadership, including President Petro Poroshenko. The president and other top leaders would be well advised to pay more attention to the mood of what is in essence the next generation of Ukrainian military commanders. All officers interviewed described the Minsk process as dead and strongly supported the idea, floated by some leading politicians, to seal off the separatist enclaves for the foreseeable future – a policy move the international community should caution against in no uncertain terms. 

II. Home on the Front

A. Elusive Statistics

Government officials in Kyiv and in the east were unable to provide figures for the number of civilians still living in the many villages and settlements that are now part of the front line. Staff of the Agency for the Restoration of Donbas, the very theoretical government lead for work in the east, said they knew of no consolidated data. The Donetsk governor’s office, Donetsk police, internal affairs ministry and state statistical service, among others, were unable to provide up-to-date figures. 

Enquiries to local military or civil administrators in the combat zones yielded some estimates: 10,000 highly vulnerable in the Luhansk district of Popasna; 1,500 in the industrial town of Avdiivka, whose suburbs are part of the front line; a substantial portion of the population of Marinka, a small front-line town with a pre-war population of over 9,000; and 1,500 out of a village of 3,000 in a position close to Mariupol. The UN Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016 estimates the civilian population in Ukrainian-controlled front-line areas at 200,000. Other specialised international organisations feel this may be an overstatement. Given a pre-war population of approximately 230,000 in these areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, it seems reasonable to assume that the most at-risk population – those living in government-controlled areas where front-line military units are based, and which are frequently subject to attacks – number around 100,000. 

Crisis Group was not able to conduct research on the separatist side of the front, as access to much of the separatist-controlled territory is becoming increasingly difficult. However, earlier visits to the self-proclaimed People’s Republics and reports from major international organisations leave no doubt that the intermingling of civilians and military is also prevalent there.

There is no distinction between military positions and civilian dwellings in many front-line settlements. Combat units are embedded in villages, usually scattered in houses beside civilian dwellings. In Marinka, a town just beyond the western edge of Donetsk city, many civilians still live in Matrosova Street, once a quiet area of pleasant small houses and large gardens. Military units now occupy abandoned houses, and the beginning of the front line is marked by a heavy machine gun position on the street corner. Separatist positions are 150 metres or less away. During firefights, which usually happen at night and are frequent, casualties are evacuated along Matrosova and parallel streets. An officer who coordinated casualty evacuations noted that he preferred to use small passenger cars rather than ambulances, as those drew heavy incoming fire that left civilians “pretty scared”.

In the hamlet of Zaitseve, military armour pokes out of the bushes, and visitors observed fresh craters from a 152mm howitzer and an 82mm mortar on the edge of a newly tilled vegetable plot. Local people said the shells had dropped short of a military position. On Kirova Street in Avdiivka, a Ukrainian military observation post is on high ground behind residents’ gardens. Just across the road, troops occupy houses, one of which had been seriously damaged in fighting a few weeks earlier. The front line is only 50 to 100 metres away. 

B. Those Who Stay

Those who remain in the front-line area usually have nowhere else to go or lack the means to leave. They are more likely women than men, are often pensioners and sometimes have to care for family members too infirm to leave. Moving requires considerably more financial outlay than pensioners can afford. A one-bedroom apartment in Kramatorsk, the temporary seat of the Ukrainian government’s Donetsk regional administration, costs approximately 1,500 hryvnia ($60) per month, about three quarters of a monthly pension. Utilities would add substantially to this. With schools closed or on the other side of the line and mines everywhere, families have usually left or sent children to relatives. Schools and health facilities in Horlivka, some 15km from the front, used to service a significant part of the area, but the large industrial town is now on the separatist side of the front, a strategic part of the defences of Donetsk city and frequently subject to shelling and attacks. 

Few if any civilian males of military age have stayed – not surprisingly given military suspicions that locals are separatist sympathisers (see below). Often one person, usually a woman, has remained to ensure that the family home is not sequestered by the military or damaged. The military takeover of temporarily uninhabited homes and other buildings seems ad hoc and arbitrary. In many places, the houses have become billets for small units or fire positions. As a soldier explained, a house is more comfortable to live in than a trench. In some places, residents have protested, usually with little success. 

People living along the front line have drastically simplified their daily routine. Most sleep in cellars for all or part of the night, remaining close to their house and shelter through late morning. Firing usually tapers off around noon or early afternoon, before residents edge closer to shelters. Work prospects in the villages have largely disappeared. Those previously employed outside them are unable to travel, most local mines are closed, and farming has become dangerous.

The front line has cut through some of eastern Europe’s richest farmland and vegetable gardens, bringing agriculture to a halt in most places and making even subsistence farming dangerous. Large fields are mostly untilled, for fear of shelling or mines (see below). Any planting is usually limited to potatoes in vegetable patches close to the house – in some cases the small green space outside village houses where in quieter times the elderly would sit. Even these relatively sheltered areas are vulnerable. In Avdiivka, the coke-smelting town whose suburbs flow into the front line, a 75-year-old woman was killed by what locals say was an incoming shell while working on her potatoes. The police report attributed her death to “careless handling of ammunition”.

The military on both sides carries out hit-and-run raids from largely civilian areas. Several front-line residents in Avdiivka related how a small Ukrainian unit recently sped in, strafed its foes, then pulled back. These actions inevitably trigger retaliation, well after the soldiers have left. Donetsk residents described separatist mortar teams using the same tactics and provoking the same response. 

Given the volatility of the situation, few who have left show any sign of wanting to return permanently to the villages. Residents of Zaitseve reported a family briefly returning to plant potatoes, “in case there is peace later this year”. Villagers said that even occasional visits from relief agencies offer little hope. An international organisation explained to Avdiivka residents that it was too early to distribute roofing and other building materials, as they would only have to be replaced again in a few months.

Those able to leave are among the 1.7 million officially registered internally displaced persons (IDPs). About one million are registered as living in other parts of Luhansk and Donetsk, though it is quite possible that many have moved elsewhere or even returned home on the other side of the line. Most IDPs are said to live with relatives, friends or in rental accommodations in larger towns that offer more safety and work opportunities.

C. Military-civilian Relations

Civilians in the east agree that the Ukrainian military’s behaviour has improved substantially since the grim days of 2014, when its troops were a byword for indiscipline, drunkenness and sometimes violence. But there are lingering suspicions on both sides. Some civilians, echoing a line favoured by many separatist propagandists, discreetly remarked to visitors that if the troops were not living next door, their homes would not be under fire. 

The military has its own preconceptions regarding the locals. One holds that civilians have chosen to remain at the front because of separatist sympathies. Quite often, in Avdiivka for example, residents reported allegations by soldiers that local people helped DNR sabotage teams that slipped into the area at night. Another frequent comment offered by the military was that local people were getting what they had asked for in the May 2014 separatist-organised referendum on self-determination. Some senior officers were more direct: “50 per cent of my civilians are separatists”, claimed a battalion commander; in another area, an officer estimated hard-core sympathisers at about 10 per cent of the population. Soldiers said they could hear separatist radio stations from their civilian neighbours’ homes, which reinforced their suspicion. One of the few local officials on the ground remarked that, on the rare occasion he or his colleagues were able to achieve something for the local population, separatist media claimed credit, and the news quickly spread among locals. 

Separatist media are ubiquitous, because in the vast majority of settlements along the front line, towers carrying Ukrainian broadcasting were destroyed in the early days of the fighting and have not been replaced. The only choice for most civilians are local radio stations from nearby separatist-controlled towns. The governor of Donetsk acknowledged the problem but noted that repair of transmission equipment is the central authorities’ responsibility.

D. Mines

Visitors to a hamlet in Zaitseve are instructed on arrival to use only well-trodden paths between houses, never shortcuts. Mines – anti-personnel and anti-armour – have been laid all across the front line. Both sides recently added trip wire devices. Few have been mapped, so regular troop rotations mean that any institutional memory of the mines’ location has been lost. Inhabitants of the front-line villages often cite mines as the main reason for sending children to relatives. “The shelling is bad enough, but at least we see or hear the risk: with mines you had to keep children in prison”, a woman explained. On Kirova Street in Avdiivka, a resident said his five dogs had “gone”, probably killed by mines just beyond his back garden, which opens out on the front.

Demining specialists believe that clearing all mines once hostilities end will take a minimum of five years and up to twenty if sufficient funding is not available. Large-scale demining cannot begin, however, until the Ukrainian parliament passes legislation determining which government authority oversees the removal of mines and unexploded ordnance, and establishing national technical standards, including a framework for the accreditation and quality. Meanwhile, the number of mines and explosive remnants of war is increasing daily. Western diplomats say the legislation is so far moving slowly. 

E. Distress and Alcohol

The sheer terror of living in a war zone, the highly limited opportunity of moving even a few miles away, the lack of work, the separation of families and general social disruption have for two years subjected the remaining inhabitants of front-line areas to inordinate social pressure that has disproportionately devolved upon women. The state has done little or nothing to address these problems, and visits by international monitors and aid organisations are rare. Residents are mostly anxious and depressed: few conversations continue for more than a few minutes without an interlocutor showing signs of this.

Alcohol abuse has long been an engrained feature of village life in Russian and Russian-speaking areas, but usually among men. In villages along the front line, alcohol consumption by women is widespread. Church volunteers in Marinka, as well as members of other local groups working with villagers, expressed concern that constant military activity was leading to an increase in serious diseases. After particularly heavy attacks in mid-June, a pastor reported “pathologies” among the local children: “their hair starts falling out, their legs and arms shake, and some stop speaking”. None of the villagers recalled visits by psychiatric health professionals. A senior regional government official shrugged off the question when asked if such visits had been made. There is urgent need for a survey of the psychiatric health needs on the front line by a competent international body.

F. Where Are the Officials?

A number of local government officials recently joined a delegation of the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) Human Rights Committee on a visit to Marinka. The committee chair, Hrihoriy Nemyria, recalled that local people were surprised they were from the district administration. No one recognised them: local officials left with the onset of war and have been handling administrative affairs from the small resort town of Kurakhove, a good distance from the front. Zaitseve residents said they did not recall any visits by officials. A military commander in Dokuchayevsk mentioned that civilian administrators initially joined him on front visits. They would note requests, leave and not follow up. “People here are abandoned” by the local government, he said. “There is no sense of interest in their problems, and the quality of civilian officials is very low”. The result is that people on the front line are left to fend for themselves.

G. Holes in the Line

There are six official vehicle-crossing points between Ukrainian and separatist-controlled territories, while mostly local people use a hastily-repaired bridge in Stanitsia-Luhanska, the single official pedestrian crossing. Over 700,000 passed through the official checkpoints in May, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). They tend not to live along the front line, are usually relatively affluent, own vehicles, can pay for fuel and food and have a certain sophistication in dealing with the sometimes intimidating military or security personnel. Even so, the crossing is challenging. Waits of ten hours or more – often overnight – are common. Crossing points are usually close to military installations, increasing the danger of shelling or mines. Many who live on the front line, on the other hand, have neither the money nor experience required to deal with men in uniform. Some complain that they are asked at Ukrainian checkpoints for proof they are registered as displaced, which they are not.

On rare occasions, local officials on both sides have unofficially created crossing points. These purely local initiatives, distinct from the officially stipulated crossing areas, allow front-line residents to visit nearby settlements on the other side to buy food – considerably cheaper on the Ukrainian side – visit relatives and, when possible, collect pensions. They must show proof of registration in a settlement close to the border: despite the current armed conflict, all Ukrainian citizens remain required to register in their place of permanent residence. Two such informal points were known to exist as of early 2016. One, in Popasna, remains functional while another, near Marinka, has reportedly closed. 

There are other ways to get across, but not for simple residents. Ukrainian soldiers know the village of Verkhnetoretskoye as a smugglers’ crossing. Some contraband is for local consumption, but much is part of the major smuggling operation – of coal, scrap, weapons and probably drugs – that is enriching officials on both sides of the line. A prominent blogger and volunteer supporter of the armed forces, Yuriy Kasyanov, described watching a goods train passing through the village and into the separatist-controlled area of Donetsk oblast. Fighters from the ultra-nationalist Right Sector prepared to attack the smugglers’ train, but were stopped, Kasyanov said, by Ukrainian soldiers.

There has also been at least one instance of soldiers on both sides cooperating to improve conditions on their part of the front. Ukrainian troops said that sometime in May 2016, they contacted the troops facing them; one of their number crossed to the opposing front line and over a bottle of vodka suggested they might shoot at them less often. The separatists explained that military service was one of the few ways to earn money in the entities – a frequently heard complaint in the DNR. They reportedly agreed, however, that on those days when they were on duty they would fire away from their targets. They added that they could not answer for the Russian troops on duty the other days. 

III. The Military

Around 90,000 troops face each other across the 500km-long line of separation. The Ukrainian government says it has 69,000 troops in its Anti-Terror Operation (ATO) zone, not all of whom are based directly on the front line. Kyiv and its allies usually estimate the separatist military strength at 35,000, though this is probably high. In addition, Ukrainian officials say, more than 8,000 Russian troops remain inside the separatist entities, with a much larger force permanently stationed just the other side of the border, ready to intervene. Moscow denies any such plans, just as it does having ever intervened militarily in Ukraine over the past two years. Separatist officials say the permanent Russian military presence is considerably less than Ukraine claims, but they stress that Russian troops on the border could deploy throughout the entities in hours if needed. 

A. Officer Politics – Criticism of the President, 
Support for Sealing-off the Separatists

Most observers agree that the Ukrainian military is very different from the poorly led, often demoralised force sent into action two years ago. Many battalion commanders and their deputies are in their early thirties. A lieutenant colonel who hopes to leave soon for staff college said most of his peers in neighbouring front-line positions were between 29 and 32. At 34, he is feeling old, he joked. In private, the officers are deeply critical of their country’s military and political leadership. One started his analysis by describing the deadlock in the conflict as beneficial to both Russian and Ukrainian leaders: “The Russians can maintain pressure on us, and our president has an excuse for not carrying out reforms”. 

All expressed belief that the Minsk process is “dead”. This line has been increasingly echoed by Ukrainian officials, Western diplomats and many Russian commentators. As a result, the officers said, the crisis could only be solved by military means. None, however, felt this would happen soon. There is wide agreement among analysts and the military that while the front-line advantage has shifted moderately in favour of Ukraine (see below), the key factor remains Russia’s readiness to intervene militarily in support of the separatists. As long as this holds, the officers felt, Ukraine would not attack to regain control of the entities. 

The idea to seal off the separatist entities from the rest of Ukraine, cutting political and economic ties and excluding their population from elections, has been floated since January 2016 by political leaders in Kyiv – including such prominent figures as the secretary of national security and defence, Aleksandr Turchynov, and Rada Speaker Andriy Parubiy. It has gained some support, but also considerable criticism. 

Officers interviewed along the line of separation were unanimous in their support for the idea. “People in the separatist areas are totally brainwashed. They still live in the Soviet Union”, one said. “Maybe, just maybe, they will one day come to their senses, and they will return to us, but until then we should close them off”. Another officer, who hails himself from a separatist-occupied area, was equally blunt: “Let the people who want to be Russian go to Russia; we will help them leave. In the meantime, the separatist districts should be fenced off, and Russia left to support them”. 

Proponents of sealing the border see a number of advantages, both political and economic. The Minsk agreement obliges Ukraine to pay for the restoration and rehabilitation of the entities, an endeavour that would cost billions of dollars. Sealing the enclaves off would in their view shift the whole financial burden onto Russia, which for months has already been paying salaries and pensions. This would intensify economic pressure on Moscow at a time when it is hard pressed by international sanctions and declining revenues. The assumption behind this line of thought, however, is questionable – Moscow has not formalised ties with the entities, and while it has provided social support, it has not indicated it would provide reconstruction or rehabilitation funding.

Ukraine is preparing for a difficult transition – with any luck – to a modern Westernised state, and the entities allow Russia to maintain military pressure that forces it to divert major budgetary resources from economic development to defence. Elections during the transition period are likely to be tense and volatile. Removing the entities from the voting process for several years would neutralise the votes of a million or more Ukrainians who, many politicians and analysts believe, would be little inclined to support the country’s present leadership. 

Proponents of the idea, who say they briefed senior Western ambassadors early this year, maintain that Poroshenko privately is sympathetic to the idea but cannot be seen as in essence amputating part of the country. Opponents fear sealing off the separatist enclaves would accelerate their slide into organised crime and contraband. Moves to close off the separatist entities from the rest of the country would concern several of the country’s most influential oligarchs, who have extensive holdings in the separatist areas. Many made their fortunes during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, and most – Rinat Akhmetov, Sergei Lyovochkin and others – are heavily invested in the area’s oil, steel and natural gas. Further limited access would be financially deeply painful to these businessmen. Ukraine’s Western allies should stress to all in Kyiv that isolation would be a risky policy choice that could exacerbate the conflict, create new tensions and deepen the sense of many inhabitants of separatist-controlled areas that Kyiv has abandoned them. 

B. Combat, Casualties

1. Ukrainian strategy: erode and probe

Front-line commanders are more confident than in the past that their troops could make serious inroads into separatist territory, or even destroy the entities, but the main factor stopping such an attempt is the threat of another major Russian invasion. Front-line Ukrainian forces consequently seem to be probing separatist territory in order to gradually erode military manpower. Local commanders noted that separatists are not only less well-trained than Ukrainians, but that it is much harder for them to replace lost equipment or personnel – the latter because of their very small recruitment pool. Many analysts sympathetic to the separatists agreed. 

Ukrainian troops have edged forward along most of the line into the so-called grey zone – a thin stretch of land between the fronts which both sides had until recently refrained from entering. By occupying this zone, Ukrainian troops have strengthened their positions along the border modestly, by inhibiting vehicular traffic on the other side, or gaining better forward observation positions. Asked whether this was a new strategy, officers sidestepped the question. 

In some cases, the troops are going further. In an area along the Mariupol sector, a battalion commander said his men had moved 1.5km into separatist-controlled territory. Similar movements have been reported elsewhere. Around Debaltseve, the site of a major Ukrainian defeat in February 2015, a military volunteer from one of the many groups that raise money to equip troops reported that a unit of the 54th Mechanised Brigade had advanced 1.5km and dug in. This could be, as an officer suggested, pure opportunism; it might also be that some units are trying to gauge Russian patience with such incursions. Officers routinely refused to comment on operational matters, but a senior government security adviser and avowed hawk in the confrontation with Russia described the penetrations as efforts by some commanders to maintain morale, combat preparedness and discipline. The static, often trench warfare saps morale, the adviser suggested, and when this happens, “the Ukrainian army drinks”.

2. A ceasefire ignored

Both sides complain that they are under instructions not to violate the ceasefire. Ukrainian troops said they are told to observe and report violations and only respond if their lives are threatened. “That is an instruction that only a staff officer could think up”, a Ukrainian senior lieutenant complained. “Everything we fire is life-threatening, for f***’s sake”. Separatists have complained for months that their Russian military handlers (kurators) have strictly enforced the ceasefire. In fact, both sides have violated the ceasefire daily for several months, most commonly with light weapons, but also with artillery rocket batteries and armour that should have been withdrawn many months ago. 

Ukrainian front-line officers all described Russia’s current military posture in the same terms. Its troops have pulled back from the front line: any remaining Russians are usually commanders of the separatist units or small groups of special forces. The Ukrainians portrayed many of their adversaries as poorly trained locals, with little inclination to fight and drawn more by the pay. Monthly salaries for separatist troops reportedly range from 15,000 roubles ($230) for a private to 46,500 roubles ($715) for a colonel. Some Ukrainian officers, however, singled out several separatist units for grudging approbation: the “Viking” battalion, named for its founder’s radio call-sign, and Vostok, which has been involved in some of the most intense fighting around Avdiivka.

3. Hiding the casualties

Both armed forces play down the intensity of fighting and often under-report casualties. Ukrainian troops on a section of the front line which has not figured extensively in official combat reports stated that they have been involved in almost 60 engagements since deployment in late 2015. Another officer in the same unit said his troops have taken “heavy” loses but that the figure has been classified – “the General Staff does not want to be embarrassed”. Civilian volunteers who help resupply Ukrainian troops have at times denounced the official military spokesman for disinformation or covering up the real situation. In March 2016, a volunteer juxtaposed on his social media site a photograph of the burial of elite Ukrainian troops with a military spokesman’s announcement that there were no casualties that day. 

The same thing happens on the separatist side. The commander of DNR’s Viking battalion resigned in December 2015 along with a number of staff officers in protest at a high command decision to reclassify military casualties as victims of civilian accidents. Supporters of the separatist militia, usually Russian nationalist groups, have on occasion leaked much higher death tolls than officially admitted. For instance, a supportive website revealed that in late March and early April 2016, separatists had lost at least 90 fighters along a small stretch of the front line around Avdiivka. More recently, a well-informed Russian nationalist blogger quoted a DNR officer saying that a regiment heavily involved in late May fighting “no longer had” two companies.

4. A message from Moscow?

Separatist civilian and military officials have admitted privately for some time that the Russian military exercises complete control over militias. Russian officers command units, handle operational planning and oversee the military. Given regular separatist complaints that they are not allowed to respond to Ukrainian fire without the permission of their Russian minders, analysts on both sides have posited that sudden spikes of violence along the line are explicit reminders from Moscow that war could quickly escalate if deemed necessary. “I think we sometimes dial up or down the pressure as needed”, a veteran Russian analyst remarked. A recent burst of costly attacks on Ukrainian positions in late May followed signals of Moscow’s frustration with the Minsk process. Shortly before the escalation, a Kyiv politician with close links to Moscow expressed concern the situation could turn ugly.

C. Unpaid Bonuses, Understrength Front-line Positions

Ukrainian military confidence and morale may be higher in 2016, but many problems remain. Most are connected to what front-line troops see as incompetence at best, venality at worst among the country’s top military and political leadership.

Mid-level officers, in particular the deputy commanders responsible for troop morale and related matters (zampolit) in several places raised the same problems. They said troops rarely received the 1,000 hryvnia (approximately $40) bonus they were promised for every time they were engaged in combat. Other promised bonuses – for destruction of enemy heavy weapons or armour, for example – have also not materialised. Instead, troops have been warned they must reimburse the defence ministry for damaged uniforms and equipment on demobilisation. 

Delays in demobilisation are another source of resentment. Troops said they had to stay on the front line for weeks – in one case several months – after their eighteen-month rotation had officially ended. An officer in an affected unit remarked that such delays had drastically reduced the number of conscripts willing to remain in the army under contract at the end of their service. “Six months ago, half my company were ready to sign contracts and stay in the army”, he said. Now the number planning to stay is “in single figures”. Shortages of equipment are another regular complaint. Many units still depend to some degree on volunteer groups who raise funds, providing them with anything from electrical cable to night vision gear, binoculars and food. 

Troops seem most concerned, however, about the clumsy and chaotic process of bringing front-line units back up to strength when a cohort of conscripts has ended its service and left for home. This often leaves front-line positions dangerously understrength and lacking in combat experience for weeks. “Our ‘specialists’ have had two years to get this right”, an officer said, “and it is still a cock-up”. 

These delays can have lethal consequences. Lieutenant-Colonel Andriy Zhuk, 32-year old commander of the 3rd battalion of the 72nd independent mechanised brigade (72OMBr ) stationed in the area of Dokuchayevsk, was killed on 28 May in a brief clash. An investigative journalist who specialises in military affairs interviewed his fellow officers immediately after. The officer had spent much of the past eighteen months on the front line, and his battalion was desperately short of armour and troops: most of his men had been demobilised in April and he was reportedly left with 100, 20 per cent of a full-strength battalion, to control a 15km stretch of the line. Given the lack of experience of his remaining men, the journalist wrote, he took it upon himself to investigate reports of unidentified armed men and was killed. An informal 72nd brigade Facebook page posted photographs of Zhuk’s funeral. Just under that posting was a message urging any would-be volunteers to make their way directly to brigade positions on the front line, bypassing recruitment centres.

D. A Non-functioning Pullback

The persistent and regular violation by both sides of a key part of the Minsk agreements – withdrawal of all heavy weapons from the front line – has further deepened military insecurity and tension. Their ample inventories of heavy weaponry seem to rotate almost permanently from storage areas to front-line positions and back. Most OSCE daily monitoring reports note the absence of tanks, rocket systems and artillery from storage areas and, more occasionally, their return. Weapons covered by the agreement have been extensively used in recent fighting, most often tanks and artillery. Others are relocated to major population centres, usually Luhansk and Donetsk cities. On 5 June, a relatively typical day, monitors checking Ukrainian government sites and positions inventoried a number of forbidden systems, including two surface-to-air SA-8 missile systems, six 152mm towed howitzers, and three 100mm anti-tank guns. They also noted 33 howitzers missing from two storage sites. The next day, monitors recorded Grad missile batteries and anti-aircraft systems in the LNR and DNR areas.

OSCE monitors complain regularly that their teams are harassed and on occasion refused access to areas. They also report that their drones have been shot down and monitoring equipment shut down. They continue to do a thorough job under very difficult circumstances. However, their reports have no tangible consequences for the violator. Until Europe and Washington on one side and Russia on the other are willing to force their allies to observe the pullback – by withholding military or other aid, for example – the situation will remain highly volatile.

IV. Conclusion

A temporary fix on eastern Ukraine’s front line has become, by oversight or neglect, a semi-permanent “solution”, like so much in the Ukrainian crisis today. In the absence of a genuine settlement, most parties would probably welcome a frozen conflict, even though they are unwilling to say so publicly. But the situation on the ground is too unstable to guarantee even this. There are too many troops far too close to each other. A crucial agreement to withdraw heavy weaponry from the battlefield is violated daily by both sides. The needs of many thousands of civilians stuck along the line and the many grievances of troops who are fighting there have been ignored.

A number of issues need to be addressed immediately. A substantial distance – much more than the 100 or so metres currently common – should separate the sides. Military positions and civilian settlements should be clearly distinguished. These are not just requirements for Kyiv. The separatists should take the same steps. The DNR and LNR have shown neither capacity nor interest in doing so. Kyiv should do better. 

By failing to address these issues, Ukraine’s leadership is storing up political problems for the future. Civilians’ feeling on both sides of the line that the government has abandoned them plays into the hands of Opposition Bloc, President Poroshenko’s major political rival in the east and an important actor in Ukraine’s parliament (Rada), where it is often decisive in key votes. Meanwhile, on the other side of the line, Ukrainians living under separatist control regularly complain of being abandoned by Kyiv. When eventually Kyiv is able to restore full control over the east, there is a serious risk that the several million residents in the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts will have become a strong anti-centre political force. The needs of another important constituency also must be considered. Incompetence, neglect and corruption in the military high command, both military and civilian, may well turn a large pool of angry, militant and articulate critics of Poroshenko – active duty and demobilised troops – into a force that could prove even more of a threat to Kyiv.

This does not detract from Russia’s responsibility for the situation. Moscow denies, against all evidence, that it is a major actor – and the main initiator – of the present crisis. It should pressure its separatist allies to support serious efforts to defuse the situation. And while many western analysts and diplomats seem increasingly to view a frozen conflict in the east as the least bad option, even this will be impossible without firm action to increase the distance between opposing front lines and address humanitarian problems. 

Kyiv/Brussels, 18 July 2016

Civilians cross the pedestrian bridge of Stanytsia Luganska in eastern Ukraine in 2016. Somewhat repaired in subsequent years, it remains the only crossing point between government and non-government-controlled areas in the Lugansk region. OSCE/Evgeniy Maloletka
Report 252 / Europe & Central Asia

“Nobody Wants Us”: The Alienated Civilians of Eastern Ukraine

With living conditions worsening, and crossfire still claiming casualties, people residing in eastern Ukraine’s conflict zone feel increasingly abandoned by the central government. Reintegrating the area requires Russian withdrawal, but in the meantime Kyiv can and should better protect civilians and meet humanitarian needs.

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What’s new? Ukrainians in Donbas, the country’s eastern conflict zone, are in their fifth year of a humanitarian crisis deepened by Russian intervention – and also by Ukrainian government policies. Many complain that their country has forgotten about their plight and that the state no longer wants them as citizens.

Why does it matter? Russia’s withdrawal is necessary for Kyiv’s reintegration of Donbas – but not sufficient. Only if the region’s war-weary civilians are convinced that their government values their safety and prosperity are they likely to play an active role in that reintegration.

What should be done? Moscow and Kyiv must do more to protect civilians, in keeping with international humanitarian law and their commitments under the Minsk agreements. Kyiv can improve its chances of peaceful reintegration by restoring access to subsidies, easing restrictions on freedom of movement and trade, and compensating Donbas residents for property losses.

Executive Summary

Four years after Kremlin-backed armed groups seized parts of Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas, the peace process has stalled and the conflict has largely faded from global headlines. Yet Ukrainians on both sides of the Donbas front lines face a humanitarian crisis and a growing sense of abandonment by both Kyiv and Moscow. Much if not most of the responsibility for the conflict lies with the Kremlin, over which Kyiv and its international partners have limited leverage. Yet Kyiv should nonetheless push to reverse conflict-affected citizens’ alienation from their own government: it needs a strategy to address their needs that distinguishes clearly between civilians and the violent, anti-democratic leadership of the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. Some argue that such calls upon Kyiv blame the victim; others say it is not feasible to help Donbas residents until Russia withdraws. But proactive outreach to conflict-affected citizens is in Ukraine’s interest. By showing these people that it prioritises their safety and prosperity, Kyiv can lay the groundwork for peacefully restoring its territorial integrity.

While hostilities have subsided since the high point in early 2015, living conditions on both sides of the contact line have stagnated or deteriorated. More than one million of the roughly six million people residing near this line are food-insecure; many face poverty, unemployment and the prospect of mistreatment at the hands of both Ukrainian security services and Kremlin-backed rebels. Roughly 600,000 people live in unsafe settlements on both sides of the front lines where they are exposed daily to shelling, landmines, and tight restrictions on freedom of movement and basic services. On the two sides, civilians lament that a divide with no pre-existing cultural or political basis has become a fact of life.

The most sustainable remedy for these conditions would be a political settlement, involving disarmament of the so-called people’s republics, withdrawal of Russian military equipment and personnel, and restoration of Kyiv’s sovereignty over all of eastern Ukraine without the use of force. Peacekeepers could facilitate such an outcome, but nearly a year of negotiations has yielded no clear progress. Ukrainian, Russian, U.S. and European officials are pessimistic about chances of a resolution to the conflict in the foreseeable future. The most likely alternative – prolongation of a situation in which the parties probe the no-man’s land between the two front lines – will exacerbate the humanitarian crisis.

Ukraine, Russia and the armed groups it backs should work to reduce the likelihood of an extended humanitarian crisis

Ukraine, Russia and the armed groups it backs should work to reduce the likelihood of an extended humanitarian crisis even while a political settlement and Donbas’s reintegration appear distant prospects. They should carry out the security provisions to which they committed in the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements, including a full ceasefire; withdrawal of large-calibre weapons; removal of obstacles to monitoring and verification; coordinated demining; safe delivery, storage and distribution of humanitarian assistance; and disengagement of forces and hardware from specified areas. Drawing on the reports of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM), they should work together to reduce the frequency and gravity of ceasefire violations. In the meantime, they should also schedule disengagement from and marking of critical civilian infrastructure close to the contact line, and minimise risks to and restrictions on civilians crossing the line. The UN Security Council, which has endorsed many of these measures, should recognise that the parties are unlikely to take these steps without consistent, concerted pressure to do so.

Yet Ukraine also needs to comprehensively overhaul its approach to conflict-affected citizens. Since 2014, Kyiv, in its rhetoric and actions – including restriction of freedom of movement and access to state subsidies and services, inconsistent regard for civilian protection and lack of credible arrangements for amnesty – has too often treated the security and prosperity of its citizens from Donbas as mutually exclusive with the interests of Ukraine as a whole. Some of Kyiv’s moves, such as establishing burdensome obstacles to obtaining pensions, have also contradicted Ukrainian law. As a result, many in Donbas, including those who describe themselves as Ukrainian patriots, feel abandoned by Kyiv. “Nobody wants us” has become a common refrain. Yet few high-level officials are willing to take responsibility for or respond to this chorus of despair, dismissing it as the product of hostile propaganda or pro-Russian views.

The past months have brought some tentative progress: in September, Ukraine’s Supreme Court declared the government’s 2016 limits on pension access for residents of the conflict zone illegal, obliging Kyiv to restore payments to thousands of citizens. Many officials say Kyiv is unlikely to make bold shifts, especially any carrying clear short-term costs, with 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections looming. But whatever the short-term costs of ensuring the rights of all Ukrainians, the longer-term costs of failing to do so, both financial and in terms of national cohesion, are likely to be greater.

Ukraine’s Western backers have soft-pedalled their criticism of Kyiv’s approach to the region, for fear of bolstering Kremlin and separatist claims that Kyiv is determined to trample the rights of eastern Ukraine’s heavily Russian-speaking population. Whatever the merits of these claims, Kyiv risks lending them credence, and its supporters should say so out loud. France and Germany, along with the U.S., remain vocally committed to hastening the implementation of the Minsk agreements, and must therefore insist on inclusive policies that will help lay the groundwork for this outcome.

In particular, Kyiv should honour its pension obligations, step up efforts to protect civilians, and acknowledge as well as respond to their legitimate grievances. While Kyiv will have to lead, the international community can and should encourage and support it. Large obstacles lie ahead on the road to Donbas’s reintegration, but the battle for the hearts and minds of conflict-affected citizens is one Kyiv cannot afford to lose, and one it can start winning today.

Brussels/Kyiv, 1 October 2018

I. Introduction

The front lines of the conflict in Ukraine have carved a wound more than 450km long across one of the most densely populated parts of the country. Cutting across the Donets River basin – or Donbas – it runs through Donetsk and Luhansk, two regions that were home to roughly 6.6 million people in 2013. About 6.3 million remain, some three million of them in areas outside government control.[fn]See Donetsk Region Statistics Department, “В 2013 году в области родились 41 тыс. человек, а умерли - 69.3 тыс” [“41,000 people were born in the region in 2013, 69,300 died”], 17 February 2014, http://www.donetskstat.gov.ua/pres/presreliz.php?dn=0214&number=0; Luhansk Region Statistics Department, population estimate as of end 2013, http://www.lg.ukrstat.gov.ua/sinf/demograf/demog0114_1.php.htm; population estimates as of end 2017 from the Luhansk and Donetsk Region Statistics Departments, http://www.lg.ukrstat.gov.ua/sinf/demograf/demog0117_1.php.htm and http://donetskstat.gov.ua/statinform1/demohrafichna-ta-sotsialna-statystyka/naselennia-ta-mihratsiia/chyselnist-naselennia-za-otsinkoiu/20170000/. According to the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples’ Republics, the combined population of the areas they control is nearly 3.8 million (see http://www.gkslnr.su/files/chisl_261217.pdf and http://glavstat.govdnr.ru/pdf/naselenie/chisl_naselenie_1217.pdf). Others argue that these figures may be inflated by up to 30 per cent. See, for example, Denis Kazansky, “Демография ДНР: как вымирает оккупированная территория” [“Demographics of the DPR: the occupied territory is dying out”], InfoResist, 17 July 2017.Hide Footnote The front lines pass through farms, villages, urban sprawl, backyard vegetable plots and outdoor recreation areas, many of which are mined. It divides families and separates people from the cities where their schools, hospitals and jobs used to be. This wound would already have healed had the sides implemented what was agreed to in the Minsk agreements: signatories of these documents prescribed treatment in the form of comprehensive political settlement by the end of 2015, along with a total ceasefire, withdrawal of large-calibre weapons, all foreign armed formations, military equipment and mercenaries, and rollout of the deal’s political provisions.[fn]“Protocol on the results of consultations of the Trilateral Contact Group, signed in Minsk”, 5 September 2014, https://www.osce.org/home/123257; “Memorandum of 19 September 2014 outlining the parameters for the implementation of commitments of the Minsk Protocol of 5 September 2014”, https://www.osce.org/home/123806; “Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements”, Minsk, 12 February 2015; “Addendum to the Package of Measures for the implementation of the Minsk agreements”, 29 September 2015; “Decision on Mine Action”, 3 March 2016; “Decision on Prohibition of Live-Fire Exercises”, 3 March 2016; “Framework Decision of the Trilateral Contact Group relating to disengagement of forces and hardware”, 21 September 2016, at https://www.osce.org/cio/266266. Political provisions call for the sides to launch dialogue on modalities for local elections in areas previously controlled by armed groups on the basis of Ukraine’s September 2014 law on temporary self-government for these areas, for Ukraine to adopt a law “prohibiting the prosecution and punishment of persons in connection with the events” taking place in said areas, and for the sides to exchange all hostages.Hide Footnote

Kyiv insists it has had no chance to begin reintegrating these areas for two related reasons. The first, which few dispute, is that Moscow retains unilateral control of about 400km of Russia’s international border with Ukraine, leaving Kyiv unable to prevent cross-border movement of fuel, weapons, materiel and personnel.[fn]See Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Ministerial Council, “Border Security and Management Concept”, MC.DOC/2/05, 6 December 2005, at https://www.osce.org/mc/17452?download=true.Hide Footnote The second reason is the failure of the ceasefire, which Kyiv blames almost entirely on Moscow’s resupply of separatist groups and its direct orders to keep shooting.[fn]“Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements”, Minsk, 12 February 2015.Hide Footnote Here, Kyiv’s argument is subject to greater debate, as each side accuses the other of being the main perpetrator of ceasefire violations, and international observers say forces on both sides are responsible.[fn]See the reports by the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, at https://www.osce.org/ukraine-smm/reports; and the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/ENACARegion/Pages/UAReports.aspx. Crisis Group interviews, international security expert, Bakhmut, May 2018; international security and humanitarian expert, Mariupol, May 2018; international security and humanitarian expert, Sievierodonetsk, May 2018.Hide Footnote

There are other reasons for Kyiv’s reluctance to put Minsk into practice. Ukraine has committed to resume administering areas currently outside its control in accordance with a law on “local self-government”, whose adoption has spurred right-wing rioting in Kyiv – due, among other things, to a provision for the formation of “people’s militia units” in the newly reintegrated territories.[fn]Закон України, “Про особливий порядок містцевого самоврядування в окремих районах Донецької та Луганської областей” Верховна Рада, 2014, No. 45, ст. 2043, Стаття 9 [Law of Ukraine, “On special procedures for local self-government in certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts”, Verkhovna Rada, 2014, No. 45/2043, Article 9]. The provision calls for municipal authorities to oversee creation of “people’s militia units” to “protect public order in population centers”. (Militsiia was the standard term for police in Ukraine prior to reforms initiated in July 2015, when militsiia became politsiia, a name change meant to signify a transition to an ostensibly Western-style police force with young service-oriented personnel.) Units are to be staffed by “citizens of Ukraine residing permanently in corresponding population centers”. Arsen Avakov, the minister of internal affairs, has said the provision is unconstitutional and amounts to creating units not subject to his ministry’s jurisdiction. “Создание неподконтрольной МВД Украины ‘народной милиции’ ОРДЛО незаконно – Аваков” [“Avakov: creation of a ‘people’s militia’ for the occupied territories independent from the MIA is unconstitutional”], Censor.net, 10 June 2016.Hide Footnote The 2015 Package of Measures, one of the many Minsk documents, also asks Kyiv to implement a law prohibiting the prosecution of persons in connection with the events that took place in the conflict zone – although parliament has yet to pass a corresponding law or achieve public consensus as to what amnesty would entail.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition parliamentarians, October-April 2018; public comments by ruling-party delegate at Center for Donbas Social Projects Research presentation, 31 May 2018.Hide Footnote Many officials and opinion-makers in Ukraine feel that Moscow forced through these Minsk provisions, and locked Kyiv into passing the self-government legislation, in order to preserve the separatist entities and then reinsert them into Ukraine to tear the country apart from within.[fn]See, for example, “Тимошенко: Минские соглашения – это ловушка для Украины” [“Tymoshenko: the Minsk agreements are a trap for Ukraine”], Segodnya, 24 June 2016; “Минские договоренности мертвы и нужны новые соглшения, включающие вывод с Донбасса иностранных войск и контроль госграницы - Аваков” [“The Minsk agreements are dead and new agreements including withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from Donbas and border control are needed – Avakov”], Interfax Ukraine, 28 November 2017.Hide Footnote

As Kyiv officials debate whether Minsk can be carried out without undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty, fighting grinds on. Civilian casualties are low relative to 2014 and 2015, but high enough that any talk of a “frozen conflict” is cruelly inaccurate. As of May 2018, the civilian death toll stands at over 3,000, while between 7,000 and 9,000 civilians have been injured.[fn]According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 15 February to 15 May 2018, p. 4. Statistics include the 298 victims in the July 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by a Russian BUK missile.Hide Footnote There were 107 civilian injuries and deaths in the first five months of 2018; this total followed 569 civilian casualties in 2017 – a small increase over 2016. About two thirds of casualties occur in areas outside Kyiv’s control, due in part to the front lines’ geography: while the government-controlled front line has a population of about 200,000, areas on the other side include chunks of the cities of Donetsk and Horlivka and the Luhansk suburbs, and have a total population of about 400,000.[fn]UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan, p. 24.Hide Footnote This disparity means that the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ shelling is likely to kill or maim more civilians.[fn]According to analysis of reports from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, the Ukrainian Armed Forces and separatist sources. See also UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, November 2017-February 2018, p. 4.Hide Footnote Artillery fire causes the majority of casualties. Landmines and unexploded ordnance cause most of the remainder; 1.9 million people live in areas littered with them.[fn]UN OCHA, “Six Things You Need to Know about the Crisis in Ukraine”, 7 May 2018.Hide Footnote

Those remaining in the conflict zone face a humanitarian crisis that grows deeper as fighting persists. Over one million struggle to meet their nutritional needs, including roughly one in five people aged 60 or older. These figures doubled in 2017, due to the 2017 trade blockade, reduced aid access, limited disbursement of pensions and the exhaustion of pre-conflict savings.[fn]UN OCHA, 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan, op. cit.Hide Footnote Fire from both Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed armed formations regularly hits the facilities and maintenance workers of the Donetsk Filtration Station, which provides water to up to 340,000 people on both sides of the line – limiting civilians’ access to clean water for days or weeks at a time.[fn]UN OHCA, “Ukraine Humanitarian Snapshot as of 29 May 2018”. See also the reports from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission.Hide Footnote

Security risks, an exodus of medical professionals and the rebel-imposed limits on humanitarian activity have greatly reduced access to medical care.

Security risks, an exodus of medical professionals from the conflict zone and the above-mentioned rebel-imposed limits on humanitarian activity have greatly reduced access to medical care, particularly in areas outside government control. These factors, combined with sanitation problems, raise the risk of waterborne diseases and have contributed to the world’s second-highest incidence of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis.[fn]UN OCHA, “Six Things”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Neither side shows any inclination to cease fire. A Kremlin proposal in late 2017 for deployment of a UN mission – whose mandate would be limited to guarding the civilian monitors already deployed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and would not enable Ukraine to resume control of the border – only highlighted the depth of the stalemate. Soon afterward, Kyiv passed a “de-occupation” law, streamlining the military command and giving the president authority to make full use of the country’s military and police to restore territorial integrity. Crucially, the law designates areas outside Kyiv’s control as “Russian-occupied”. Moscow, unfazed even by video evidence gathered by the OSCE monitoring mission of convoys crossing the unsecured part of the Russian-Ukrainian border, denies that it is party to hostilities in Donbas, and accuses Kyiv of having “virtually annulled the Minsk agreements” with the law.[fn]Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Comment by the Information and Press Department on the Signing of the ‘Donbas reintegration’ law by the President of Ukraine”, 24 February 2018, at http://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3090905?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw&_101_INSTANCE_cKNonkJE02Bw_languageId=en_GB. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine spotted convoys of trucks entering and exiting Ukraine in the Donetsk region. The video was published on YouTube on 10 August 2018. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ani2YWDLXl0.Hide Footnote

Regarding the conflict’s future trajectory, the sides seem determined to reinforce their positions on the ground and their physical separation from each other. They continue to move forward from their positions of September 2014, despite agreeing in Minsk not to do so, provoking reciprocal responses and breaking their own frequent pledges to renew the ceasefire. Meanwhile, Arsen Avakov, Kyiv’s internal affairs minister, has proposed the reintegration of territories in “small steps” – one settlement at a time. Police and Security Service of Ukraine personnel would lead the operation, Avakov said, preferably assisted by a small international contingent, restoring order and paving the way for the return of Ukrainian state institutions.[fn]“Арсен Аваков: У меня есть план. Условно, взять сначала отдельно Горловку” [“Arsen Avakov: I have a plan – we start by taking Horlivka separately, for example”], Ukrainska Pravda, 16 April 2018.Hide Footnote

This state of affairs promises neither improvement to civilian lives nor efforts by the parties to meet civilian needs. Some Ukrainian officials call for prolonging the stalemate – or deepening the isolation of areas outside government control – in some cases arguing that residents are less-than-loyal citizens and that excluding them from the life of the state is the price of national cohesion and successful reform.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, September 2017; opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, March 2018.Hide Footnote Advocates of piecemeal de-occupation insist that public opinion in the rebel-held areas is simply not a factor: most residents, they venture, are exhausted from four years of violence and will accept whatever new arrangement comes their way.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, political commentator, Kyiv, October 2017; Security Service of Ukraine agent, Stanytsia Luhanska, December 2017 and Sievierodonetsk, May 2018.Hide Footnote The few who object will be “cleansed” by Ukrainian security services – or flee to Russia, where, as one security operative put it, “they’ll be shot like dogs”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, September 2017; civil-military personnel, Avdiivka, October 2017; state security personnel, Luhansk region, May 2018.Hide Footnote

In either scenario, Russia will likely sustain the rebels militarily and financially without substantially improving ordinary people’s economic well-being. Formal annexation by Russia – which would mean assuming formal responsibility for the area’s ageing population, destroyed infrastructure and defunct industry, seems highly unlikely. Rebel leaders claim they are strengthening ties with Russia, and one Kremlin adviser says Moscow is weighing recognition of their independence as a last resort, but extensive Crisis Group interviews with other Kremlin advisers as well as local rebel leaders suggest that neither annexation nor recognition is on the horizon.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, forthcoming.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, few ordinary residents see unification with Russia as a real possibility; while some may look upon Moscow as a guardian, field research suggests their numbers are decreasing.[fn]“Захарченко предупредил Россию, что ‘ДНР’ берет курс на сближение с ней. Вплоть до единого пространства” [“Zakharchenko warns Russia that the ‘DPR’ is opting for closer ties – even a single space”], OstroV, 8 May 2018; Crisis Group interviews, Kremlin adviser, Moscow, April 2018; Donetsk city residents, Kramatorsk, October 2018; Luhansk city resident, Starobilsk, December 2018; Horlivka native, Kramatorsk, May 2018; interviews with fifteen Donetsk city residents, April-June 2018.Hide Footnote

This report is based on formal and informal interviews conducted between September 2017 and July 2018 with about 170 interlocutors. Crisis Group carried out research mostly in government-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions on or near the contact line, speaking to residents of settlements up to 40km from either side of the line, regional and local officials, military and law enforcement personnel, military support volunteers, local and international humanitarian, security and human rights experts, and rebel units. Additional interviews with Ukrainian officials, and national and international humanitarian, human rights and security experts were conducted in Kyiv and Moscow. Senior members of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) provided limited opportunity to carry out field research there; Crisis Group was unable to conduct research in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR).

Partly for reasons of access, this report’s analysis is heavily weighted toward the Ukrainian government’s actions – and so are the recommendations it contains. Crisis Group aims to make the most of Kyiv’s openness and encourage steps that will ease the eventual restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

II. Kyiv’s Policies Toward Conflict-affected Civilians

The division between areas controlled by Kyiv and by the Russian-backed armed formations began in earnest in late 2014, after nearly six months of fighting and some 4,000 deaths. In October 2014, after a ceasefire gave way to deadly battles at Donetsk Airport with alleged heavy Russian participation, Kyiv passed legislation granting citizens who had fled from areas outside its control – a group then numbering over 400,000 – the right to register as internally displaced persons (IDPs) and receive cost-of-living subsidies.[fn]For details on Russia’s role in the fighting, see Crisis Group Europe Briefing N°79, Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine, 5 February 2016. IDP policy information can be found at Кабінет Міністрів України, постанова від 1 жовтня 2014 р. No. 509, Київ, Порядок оформлення та видачі довідки про взяття на облік внутрішньо переміщеної особи [Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, Order, 1 October 2014, No. 509, “Procedure for processing and issuing certification of registration as an internally displaced person”], http://zakon5.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/509-2014-%D0%BF.Hide Footnote

In November, Kyiv announced the withdrawal of all government funding and services from areas outside its control by December, and the cessation of social payments, including pensions, to residents of those territories not registered as IDPs.[fn]Кабінет Міністрів України, постанова від 7 листопада 2014 р. No. 595, Київ [Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, Order, 7 November 2014, No. 595, Kyiv].Hide Footnote The government described the measure as a vital precaution: no state funds could be allowed to reach the nascent Kremlin-backed groups that had taken control of government institutions, including pension funds and banks.[fn]UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 15 November 2014, p. 5.Hide Footnote By December, the number of registered IDPs had doubled, largely on account of older citizens hoping to retain their pensions.[fn]See “Ukraine Situation UNHCR Operational Update”, 31 December 2014, p. 2.Hide Footnote

Kyiv insists that it had no alternative to withdrawing its services from areas outside its control, and many international actors agree.[fn]In February 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected a complaint from a group of Donetsk residents that Kyiv was discriminating against them by, among other things, blocking their access to Ukrainian courts in their place of residence. This ruling lends juridical weight to Kyiv’s position that withdrawing its institutions was an act of necessity, not prejudice. “ECHR finds no violation in case of Donetsk pensioners’ complaints about access to a court”, European Court of Human Rights, press release, 13 February 2018.Hide Footnote Yet the political context of the move seems to have coloured Donbas residents’ perceptions of it. It coincided with a vigilante blockade – abetted by prominent officials – that, among other things, prevented the transport of vital medicines across the contact line and was soon followed by tight official restrictions on individual travel.[fn]Shaun Walker, “Ukraine ‘punishes’ civilians in Donbas with travel permits and drugs blockade”, The Guardian, 26 January 2015.Hide Footnote Many residents of areas outside Kyiv’s control felt betrayed by these moves, even as some acknowledged their belief that the government’s continued provision of services would have been logistically unfeasible. A foreign analyst visiting Donetsk city in November 2014 recalled a young interlocutor’s reaction: “We’re not ‘our own’ to them anymore”, he said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international analyst, Kyiv, March 2018.Hide Footnote It did not help matters that public figures who supported these measures made ambiguous statements regarding their views of residents of areas outside Kyiv’s control. “Everyone has made their own choice”, Semen Semenchenko, head of the Donbas volunteer battalion and an MP from the Samopomich party, said in December. “Some consider themselves Ukrainian citizens and have joined the ranks of the Ukrainian army, while some think they should sit there and drink […] Still, we need to ensure that those who need milk, eggs, and food for children can receive these things.[fn]Семенченко: Те люди, которые не считают Украину своей Родиной, свой выбор сделали [“Semenchenko: Those who do not consider Ukraine their homeland have made their own choice”] video, YouTube, 17 December 2014 р., https://bit.ly/2OeDLIJHide Footnote

A. Gaps in IDP Policy

Despite tentative progress, Kyiv’s policies toward people who prior to the conflict lived in areas now outside government control have grown increasingly controversial, and potentially damaging to prospects for reintegration. Policymaking has been hampered by a lack of financial resources and an understandable failure to anticipate or, perhaps, even accept the protracted nature of the conflict. Still, Kyiv’s policy missteps are more than the product of difficult circumstances. Several among Ukraine’s political establishment and civil society, as well as international observers, say the Ukrainian government’s approach toward this population over the past nearly four years has been characterised by a worrying degree of neglect.

The ministry’s defenders and detractors alike say too many of its contributions have been rhetorical.

In theory, the driving force behind these policies should be the Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories and Displaced Persons. Since starting work in June 2016, its key figures have made strong, often fiery statements on the need to support IDPs and their host communities, continue pension payments to residents of areas outside government control, and offer incentives for these areas’ residents to remain part of Ukraine.

But the ministry’s defenders and detractors alike say too many of its contributions have been rhetorical. Some of the ministry’s leaders, as well as some sympathetic members of other official bodies, say its hands are tied by its limited budget and staff, and by the lack of resolute determination elsewhere in government to prioritise the needs of conflict-affected citizens.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international aid worker, Sievierodonetsk, May 2018; George Tuka, deputy minister for temporarily occupied territories; official in rival ministry; international aid worker, Kyiv, all September 2018.Hide Footnote On the other hand, some civil society and international aid workers, as well as members of the Donetsk and Luhansk regional administrations, and residents of areas close to the contact line, question whether the ministry is serious about its mission.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, member of Luhansk regional administration, Sievierodonetsk, September 2017; Olga Gvozdyova, Donbas SOS, Kyiv, September 2017; aide to ruling party deputy, Kramatorsk, September 2017; Kramatorsk residents, October 2017 and May 2018; town head, Luhansk region, December 2017; psychosocial worker, Lysychansk, December 2017; opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, March 2018; community activist and aid worker, Kurakhove, May 2018; aid workers/local residents, Avdiivka, May 2018.Hide Footnote Critics cite, among other things, leaders’ infrequent visits to the conflict zone and the establishment in August 2018 of a civil society council from which prominent legal aid organisations were omitted. One international aid worker described the ministry as “a smoke screen” whose primary purpose was to show the international community that Kyiv was concerned about its conflict-affected citizens.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international legal support worker, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote In interviews with Crisis Group, some ministry staff downplayed the importance of the policies they promote and suggested that national security and military needs should take firm precedence over aid to civilians.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ministry staff, Kyiv, October 2017 and March 2018; Fiona Frazer, head of UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, Kyiv, September 2017; Olesya Tsybulko, former adviser to minister of temporarily occupied territories, Kyiv, October 2017; Yuriy Hrymchak, deputy minister of temporarily occupied territories, Kyiv, March 2018; international aid worker, Sievierodonetsk, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Ukraine now has 1.5 million registered IDPs, the vast majority listed as living in eastern regions near the conflict zone and in Kyiv.[fn]“Ukraine: UNHCR Operational Update, 01-30 April 2018”, Relief Web, https://reliefweb.int/report/ukraine/ukraine-unhcr-operational-update-01-30-april-2018.Hide Footnote In practice, about half are believed to live at their pre-conflict homes in areas outside government control.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sievierodonetsk city council, September 2017; Mariupol city council, May 2018. See also the Right to Protection reports, “Crossing the line of contact”, January-June 2018, at http://vpl.com.ua/en/materials/5396.Hide Footnote Many in this disproportionately elderly group insist that they are too old, or too attached to their homes, to start new lives elsewhere – or that their house and land are their only sources of livelihood and security.[fn]A HelpAge International survey of 100 elderly people affected by the conflict found that nearly half had stayed put when hostilities began because, in their words, they had nowhere else to go or felt they were too old to uproot themselves. In the words of one respondent: “You can’t transplant an old tree”. The survey was conducted in the fall of 2015. “Older people in humanitarian crises: calling for change”, HelpAge International, 11 May 2016.Hide Footnote Many have been driven back to their homes in part by their inability to afford housing on the government-controlled side of the divide.[fn]Crisis Group conversations, Kramatorsk and Sievierodonetsk residents, September-December 2017; Crisis Group conversation, OSCE Special Monitoring Mission staff, December 2017. In a February 2018 International Organization for Migration phone survey of IDPs who had returned to separatist-held Donetsk, 64 per cent said they had come back to avoid rental expenses. National Monitoring System on the Situation of Internally Displaced Persons, March 2018, p. 8.Hide Footnote Together, monthly pensions and IDP subsidies are often insufficient to cover rent and other necessities in government-controlled areas – particularly given that the influxes of IDPs, civil-military personnel and international aid workers have driven up rental prices in these parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.[fn]The figure of $52 represents the minimum monthly state pension as of early 2018. IDPs who have reached retirement age since the start of the conflict often have no access to the documentary proof of their work history needed to register for their pensions, and thus end up receiving the minimum monthly sum. See “Пенсионные новации-2018. Большинство останется без повышения пенсий, а многие потеряют право на ее получение”, Strana.ua, 11 January 2018; UN World Food Programme, Study on Social Protections and Safety Nets in Ukraine, 2017, p. 11.Hide Footnote There was no national affordable housing program until the fall of 2017, only municipal programs frequently marred by delays and embezzlement allegations.[fn]Crisis Group conversations, Kramatorsk and Sievierodonetsk residents, September-December 2017; Crisis Group interview, Yulia Naumenko, April 2018. See also UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “Durable Solutions and Social Housing for IDPs: International Policies and Ukrainian Experience”, 5 July 2017.Hide Footnote

In late 2017, the government introduced a program by which it subsidises 50 per cent of housing costs. Yet even the remaining half is unaffordable for most elderly and unemployed. A city official in Sievierodonetsk said he could hardly blame those – roughly half of the city’s registered IDPs – who lived elsewhere.[fn]Crisis Group interview, deputy mayor, Sievierodonetsk, August 2017.Hide Footnote Asked about the slow start on affordable housing, a member of the Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories said it had been unavoidable: when the war began, Ukraine’s financial problems had forced the government to choose between “housing people or restoring our tanks”. He said it had been right to choose the latter: the country got an army it could be proud of, while the IDPs who remained in government-controlled territory were those with the skills to support themselves and enrich the places where they were living.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories official, Kyiv, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Freed from rental costs, registered IDPs residing in areas outside government control can gain a small but – in light of growing economic insecurity – often crucial financial boost from travelling to government-held areas to collect their state subsidies. Some combine Ukrainian government pensions with the Russian-subsidised pensions disbursed by the DPR and LPR: while they have a financial advantage over those without IDP status, who must rely on pensions from the Kremlin-backed armed groups, even recipients of double pensions often struggle. Studies by international aid workers in 2017 and 2018 have found the share of people 60 or older in areas outside government control who are food-insecure ranging from one in three to one in five, meaning that their incomes do not cover both a daily supply of quality food and other survival needs, including medicine.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, independent researcher based in Donetsk, Kyiv, April 2018; OSCE Special Monitoring Mission staff based in Donetsk, Maiorsk, July 2018. See also Ukraine Food Security and Livelihood Cluster, Joint Food Security Assessment, September 2017; Ukraine Food Security and Livelihood Cluster, Food Security and Socio-economic Trend Analysis - Eastern Ukraine, March 2018 Hide Footnote A late 2017 study found that a majority of food-insecure people in the conflict zone cited reduced income from pensions as a major contributor to these circumstances.[fn]Ukraine Food Security and Livelihoods Cluster, Joint Food Security Assessment, September 2017.Hide Footnote

The fact that half of IDPs hold this status for the sake of their pensions – while in fact living in uncontrolled areas – is the subject of bitter political and social controversy. Most IDPs who returned home did so in 2015 as levels of fighting in many areas declined and their financial resources dwindled. In June 2016, Kyiv responded to this shift with Order 365, a package of legislation that establishes mandatory checks on IDPs’ places of residence. It revokes the IDP status of people spending more than 60 days at a time in areas outside Kyiv’s control, and effectively strips those found to have violated procedures of their right to social payments for two to six months.[fn]“Деякі питання здійснення соціальних виплат внутрішньо переміщеним особам[Some issues concerning provision of social payments to internally displaced persons], Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, Order No. 365, 8 June 2016.Hide Footnote The then-minister of social policy, and his successor since August 2016 Andriy Reva, who later infamously suggested that Ukrainians had trouble making ends meet due to overeating, said the move was needed to prevent rebel fighters and other criminals from intercepting pension payments.[fn]“Пенсионеров незаконно лишают статуса и социальных выплат” [“Pensioners are being illegally deprived of their status and social payments”], OstroV, 24 February 2016; “Постановление 365: заявления общественных организации и ответ министра [Order 365: statements by civic organisations and the minister’s response]”, Mediaport, 26 August 2016; “‘Украинцы едят много, поэтому тратят на еду больше чем немцы'- Рева [“‘Ukrainians eat too much, which is why they spend more than Germans on food’ – Reva”], Censor.net, 11 August 2017.Hide Footnote

In 2016, this package of legislation saw the government revoke the IDP status and, by extension, the pensions of roughly 460,000 people; state expenditures on pensions for people from areas outside Kyiv’s control fell by over 50 per cent.[fn]“В ПФУ рассказали о выплатах пенсии переселенцам” [“Pension fund discusses pension payments for the displaced”], Donetskiye Novosti, 17 June 2018.Hide Footnote Rights groups say that along with the many IDPs residing at their pre-conflict homes in areas not controlled by Kyiv many were in fact resident in government-held areas and had fallen victim to surprise home visits, for which they were absent, or inaccurate official records on front-line crossings.[fn]While the order linking pensions to IDP status took effect in 2014, the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) did not begin issuing electronic travel permits to cross the line of separation until 2015. Rights groups argue that many had pensions cut as a result of SSU records showing they had not received permits since the new system took effect – and that this group of people included pensioners who were residing in government-controlled territory and had not crossed the line recently. See Anton Gorodetsky, “Казки від уряду: платити не можна кидати” [“Fairytales from the government: we can’t abandon you – or pay you”], Donbas SOS, 18 April 2018.Hide Footnote

Many say this situation could have been avoided had the government taken greater pains to adhere to international commitments and Ukrainian laws.

The number of IDPs receiving pensions declined further in 2017, and continued to fall in the first six months of 2018.[fn]Алла Котляр, “Невыплата пенсий как символ лицемерия государства” [Alla Kotlyar, “Non-payment of pensions as a symbol of government hypocrisy”], Zerkalo Tyzhnia, 7 July 2018.Hide Footnote Officially, as of May 2018 650,400 residents of uncontrolled territories were not receiving pensions because they had failed to register as IDPs, returned home after receiving IDP status, left Ukraine or died.[fn]See “В ПФУ рассказали о выплатах пенсии переселенцам” [“Pension fund discusses pension payments for the displaced”], Donetskiye Novosti, 17 June 2018.Hide Footnote This number is over half of the 1,278,200 pensioners who were, as of August 2014, registered in areas now outside government control. In an indication of how crucial many consider their pensions to be, roughly 1.2 million have appealed to authorities at some point during the conflict to get suspended pensions resumed; some of these have had payments restored through court proceedings.[fn]Kotlyar, “Non-payment of pensions”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Many say this situation could have been avoided had the government taken greater pains to adhere to international commitments and Ukrainian laws. In June 2016, following the order’s adoption, the Ministry for Social Policy set up a working group, consisting of representatives of the Ministry for Temporarily Occupied Territories, the Luhansk regional government, Kyiv city social services and domestic legal protection organisations, which held four meetings to discuss potential amendments to the order.

In August 2016, these legal support organisations published an open letter to Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman, stating that the ministry had heeded neither their concerns nor those of the regional government.[fn]“Звернення громадських организацій з приводу розробки змін до деяких постанов Кабінету Міністрів України, що стосуються реалізації прав внутрішньо переміщених осіб” [“Appeal by civic organisations regarding the development of amendments to some resolutions by the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine concerning the rights of internally-displaced persons”], available at http://www.donbasssos.org/wgminsoc_220816.Hide Footnote They argued further that both the order’s procedures and the practice of linking pensions to IDP status contradicted national law and international legal precedent.[fn]“Пропозиції до проекту постанови Кабінету Міністрів України ‘Деякі питання здійснення соціальних виплат внутрішньо переміщеним особам’”, available at http://www.donbasssos.org/wgminsoc_220816.Hide Footnote Ukrainian law specifies that citizens are entitled to their pensions regardless of their physical location. In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights found in favour of a Ukrainian citizen whose pension had been terminated after he took up residence abroad, declaring that the government had violated Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, on non-discrimination, as well as Article 1 of Protocol 1, on enjoyment of property rights.[fn]See European Court of Human Rights, Case of Pichkur v. Ukraine (Application no. 10441/06) Judgment, Strasbourg, 7 November 2013.Hide Footnote

International actors proceeded to echo this position in their dealings with the government, with mixed reactions. In early 2017, responding to numerous UN exhortations to renew pension payments for residents of uncontrolled areas, the social policy minister commented that he had “never seen such brazen interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs”. Many residents of uncontrolled areas, he went on to say, “receive two pensions – ours and ‘theirs’. This isn’t a secret to anyone but our friends at the UN”.[fn]“Хай Путіну виcтавляють претензії – міністр відповів на закиди про невиплату пенсій в ОРДЛО” [“Minister responds to accusations about non-payment of pensions in the occupied territories: let them address their complaints to Putin”], Radio Svoboda, 6 February 2017.Hide Footnote His position is that of the Cabinet of Ministers overall – that there is no way to de-link pensions from IDP status as long as Ukraine lacks control over financial transactions in uncontrolled territories, which it will until Russia fulfils its Minsk obligations.[fn]Crisis Group discussions, Donetsk Oblast Administration, Kramatorsk, July 2018; Ministry of Internal Affairs staff, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote Reva has promised that once Kyiv regains control of these areas, the pension fund’s debts to residents will be repaid in full, though an April 2018 government decree called for a separate, still unclear procedure for repaying debts to IDP pensioners.[fn]“Андрій Рева: Одразу після звільнення окупованих територій місцеве населення отримує пенсії за весь період з початку припинення виплат” [“Andriy Reva: Immediately after liberation of the occupied territories, the local population will receive their pensions for the entire period following cessation of payments”], Ministry of Social Policy, 2 March 2018;
Зміни, що вносяться до постанови Кабінету Міністрів України від 8 червня 2016 р. No. 365 [Amendments to Cabinet of Ministers Decree No. 365 of 8 April 2016], Cabinet of Ministers Decree N0. 335, 25 April 2018.Hide Footnote

Some independent observers share the government’s stance.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, International Renaissance Foundation, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote Yet a majority of leading domestic and international legal and humanitarian workers, as well as many officials, say pension renewal is not only a legal imperative but also an achievable – and increasingly unavoidable – task. In May 2018, Ukraine’s Supreme Court decided in favour of a plaintiff who had sued to reinstate her pension after she had moved back to her home in the uncontrolled areas, losing her IDP status. Echoing arguments by legal aid groups, the court determined that the residence checks foreseen by Order 365 contradicted the Ukrainian constitution, national legislation on pension provision, the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Social Charter and the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, as well as legal precedent from the European Court and Ukraine’s Constitutional Court.[fn]Supreme Court of Ukraine, Рішення іменем України У зразкові справі про припинення виплати пенсії внутрішньо переміщеній особи [Judgment of Ukraine in the model case on cessation of pension payments to internally displaced persons], 3 May 2018, Kyiv, case No. 805/42/18, proceeding No. Pz/9901/20/18, http://reyestr.court.gov.ua/Review/73869341.Hide Footnote The Supreme Court upheld the decision in September; that judgment will now provide a legal blueprint for the thousands of similar cases on file.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Right to Protection staff, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote

Legal experts say the verdict leaves Kyiv with no choice but to pass legislation de-linking pension eligibility from IDP status. Some are hopeful that the decision could revive a draft law that has been languishing in parliament since July 2017.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Daria Tolkach, Right to Protection, Kyiv, September 2018; International humanitarian worker, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote Draft 6692, submitted by a cross-party group of deputies, would guarantee conflict-affected citizens’ right to receive pensions on government-controlled territory regardless of IDP status or place of permanent residence, obligate the pension fund to locate citizens’ pension records electronically in cases where citizens have lost hard copies of necessary documents, and remove all limitations on the state’s obligation to reimburse people for pensions that have gone unpaid for any amount of time. For citizens who are too immobile to travel to government-controlled territory, the law foresees a procedure allowing them to designate a trustee to claim pensions on their behalf.[fn]“Проект Закону про внесення змін до деяких законів України щодо права на отримання пенсій окремим категоріям громадян” [Draft law on amendments to certain laws of Ukraine on the rights of individual categories of citizens to receive pensions], Draft 6692, registered 12 July 2017. A potential alternative or complement to the trustee system would be for the International Committee of the Red Cross to distribute pensions in areas outside government control. The Red Cross presented a proposal for such a procedure to the Trilateral Contact Group’s working group on economic issues in Minsk in April 2018, but it has yet to be endorsed.Hide Footnote

Still, large obstacles remain in the way of bringing legislation and practice into line with the court’s verdict. Faced with questions about prospects for renewing pensions for residents of uncontrolled areas, officials regularly respond that the pension fund faces a deficit – roughly $5 billion – and is financed through the state budget. Asked what was behind resistance to Draft 6692, one prominent official replied simply, “money”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote Yet advocates of the law insist that lack of money is hardly an argument against it, since the government takes pains to make budgetary funds available for other, arguably less socially vulnerable groups such as veterans of the Afghan war and their families.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Daria Tolkach, Right to Protection, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote A policymaker with intimate knowledge of pension policy characterised the gridlock on the issue as largely the product of financial woes, but also of a lack of political will to confront these difficulties. While she said she believed Kyiv had both a moral and legal duty to pay pensions to residents of the conflict zone, she expressed doubt that “any changes will be made under the current government”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ministerial official, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote

The political inertia on the issue may come partly from polarisation and bias. On one hand, powerful sections of the political establishment are inclined to imply, usually behind closed doors, that Ukraine, with all its problems, should not prioritise a population whose economic productivity and patriotism they consider questionable.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, head of parliamentary faction, Kyiv, September 2017; deputy minister, Kyiv, March 2018.Hide Footnote This view is evident, to a greater or lesser extent, within sections of that establishment that bill themselves as patriotic and pro-Western, and arguably contains echoes of a line that has circulated in some Ukrainian media since 2014 – a twentieth-century Ukrainian poet’s assertion that without Donbas and its population of “sausage-eaters … there will be a few million less of us, but we’ll be a nation”.[fn]See “Отрежьте Донбасс, это раковая опухоль” [“Cut Donbas off, it’s a cancerous growth”], Publichnye Lyudi, 28 September 2017. The poet’s epithet for Donbas residents was kolbasny, a term without a precise English translation that literally means “salami-like”. It is pejorative, implying vulgar manners and taste. In English, those who espouse the view that Kyiv should disregard Donbas tend to describe its residents in less colourful language – often simply as “pro-Russian”. See, for example, Alexander Motyl, “Kiev should give up on the Donbass”, Foreign Policy, 2 February 2017.Hide Footnote

Inaction on pensions will only hurt Ukraine’s long-term interests.

A Kyiv official with a human rights mandate said many conflict-affected citizens suffer from what she called a “gimme, gimme” mentality.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government ministry officials, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote A young member of the ruling coalition and advocate of EU integration, despite lamenting the lack of effective government outreach to residents of areas outside its control, said the conflict had “allowed the better part of our people to come together and move the country forward”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, national parliamentarian from ruling coalition, Kyiv, March 2018.Hide Footnote Another parliamentarian from the ruling coalition said many residents of areas outside government control embodied the value system from which Ukraine was trying to escape – “the values of the Russian world, where everybody owes them something – their pension or something else”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, national parliamentarian from ruling coalition, Kyiv, March 2018. The “Russian world” – russkiy mir – is a concept predicated on linguistic, cultural and historical identity. It found embodiment in the Kremlin’s establishment in 2007 of a foundation of the same name, the mission of which is, in part, to reconnect “the Russian community abroad with their homeland”. Public discourse in Ukraine often uses the term ironically.Hide Footnote

Some outspoken individuals, including certain military or security personnel and civic activists providing funds and supplies for front-line troops, venture that those in areas outside government control are being justly punished for being collaborators – a term they extend to anyone who, in their view, did not actively oppose Russian intervention in their region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, youth activists, Kramatorsk, August 2017; military support volunteers, Kramatorsk, September 2017.Hide Footnote “They need to learn their lesson”, said one recipient of a presidential award for organising material aid for troops. “The memory of this suffering needs to become part of their bedtime stories, so that their descendants will grow up knowing that if they call out for Uncle Putin, things will be bad”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, military support volunteer and civic activist, Mariupol, May 2018.Hide Footnote

On the other side of the political spectrum, many of the most vocal supporters of pension renewal and more proactive outreach to conflict-affected citizens are broadly viewed as potential Kremlin colluders. Many are former allies of the former president, Viktor Yanukovych. Their support bases are mostly in south-eastern parts of the country adjacent to the conflict zone; this area saw unsuccessful insurgencies in 2014 that were backed in part by figures close to the Kremlin. These politicians have positioned themselves as guardians of people who they say have fallen victim to the state’s pursuit of elusive promises of European integration at the expense of peace, economic security and ties with Russia – a category in which they include Donbas pensioners. These officials are in many cases believed to have close links with Russian politicians and businessmen.[fn]For example, the Opposition Bloc’s Natalia Korolevska, who has said Kyiv’s pension policies toward Donbas constitute “a crime against its own people”, has been investigated by Ukraine’s Prosecutor General for allegedly providing funds to Ihor Plotnitskyi, the former leader of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. She herself has ridiculed the prosecutor’s claims. See “Генпрокуратура подозревает Королевскую в финансировании терроризма” [“Prosecutor General suspects Korolevska of financing terrorism”], Khvylya, 5 January 2015; “Наталья Королевская: правительство продолжает незаконно лишать украинцев пенсий” [“Natalia Korolevska: the government is continuing to illegally deprive Ukrainians of their pensions”], Opposition Bloc, 14 June 2017. Several members of the Opposition Bloc and affiliated parties admit ties with Russian business and political figures, but deny that these links influence their political positions. The clearest example of this phenomenon is Minsk envoy Viktor Medvedchuk, whose daughter is Putin’s goddaughter. See Oliver Carrol, “The return of the godfather: how Putin’s best friend in Ukraine is staging an improbable comeback”, The Independent, 30 August 2018.Hide Footnote

These circumstances give some members of the political establishment grounds, or at least a pretext, to frame a wide range of public discourse on the rights of conflict-affected Ukrainian citizens as a challenge to Ukraine’s national interests, rather than an inherent aspect of them. Several officials dismissed Draft 6692 as an attempt at sabotage by pro-Russian agents, aimed at getting Kyiv to foot the bill for Russia’s occupation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former national defence adviser, Kyiv, March and July 2018; Donetsk civil-military administration, Kramatorsk, July 2018.Hide Footnote Some civil society advocates for conflict-affected citizens’ rights complain that people whose patriotism they question are hijacking their talking points.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, IDP rights activist, Sievierodonetsk, September 2017; civic activist, Lviv, May 2018; freelance journalist based in Donetsk, Kyiv, May 2018; freelance journalist covering conflict, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote

Yet inaction on pensions will only hurt Ukraine’s long-term interests. Kyiv’s limits on pension access have already prompted or exacerbated discontent with the state among many conflict-affected citizens. In an August 2016 report, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine stated that some IDPs considered the government’s recent measures “a form of collective punishment”.[fn]UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 16 May to 15 August 2016, p. 30.Hide Footnote Pensioners often speak in bitter terms about interrupted payments: “We’ve worked for Ukraine our whole lives”, some say.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, pensioners, Sievierovdonetsk, December 2017.Hide Footnote Younger residents of uncontrolled territories, including some vehemently opposed to the Kremlin-backed armed groups, voice anger at what they see as their state’s betrayal of older community members.[fn]Crisis Group discussions, Olga Gvozdyova, Donbas SOS, Kyiv, September 2017; freelance journalist based in Donetsk, Kyiv, April 2018.Hide Footnote

Some civil society members also argue that pension policies have tainted Ukrainian society’s views of conflict-affected citizens, although public opinion data have shown a majority of Ukrainians are in favour of the state paying these pensions.[fn]See “Большинство украинцев поддерживают выплату пенсий жителям Донецка и Луганска” [“A majority of Ukrainians support paying pensions to residents of Donetsk and Luhansk”], Novosti Donbasa, 27 June 2018.Hide Footnote A psychosocial worker, after expressing anger at Russia’s intervention in Donbas, said Kyiv’s pension policies were “inciting hatred” toward residents of uncontrolled areas by painting them as potential criminals or collaborators.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, psychosocial worker, Lysychansk, December 2017.Hide Footnote An IDP rights activist has written that these policies have allowed Kyiv to “economise on the most socially vulnerable segments of society in the short term, and to leave Ukrainians with the long-term impression that people fleeing war have somehow been ‘tricking the state’”.[fn]Gorodetsky, “Fairytales from the government”, op. cit.Hide Footnote In more pragmatic terms, failure to ensure access to pensions now could risk a slew of lawsuits at the European Court of Human Rights, which legal experts say will almost certainly decide in most plaintiffs’ favour given legal precedent. This outcome would ultimately be costlier for Ukraine, as the European Court would likely award extra damages for mental or physical suffering.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Daria Tolkach, Right to Protection, Kyiv, September 2018; Thomas Hill, Norwegian Refugee Council, Kyiv, September 2018. See reference to non-pecuniary damage in Article 41 of the European Convention on Human Rights, “Just satisfaction”, at https://www.coe.int/en/web/execution/article-41.Hide Footnote

B. Crossing the Contact Line

The lack of durable solutions for IDPs, on one hand, and many Ukrainians’ eagerness to retain ties on both sides of the contact line due to social and financial needs, on the other, mean that an average of one million individual crossings occur each month. This number is a significant increase over 2016, when the average monthly rate was about 700,000 crossings, which was in turn a doubling of the 2015 rate.[fn]UN OCHA, 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan, op. cit.; “Twelve million people crossed the line of contact in 2017”, Foundation 101, 27 February 2018.Hide Footnote

The large number of crossings should be an opportunity for Ukrainian authorities to show residents of areas outside their control that their country is efficient and rights-oriented, a country fighting for, not against them. As things stand, conditions at Kyiv-controlled crossing points vary greatly – from smooth and even friendly, in the case of the lightly travelled Hnutove crossing, to degrading, in the case of the pedestrian-only crossing at Stanytsia Luhanska, the only one in Luhansk region, which consists of precarious wooden walkways over a river that the disproportionately elderly travellers typically have to wait hours to clamber across. At even the best-run crossing points, landmines, as well as shooting and shelling by forces on either side, kill or injure civilians. Long waiting times, often in extreme cold or heat, frequently lead to hospitalisation or death.[fn]In January 2018, a pensioner died when a shell hit his bus as he was preparing to enter Kyiv’s section of Donetsk region. In December 2016, a man died after being hit by gunfire at the Kyiv-controlled Maiorsk checkpoint in Donetsk. See OSCE, “Spot Report by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine: Shelling in Olenivka”, 28 April 2016. Ukrainian border police called the incident a separatist “provocation”; according to social media rumours a Ukrainian Army officer shot the man by accident. “Украина и сепаратисты обвиняют друг друга в расстреле мирных жителей на блок-посту ‘Майорск’” [“Ukraine and separatists accuse each other of shooting civilians at Maiorsk checkpoint”], Strana, 14 December 2016. This past April four civilians died and eight received injuries from 122mm mortar fire at the same crossing point, where they were sleeping in their cars waiting for it to open. A UN report attributed the shelling to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, although neither side has claimed responsibility. Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 15 February-16 May 2018, p. 11. See the monthly “Crossing the line of contactreports from Right to Protection, available at http://vpl.com.ua/uk.Hide Footnote Aid agencies make most improvements to facilities. Stories abound of border personnel chiding pensioners for their choice to continue travelling back and forth across the line rather than “deciding which side they’re on already”.[fn]The quote is from a Crisis Group conversation with a border policeman at Novotroitske crossing, May 2018. Crisis Group interviews, psycho-social worker, Lysychansk, December 2017; pensioners, Stanytsia Luhanska, December 2017; independent researcher, Stanytsia Luhanska, April 2018; see also Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 16 August-15 November 2017, pp. 23, 30.Hide Footnote

Authorities insist that they must strike a balance in outfitting the crossing points: they should be safe and comfortable, but devoid of the durable infrastructure that might signal to commuters that the line is any kind of border.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Donetsk Region Civil-Military Administration official, July 2018.Hide Footnote They also argue that long waiting times are largely the rebels’ fault – a claim that humanitarian workers as well as ordinary residents back up: they say facilities on the other side of the line are direly under-equipped and often badly run – while also noting that de facto authorities, unlike Kyiv, fail to advertise the role of humanitarian responders in providing services there.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Right to Protection staff, Novotroitske/Mariupol, May 2018; OSCE Special Monitoring Mission monitors, Maiorsk, July 2018.Hide Footnote Yet these issues should not stop Kyiv from improving citizens’ lives, and citizens’ perceptions of their government, where possible.

The political will to do so appears absent on both sides. Plans to open a new crossing in the fall of 2017 along the 150km stretch of front line in Luhansk region, which would reduce overcrowding at Stanytsia Luhanska, fell through when de facto authorities failed to construct their facility.[fn]Crisis Group interview, OSCE SMM member, December 2017.Hide Footnote Members of the Luhansk People’s Republic said they could not open their side of the crossing due to landmines as well as ceasefire violations by Kyiv; one Kyiv official said this failure showed that Moscow wanted people to be stuck with the pedestrian-only crossing “so that everybody can see how terrible Ukraine is”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yuriy Hrymchak, deputy minister for temporarily occupied territories, Kyiv, 26 March 2018.Hide Footnote Yet humanitarian workers also argued that Kyiv’s attitude toward pensioners residing in uncontrolled territories could play a role in the continued challenges of crossing in Luhansk region.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international security expert, Bakhmut, May 2018; international aid worker, Sievierodonetsk, May 2018.Hide Footnote

The views of some officials about those crossing the line indeed indicate prejudice. A deputy minister, for example, said in July that pensioners she had met at Stanytsia Luhanska “unfortunately sort of like the conflict” as it allowed them to receive two pensions. She argued this demographic had thus become an obstacle to conflict resolution – demonstrating a degree of cynicism for which no one is able to offer any factual basis.[fn]Crisis Group interview, national official, Kyiv, July 2018.Hide Footnote In the words of a pensioner quoted in a recent UN report, if entering government-held territory were not a requirement for receiving pensions, “we would still go there … but to meet with relatives, to purchase food, not to be humiliated”.[fn]Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, November 2017-February 2018, p. 23.Hide Footnote Authorities would do better to view those crossing as potential allies in peacebuilding and to treat them accordingly: as one international security expert put it, “these are the people who do not accept the division of their communities”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security expert, Kyiv, July 2018.Hide Footnote

C. The 2017 Trade Blockade

The March 2017 cessation of trade across the line of contact has deepened the rift between areas outside Kyiv’s control and the rest of Ukraine – and, to a lesser degree, between Kyiv and government-controlled Donbas. Between 2014 and 2017, Kyiv facilitated movement of commodities on the grounds that coal from areas outside its control was vital to energy security, while the entities producing it – largely owned by Donetsk city oligarchs who had relocated to Kyiv – were registered in government-controlled areas and employed thousands on both sides. But in January 2017, a pro-Kyiv vigilante group blocked rail and road arteries to prevent movement of goods across the contact line or, as they called it, “trade in blood”. When police attempts to break up the blockade failed, DPR members seized Kyiv-registered businesses and required them to “re-register” under their jurisdiction.[fn]See “Главари ‘Л/ДНР’ угрожают отобрать украинские предприятия из-за блокады” [“‘People’s Republic’ warlords threaten to seize Ukrainian enterprises due to blockade”], Unian, 27 February 2017.Hide Footnote On 15 March, President Petro Poroshenko announced his reluctant legalisation of the blockade, humanitarian shipments excepted.

The number of food-insecure residents in the region doubled in 2017, rising to over a million.

While Poroshenko and government officials warned the move would ravage the economy, that has not transpired. Instead, the ill effects have been local, making the bad humanitarian situation in Donbas worse. The number of food-insecure residents in the region doubled in 2017, rising to over a million. Much of the increase occurred after the blockade, mostly in parts of Donetsk region outside government control, due partly to reduced aid distribution. Aid from local and international humanitarian actors decreased by nearly half between February and March, largely due to the expulsion of the charitable fund of Rinat Akhmetov, one of the Kyiv-allied oligarchs whose assets the DPR had seized.[fn]Food and Security Livelihoods Cluster Meeting Minutes, 1 March 2018, 10:00, Sievierodonetsk, p. 3; Crisis Group correspondence, cluster coordinator, April 2018.Hide Footnote It was also a result of higher unemployment and lower income due in part to the closure or insolvency of factories that had depended on trade with Kyiv-controlled areas.

Aid organisations report that households in areas outside Kyiv’s control increasingly have to cut food spending to cover other expenses due to falling income.[fn]A late 2017 survey of front-line households on both sides of the line of separation found that the average household in Kyiv-controlled areas had 0.9 employed residents, while households in separatist areas had an average of 0.7 employed members. Nearly 12 per cent of households in separatist-held areas and 5 per cent in Kyiv-controlled areas reported loss of employment within the past year; 25 and 13 per cent, respectively, reported reduced income, including due to salary arrears resulting from industrial enterprises becoming insolvent. Ukraine Food Security and Livelihoods Cluster, Joint Food Security Assessment, September 2017, p. 6.Hide Footnote Locals also cite reduced access to foodstuffs produced elsewhere in Ukraine, many of them cheaper and higher-quality than their Russian and Belarusian replacements.[fn]Crisis Group interview, OSCE Special Monitoring Mission officers, August 2017; Ukraine Food Security and Livelihoods Cluster, op. cit., p. 4; Crisis Group interviews, Donetsk city residents, October 2017; Donetsk city researcher, January 2018. Ukrainian food items are still available in some stores thanks to profitable smuggling businesses that the blockade has given birth to, but prices have risen considerably. See “Trade with Russian-occupied Donbas persists, despite blockade”, Kyiv Post, 29 November 2017.Hide Footnote

The deepening humanitarian crisis has disproven a key claim of blockade supporters – that Russia and international organisations would fill any gap in supply that the blockade caused. The World Food Programme (WFP) ceased operations in Ukraine in February 2018, citing limited financial resources, poor access to areas outside Kyiv’s control and Ukraine’s status as a food-exporting nation.[fn]Food from Russia, meanwhile, is widely alleged to be sold at marked-up rates by local rebel leaders and their associates, putting it out of reach for much of the population.[fn]Crisis Group interview, OSCE monitor, Sievierodonetsk, December 2017; Crisis Group discussions, Donetsk-based researcher, January-March 2018.Hide FootnoteIn April 2018, a Moscow-based analyst close to those involved in talks in Minsk rebuffed reports of food insecurity, saying such things were "impossible to measure".[fn]Crisis Group discussion, political expert, Moscow, April 2018.  Hide Footnote

Some of the blockade’s defenders argue that weakening the economies in areas outside Kyiv’s control will hasten the entities’ collapse and the territories’ return to Ukraine.[fn]See, for example, the comments by National Security and Defence Council head Oleksandr Turchynov, “Убийцы украинцев не спрячутся ни в Донецке, ни в РФ. Пусть дрожат и ждут” [“The killers of Ukrainians can’t hide in Donetsk or in the Russian Federation: Let them tremble and wait”], Liga.net, 17 February 2017.Hide Footnote On this front, evidence is mixed. Residents of parts of Donetsk region outside government control say mass unemployment, which the blockade exacerbates, provokes deep public dissatisfaction.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Donetsk and Luhansk city residents, October-December 2017.Hide Footnote A possible uptick in early 2018 of detention of private citizens who post about unemployment on social media suggests that these sentiments are widespread enough to worry the de facto authorities.[fn]Crisis Group discussions, Donetsk-based researcher, January-March 2018.Hide Footnote Yet accounts from factory workers laid off after the blockade took effect imply that economic hardship has strengthened a siege mentality in these areas. While not necessarily feeding support for de facto leaders, whose economic policy is broadly considered inadequate, this mentality may reinforce some people’s enthusiasm for separation from Ukraine.[fn]Crisis Group discussion, residents of Antratsyt (Luhansk region, outside government control), December 2017.Hide Footnote

In sum, Kyiv should take steps to lift the blockade and negotiate the return of Ukrainian-registered businesses to territories beyond its control: while Moscow shares responsibility for the misery of those living in these areas, Kyiv’s blockade only increases its own share of that – and feeds a myth that will become reality. One official argued that such negotiations will now be exceedingly difficult given the opaque inner workings of the entities that now control these assets.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Heorhiy Tuka, deputy minister for temporarily occupied territories and internally displaced persons, Kyiv, September 2018.Hide Footnote If true, this should serve as a cautionary tale: bridges, once burned, can be hard to repair.

D. Life on Kyiv’s Front Line

Up to 200,000 people live within 10km of Kyiv’s front line, governed by civil-military administrations, dependent on humanitarian aid and exposed to artillery and small-arms fire. Some remain out of fear of losing their houses to military use, for which there are no compensation procedures in place. Others lack the funds to relocate due to a dearth of affordable alternative housing and, in some cases, a lack of IDP subsidies.[fn]These are limited to settlements outside government control, the official list of which omits some insecure areas where government services do not function. See “Кабінет Міністрів України, Постанова від 1 жовтня”, 2014 р. N°509, Київ [Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, Order N°509 of 1 October 2014, Kyiv]”; “‘50 на 50’ – или есть ли шанс получить жилье?” [“‘50-50’ – or, do we have a chance of getting housing?’”], Donbass SOS, 12 December 2017; Crisis Group interviews, international aid worker, Sievierodonetsk; IDP rights advocate, Sievierodonetsk; human rights advocate, Kramatorsk, August 2017; Right to Protection staff, Kyiv, April 2018.Hide Footnote Still others consider it their duty to stay behind and help their older or more vulnerable neighbours, or continue teaching at half-empty schools, or otherwise try to keep some vestige of their communities alive.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, schoolteachers, Avdiivka, September 2017; community activist, town head, municipal education official, Shchastia, December 2017; pensioners, Stanytsia Luhanska, December 2017; pensioner, Nyzhnoteple, December 2017; Opytne resident and humanitarian worker, Avdiivka, May 2018. See also Crisis Group Europe Briefing N°81, Ukraine: The Line, 18 July 2016.Hide Footnote

Civilians’ relations with locally stationed troops and security officials have greatly improved since the low point of 2015, when there were widespread reports of pillage, sexual violence and other ill treatment by members of volunteer battalions, which they themselves deny. Some, like the infamous Tornado battalion, have been dissolved. In 2017, in a sign of Kyiv’s willingness to hold some battalion members accountable for abuses, twelve former Tornado members were convicted of offenses including beatings, torture and sexual assault, committed in 2015, and given sentences ranging from suspended five-year terms to eleven years.[fn]“In Ukraine, both sides to appeal verdicts in Tornado battalion case”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 10 April 2017. For discussion of evidence of the defendants’ alleged guilt, see UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 16 February to May 2017, p. 20. The defence has appealed the April 2017 verdict, calling for charges to be dropped.Hide Footnote Other volunteer groups have been formally incorporated into the National Guard and other regular Ukrainian forces, but some still operate their own firing ranges and wear their own insignia.[fn]Crisis Group observations, September-December 2017.Hide Footnote Villagers often report friendly or at least civil relations with soldiers, including members of former volunteer units, who bring food, fuel and treats for children.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, rights advocate, Kramatorsk, August 2017; international organisation representative, Sievierodonetsk, August 2017; schoolteachers, Avdiivka, September-October 2017; pensioner, Ocheretyne, October 2017.Hide Footnote

The day-to-day interests of civilians and soldiers remain largely at odds due to in-adequate civilian protection practices.

Yet the day-to-day interests of civilians and soldiers remain largely at odds due to inadequate civilian protection practices. Anecdotes circulate of soldiers risking their lives to shield civilians from incoming fire or offering civilians free, safe accommodation elsewhere.[fn]Crisis Group interview, humanitarian worker and local resident, Avdiivka, May 2018.Hide Footnote Yet individual acts of kindness and heroism are a poor substitute for policy squarely aimed at ensuring the safety of inhabitants. Some international observers say the shift to a more streamlined command structure has brought a palpable new enthusiasm, at least rhetorical, for international humanitarian law, though it remains to be seen whether a deeper practical shift is afoot.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international security expert, Mariupol, May 2018.Hide Footnote

For a variety of reasons, Kyiv less frequently locates military objectives within or near densely populated areas than the Kremlin-backed armed groups, residents and researchers aver that it nonetheless does so. Military spokespersons and commanders insist that troops are stationed only outside population centres, but civilians often complain that military positions are hundreds of metres from homes and schools – close enough that an 122mm Grad rocket fired toward one of these positions from the other side could easily hit them instead.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Civil Military Cooperation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine representatives, Kramatorsk, July 2018; international organisation representatives, Sievierodonetsk, December 2017, Mariupol, May 2018, Sievierodonetsk, May 2018, Avdiivka, May 2018; independent researcher, Zaitseve, June 2018; schoolmaster, Novoluhanske, July 2018. See also the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine’s quarterly reports, 2016-2018.Hide Footnote

In some areas of intense fighting, including those where Ukrainian troops are making small territorial gains, there may be tens, not hundreds, of metres between soldiers and the remaining civilians. In February 2018, in the village of Travneve in Luhansk region, a front-line settlement controlled by Ukrainian forces since the preceding December, a researcher reported seeing members of the Donbas Battalion, which has been incorporated into the National Guard, positioned next door to inhabited houses on a residential street and hand-firing mortars.[fn]Observation by independent researcher, Travneve, February 2018. Researcher provided video footage of the event. Hide Footnote In May 2018, aid workers in Avdiivka said troops in nearby front-line villages were maintaining more distance from civilians than in previous years – largely because there were fewer civilian objects and residents left. Yet these increases are often a matter of metres – not enough to significantly reduce the risk of civilians suffering from incoming fire.[fn]Crisis Group interview, aid workers, Avdiivka, May 2018.Hide Footnote

The February 2018 addition of new settlements to the list of places whose residents are eligible for subsidies that could aid in relocation is a positive but inadequate step when it comes to civilian protection: international humanitarian law calls on parties to avoid placing military personnel and equipment in densely populated areas and, should this prove unfeasible, take all possible measures to evacuate civilians.[fn]See International Committee of the Red Cross, International Humanitarian Law Database, Customary IHL, Rule 23, “Each party to the conflict must, to the extent feasible, avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas”, at https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule23; and Rule 24, “Each party to the conflict must, to the extent feasible, remove civilian persons or objects under its control from the vicinity of military objectives”, at https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule24.Hide Footnote It does not oblige civilians to volunteer to leave their homes.

Freedom of movement is another concern for front-line dwellers. While Ukrainian legislation provides for the right of those living within 5km of the front line to cross without obtaining official travel permits, troops may block crossings with or without warning. In some cases, these closures complicate access to schools, hospitals, workplaces and shops for residents whose closest population centres are on the other side of the line. Closures also impede access to services in government-controlled areas: ambulances, repair technicians and humanitarian workers have trouble reaching many front-line villages that are closed to non-military traffic.[fn]See Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, November 2017-February 2018, p. 19.Hide Footnote

The lack of a clear mechanism for compensating civilians for property damaged, destroyed or appropriated for military purposes also feeds discontent.[fn]According to the UN, 40,000 civilian houses had been damaged or destroyed by hostilities by the end of 2017, not counting those damaged by military use. UN OCHA, 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan, op. cit., p. 9. See also “People in eastern Ukraine living without housing or compensation”, Norwegian Refugee Council, 26 September 2017; Crisis Group interview, Yulia Naumenko, lawyer with Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, April 2018; Crisis Group interview, civic activist, Kurakhove, May 2018.Hide Footnote To date, plaintiffs have filed over 150 court cases concerning property damaged by hostilities. Judges have found in the plaintiff’s favour in dozens of these cases, but no one has yet received any reimbursements; higher courts often overturn verdicts citing lack of government funds or the absence of a legal mechanism for compensation. Parliamentarians have introduced several bills outlining such procedures, but the votes are repeatedly pushed back. Legal experts say there is no political will to pass these measures, with many officials viewing them as a luxury the country cannot afford.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yulia Naumenko, lawyer with Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, April 2018.Hide Footnote

The situation for civilians whose homes have been appropriated by the military is even more complex than for those whose property has been damaged by live fire: the law stipulates that the military must supply homeowners with documentation certifying confiscation of property so that they can receive compensation – but in practice they provide no such papers nor do legal procedures exist for them to do so. The policy gaps risk leaving many dependent on international aid for years to come.[fn]Norwegian Refugee Council, op. cit.Hide Footnote As with holes in pension provision, these gaps could also lead to future headaches for Kyiv in the form of European Court of Human Rights cases, where verdicts would likely call for compensating moral as well as material damages.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Yulia Naumenko, lawyer with Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, April 2018.Hide Footnote The government should promptly pass laws ensuring compensation for those affected – with support from the donor community as needed.

Residents of areas near the front line are also at risk of ill treatment at the hands of the police and state security services, widespread allegations of which persist.[fn]See, for example, UN Human Rights Council, “UN expert says persistent claims of torture and impunity in Ukraine”, 11 June 2018; Amnesty International, Ukraine 2017/2018 (online); U.S. Department of State, Ukraine 2017 Human Rights Report (online).Hide Footnote “The fact that there could be a war here was the first shock for us”, a civil servant in a front-line village said, speaking on condition of anonymity, “but the second shock was when our security services started coming to our homes at night”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil servant, Luhansk region, December 2017.Hide Footnote Human rights monitors from the UN as well as several domestic humanitarian and legal protection organisations note that while the rate and severity of illegal detentions has decreased since 2015, Security Service officers continue to enjoy impunity for such acts, which can be prompted by suspicions of collaboration with the rebels – or by conversations among civilians about troop movements or heavy weapons spotted in their towns.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights staff, Kramatorsk, August 2017; civil servant, Luhansk region, December 2017; humanitarian aid worker and resident, Avdiivka, May 2018; Maryinka native, Kurakhove, May 2018.Hide Footnote Residents of areas outside government control face a double threat in that Security Service officers may pressure them to become informants, placing them at serious risk of ill treatment by the Russian-backed armed formations upon their return home.[fn]Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine, 16 August-15 November 2017, p. 25; Crisis Group correspondence, Donetsk-based independent researcher, April 2018.Hide Footnote

Some military and security personnel in front-line areas, including among civil-military authorities, say they are suspicious of many locals’ loyalties – while often offering shaky evidence for their claims. “We’re constantly on edge because most of the population here is for the other side [the Russian-backed armed formations]”, said one Security Service member, “and they’re waiting for [those forces] to come and liberate them”. Asked what threat the town’s largely elderly population posed, he said they could be spying.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Stanytsia Luhanska, December 2017.Hide Footnote A commander in the Donbas Battalion described the civilians of Travneve as separatists in a February 2018 public Facebook post, because the elderly women requested access to a market across the contact line in DPR-controlled Horlivka, where they hoped to sell some of the food soldiers had brought them. “We don’t give an eff about them”, he wrote.[fn]Vyacheslav Vlasenko Facebook post, 27 February 2018, https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=1794897994145785&id=100008768047763. An independent researcher who spent time with the battalion described the commander as well respected within the forces. Crisis Group correspondence, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Raising troops’ morale, improving their psychological care and training them in community outreach techniques could improve relations and have positive knock-on effects upon civilian safety.

Ukrainian officers from the Joint Center for Control and Coordination, as well as Ukrainian Civil-Military Cooperation staff, were more positive about civilians but noted that their community outreach efforts focused on pre-adolescent children who had not yet been indelibly shaped by their parents’ “aggressive” and “pro-Russian views”. As evidence of the latter, they cited many children’s aversion to people in military uniform, saying this fear was the product of parents’ slander.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Joint Centre for Command and Control officers, Kramatorsk, September 2017; Crisis Group field observation with Kramatorsk Civil-Military Cooperation personnel, Donetsk region, October 2017.Hide Footnote They characterised many locals as deficient not only politically but socially, saying they “choose to sit in the village and receive aid”, or “sell themselves” or their children, rather than relocate.[fn]Crisis Group field observation with Kramatorsk Civil-Military Cooperation personnel, Donetsk region, October 2017.Hide Footnote

Raising troops’ morale, improving their psychological care and training them in community outreach techniques could not only improve relations between them and civilians, but also have positive knock-on effects upon civilian safety. Troops often complain that they are bored and “not allowed to work” – meaning, not permitted to fight as much as they would like to.[fn]Crisis Group interview, veterans’ rights expert, August 2018. In interviews in October 2017 and March 2018 respectively, a foreign military adviser and Ukrainian military journalist gave similar assessments.Hide Footnote In worst-case scenarios, researchers have observed soldiers using downtime to experiment with weapons within close range of civilians or to fire large-calibre weapons without permission.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, independent researcher, March 2018; Crisis Group interview, humanitarian worker and resident, Avdiivka, May 2018; Crisis Group interview, veterans’ rights expert, August 2018.Hide Footnote One demobilisation expert suggested that units could use downtime for community outreach purposes, to get a better sense of civilians’ safety and humanitarian needs and reduce the risk of low-level conflict between the two groups. Yet she added that given the military command’s apparent reluctance to confront issues of troop morale, her ideas belonged to “the realm of fantasy” – a characterisation other observers shared.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, independent researcher, March 2018; Crisis Group interview, veterans’ rights expert, August 2018.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group found no residents of government-controlled areas who identified as separatists, but also few who subscribed to the military and security officers’ ideas of patriotism. Many stated: “This isn’t our war”; almost all insisted that the conflict was not a battle of ideals but a convenient source of income for corrupt individuals on both sides. Few bore any animosity toward or harboured suspicion of residents of areas outside Kyiv’s control: “They didn’t want this war”. Several men expressed anger at suggestions that they ought to serve in the armed forces: “How am I supposed to go kill my neighbours?”; “I’ll never fight my own people”. A man from a front-line town where soldiers took over most homes told Crisis Group that Security Service officers “took me out to the field for a so-called conversation” and accused him of separatism in response to his request for compensation for himself and his neighbours. He said the experience had convinced him that “there isn’t really much of a difference between the two sides” in the conflict. “I’ll never be a separatist”, he insisted, “but my country is pushing me away”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community activists, Avdiivka, May 2018; psychosocial worker, Lysychansk, December 2017; community activist, Shchastia, December 2017; Antratsyt residents, Sievierodonetsk, December 2017; Luhansk city residents, Novoaidar, December 2017; Shchastia resident, Novoaidar, December 2017; Luhansk city resident, Starobilsk, December 2017; Marinka native and community activist, Kurakhove, May 2018; Donetsk city resident; Kyiv, April 2018; Donetsk city residents, Mariupol, May 2018.Hide Footnote

III. Public Opinion and the Future of Eastern Ukraine

The circumstances of the last few years have left many Donbas residents angry, or at least deeply disaffected, with those who purport, with such violence, to have their interests at heart. The same refrains come up again and again in everyday conversations with residents on both sides of the line: “This is just a game and we’re caught in the middle”; “I don’t care whether Russia takes us or Ukraine does – I just want this to be over”; “Nobody wants us”.[fn]Crisis Group conversations, aid workers/residents, Avdiivka, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Kyiv shows little appetite for engagement with these views. Officials offer a range of reasons why they consider them unimportant: they come from Russian and separatist propaganda, or innate anti-Ukrainianism; those who espouse them will see the light when exposed to Kyiv’s narrative of the conflict, or are so exhausted that they will accept whatever arrangement comes their way post-liberation, or will cross the eastern border and become Russia’s problem.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, September 2017; political analyst, Kyiv, September 2017; military expert, Kyiv, September 2017; civil-military official, Avdiivka, October 2017; opposition politician, Kyiv, March 2018; opposition politician, Kyiv, April 2018; state security operative, Sievierodonetsk, May 2018.Hide Footnote

Regardless of the merit of these arguments, Kyiv cannot afford to close its ears to conflict-affected citizens’ grievances if it wants to reintegrate these people peacefully and sustainably. If Moscow decides to loosen its grip on Donbas, many shell-shocked residents may indeed tolerate whatever Kyiv puts before them. But toleration is not the same as active buy-in. Many officials are fond of saying Donbas lacked active, progressive citizens before the war, which made the region susceptible to invasion.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, October 2017; parliamentarian from ruling coalition, Kyiv, March 2018; opposition parliamentarian, Kyiv, March 2018; government adviser, April 2018; patriotic activist Ruslan Skalun, Mariupol, May 2018.Hide Footnote This analysis is deeply questionable, but those who adhere to it must recognise the benefits of creating every condition for active citizenry in the region now.

Kyiv must ensure that the media it broadcasts treats civilians as real people with valid grievances rather than members of a passive herd.

The first step is for Kyiv to acknowledge that residents’ disillusionment stems – at least in part – from lived experience. For people in government-controlled front-line settlements, this experience includes seeing their country’s forces sometimes firing in the direction of their neighbours across the line, or firing from positions in their villages and thus exposing them to return fire. For those in areas outside Kyiv’s control, it includes suffering from shelling of civilian areas that Kyiv has taken inadequate steps to avoid, and seemingly endless hurdles to retaining rights conferred by Ukrainian citizenship. For all alike, it includes having their judgment, patriotism and fitness for polite society questioned after four years of misery that most other Ukrainians have not endured. Such feelings are not unanimous: many excuse Kyiv for its failures given the strength, covert approach and implausible denials of its opponent. Yet these feelings can be found across the social and political spectrum, in Kremlin sympathisers as well as in people who loathe and have suffered at the hands of the separatists and their Kremlin backers.

Kyiv can afford to, and should, acknowledge the validity of these grievances – and take immediate steps to address some of the key ones. Its priority must be to improve the safety and security of all civilians, and to reduce the extent of damage and displacement. It should restore pension payments for residents of areas outside its control, with international aid; if necessary, donors should provide funds expressly for this purpose. It should develop and activate a mechanism for compensating front-line dwellers for damaged or appropriated property, again, with targeted donor aid if necessary. It should pursue disengagement in the area of Stanytsia Luhanska to enable restoration of the bridge, while it negotiates opening of new crossing facilities, and prioritise affordable housing in IDP host communities. It needs to either offer front-line dwellers viable relocation options with full financial support or stop positioning soldiers in villages. It needs to make its troops conform to its insistence that they always fire defensively. It needs to pass laws that will facilitate reintegration by offering the credible prospect of amnesty.

Once it is armed with objective evidence of a changed approach toward its citizens in areas outside its control, Kyiv should broaden and deepen its communication with them by all feasible means. In July 2018, the Cabinet of Ministers adopted the Strategy for the Informational Reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk regions by 2020, which aims to expand access to Ukrainian television and radio in uncontrolled areas as well as front-line areas under government control where coverage is poor. This step is promising, but Kyiv must ensure that the media it broadcasts treats civilians as real people with valid grievances rather than members of a passive herd who, as one government document puts it, were “misled and ‘taken captive’ by Russian politics”.[fn]Стратегія інформаційної реінтеграції Донецької та Луганської областей, Cхвалено розпорядженням [Strategy for the informational reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts], Cabinet Ministry Order No. 539, 26 July 2018, p. 5.Hide Footnote

Media outreach should focus on three main issues: first, providing the clearest, most accurate information possible on how to get access to Ukrainian government benefits, acquire official documentation and, if residents choose, relocate to government-held areas. Kyiv should take extra care to tailor this outreach to the technical and physical limitations of the most vulnerable conflict-affected citizens, including those of restricted mobility, sight or hearing – something the July strategy makes note of. Secondly, it should, when data allows, report civilian casualties not only in Kyiv-held areas but on the other side of the contact line as well – without assigning blame, offering excuses or providing information that puts its own forces at risk: Kyiv needs to acknowledge, publicly and consistently, that it values civilians’ lives regardless of where they live. Thirdly, outreach needs to tackle the issue of amnesty, reassuring residents that its application will be wide-ranging enough to enable broad reconciliation but no less effective in securing justice for the conflict’s victims.

Outreach efforts ought to acknowledge that it is not only how Kyiv talks to people in Donbas that matters, but how it talks to the rest of the country and to its international partners about them. Kyiv has done an effective job advertising the bravery with which its troops have confronted Moscow’s military machine. It should now apply this same energy toward presenting and encouraging media to present a clear picture of life in the conflict zone, drawing attention to humanitarian needs on both sides of the line and shortages in aid funding – both to attract international attention and to show the region’s residents that they are a national priority.

IV. Conclusion

Ukraine faces overwhelming odds in its fight for its security and territorial integrity. It did not choose this fight, nor should it be blamed for being unprepared to wrestle with the legal, humanitarian and public relations fallout of the conflict: any of these challenges would have tested more economically and politically developed states. Yet Ukraine’s government needs to pause and ask how the alienation of millions of citizens will affect the country’s chances of peaceful reintegration – or the leadership’s stated goal of building an inclusive, rights-based political system that distinguishes Ukraine from the neighbour whose shadow it is trying to escape.

The evidence suggests that alienating conflict-affected Ukrainians will only make these goals more distant. When self-identified patriots living in areas outside Kyiv’s control wonder aloud whether the state views them as Ukrainians; or those in Kyiv-controlled front-line areas ask whether there is a fundamental difference in the behaviour of Ukrainian and Russian-backed forces; when people on both sides say the conflict has nothing to do with their interests or that nobody wants them as citizens – then there is a problem that is not exclusively of Moscow’s making. Convincing people in Donbas that Ukraine wants them – not just the territory on which they reside – will not guarantee peaceful or imminent reintegration, but it is a minimal condition that Kyiv can and should meet.

Brussels/Kyiv, 1 October 2018

Appendix A: Map of Eastern Ukraine

Map of Eastern Ukraine INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP / KO