icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Ukraine’s Unlucky Town Called Happiness
Ukraine’s Unlucky Town Called Happiness
Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine
Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine
Ukraine officers at Saint Catherine church in Schastia, eastern Ukraine, which was repaired after artillery fighting damaged part of the church's gate. CRISIS GROUP/Magdalena Grono

Ukraine’s Unlucky Town Called Happiness

As great powers debate Russia’s place in the world, its role in eastern Ukraine’s 2-1/2-year-old war, and the Minsk peace process to end it, ordinary people living along the front line in eastern Ukraine are just as worried about many of the local leaders’ Soviet-style habits of governance, corruption and patronage.

The small front-line town in eastern Ukraine is called Schastia, or Ukrainian for “Happiness”. Four grandmothers sit outside in the early autumn sun, fussing over tea and homemade pickles and singing old Slavic songs. The early October moment is filled with joy and serenity and golden light.

But a mere 20 meters away, between their communal pergola and their four-storey Soviet block of flats, a fresh artillery crater recalls the heavy shelling that took Schastia by surprise on 30 August. It killed their young neighbour as she ran to hide her son in the cellar. It also brings back memories: One of the four women had lost her daughter to a heart attack when bombs fell on the village in 2014, the year warfare broke out in eastern Ukraine; others say they can tell by the sound whether to expect incoming artillery fire, and how many seconds it takes for the shell to arrive.

'Babushki' women singing Slavic songs gather at a communal pergola in Schastia, eastern Ukraine, a few meters away from a crater created during artillery fighting last August. CRISIS GROUP/Magdalena Grono

In a revealing illustration of how complex the Ukraine problem is, the old ladies, like others in Schastia, are not sure who to blame for the attacks. A Ukrainian army officer I meet there confides he has an uphill struggle to convince ordinary people that the Ukrainian army is not trying to harm them as a ploy to attract Western attention and support – something they say they hear from the Russian media. Along the line of separation, levels of trust in any public authority, and in any actor in the two-year-long conflict, are now extremely low.

Vitriolic propaganda

The propaganda war has been a vitriolic part of the ongoing conflict, and most people on both sides of the line of separation between the Ukraine-controlled parts and the separatist-controlled parts of Lugansk and Donetsk oblasts (provinces) only have access to Russian TV channels. The Ukrainian side has not been able to repair transmission infrastructure in all places, and the result is that in places like Schastia, once part of Lugansk, Ukrainian news is only available to the few who have satellite TV.

The parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts controlled by Kyiv are governed by civilian-military administrations from de facto new centres in Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk, respectively. In theory, the civilian-military administrations have a strong political and security mandate from Kyiv to drive stabilisation and reform. Real life is much more complicated.

Political strings, and people’s loyalties, are often in the hands of local strongmen, typically affiliated with former President Viktor Yanukovych’s former Party of the Regions and mostly now in the Opposition Bloc. These old cadres have enormous local influence and convening power – especially with the older generations. As a local activist explained, “if you own a factory, and promise jobs or a few hundred hryvna to your voter, or pledge to repair the local school, your voter will not only give you his vote, he will be very loyal because this is the system he knows, and he can navigate”.

Main square in Kramatorsk, in the northern Donetsk region, where a pedestal from an old statue of Lenin now dominates the view. CRISIS GROUP/Magdalena Grono

In towns where introducing civilian-military administrations would have been too controversial or from which they have been phased out after local elections in 2015, the struggle for influence takes place in city councils. Severodonetsk, 75 km from Schastia, was only briefly occupied by the Russia-backed separatists and had Kyiv-organised local elections in 2015. But a majority of the city council members come from these old elites, even if some swapped parties.

The eastern Ukraine problem thus has multiple layers, going beyond Russia’s military and other support for the separatist entities in Donetsk and Lugansk. As in other war-hit areas, the allegiances of people living in places near the front lines, or in the grey zones in between, are localised and split as people focus on physical and economic survival.

A civilian-military official for a district near Schastia is in despair over cases of local old corrupt strongmen set free thanks to decisions made in Kyiv that it was politically expedient. When a close-run vote comes up in the Kyiv Rada (Parliament), diplomats and reform-minded civil society leaders say, parliamentarians can be swayed with a promise that central authorities will turn a blind eye to old elites’ local influence.

Many in the civilian-military administrations seem to have brought new energy and a hands-on approach that values accountability and rule of law. But they are fighting an uphill struggle against a corrupt old Soviet-style system of thinking, values and patronage. Since they are centrally appointed, not elected, building trust – not just among people living across the conflict divide, but also between people and the state in Ukraine – will take a long time.

If the Kyiv authorities are to win the loyalty of those living under their control – let alone attract those living in the Russian-backed separatist enclaves – they will have to eradicate corruption at highest levels and regionally. Otherwise local people will just go on believing that one set of corrupt elites has been replaced with another.

Bridging a deadly divide

The line of contact to the east of Schastia is where three disengagement zones were defined in September, the latest step toward withdrawals and the implementation of security provisions of the 2015 Minsk agreement that was supposed to bring peace to the region. But security remains precarious along the length of the separation line with frequent cases of shelling reported. UN monitoring of civilian casualties counted 291 dead and 937 injured between 16 February 2015 and 30 September 2016. There were also numerous military and security fatalities, but the numbers are difficult to establish.

Map of eastern Ukraine. CRISIS GROUP

In addition to the politics of the conflict, the reason that agreed troop withdrawals are not taking place as planned becomes clear some 50 km by road to the east of Schastia, at the town of Stanitsa Luganska, where there is a crossing point between Kyiv-controlled territory and the so-called ‘Lugansk People’s Republic’ (LPR). When it comes to control of key points like this, mutual trust is completely absent. “Both sides make a calculation that if you let go of control”, a Ukrainian army officer privately tells me, “the other will say sorry, we took it, we are sorry but that is what happened, and then you will never get the strategic spot back”. Heavy shelling was reported on 9 October, and withdrawal plans were postponed.

Though security is volatile in many areas and non-existent in several villages along the line of separation, mostly with the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), it is not hopeless to believe that the peoples of the two rival territories could live together again. The links across the divide are still very strong, and this is what Kyiv should capitalise on.

In the summer, up to 7,000 people crossed daily through Stanitsa Luganska. Conditions at the crossings are bad, and it takes about seven hours to get in and out of the LPR. Facilities provided by international donors are scant and the heat has caused sun strokes and heart failures. To get to and from the bigger DPR, 30,000 people a day braved queues of up to 30 hours in the summer, though these numbers fluctuate with the seasons.

People cross because they need to - and not just in one direction. Many living in LPR and DPR go to the Ukraine-controlled territory to collect pensions or other social payments. Some come to regularise their civil registry documents: Children born in LPR and DPR, or marriages registered there, have no legal status recognised anywhere else, Russia included. Some come for treatment, others simply visit with family members who have stayed on the other side.

“My aunt and ten other distant family members are registered with me so they have a base here, but their homes are in Donetsk,” a feisty business woman tells me over Georgian wine in a Severodonetsk restaurant, adding that “crossing controls can be harsh, these grannies are trying to make ends meet and have to live in both places”. Then there are those who cross the other way – those who have left Donetsk or Lugansk but do not want to leave their properties there entirely unattended, or may make a quick visit to a trusted old doctor who stayed behind.

Train cars filled with coal in Kramatorsk train station. CRISIS GROUP/Magdalena Grono

Business also continues over the line, if sometimes mysteriously. When I ask about wagons full of coal in a major train station on the government side, in Kramatorsk, a Ukrainian colleague explains they come from the breakaway parts of the country. The business has been re-registered in the Ukraine-controlled administrative cities, an official in one of the local administrations says, but no-one can say for sure how much coal is produced, and how that matches up with what is disclosed. The apparent corruption makes local activists throw their hands up in the air with a sense of helplessness.

The conflict creates vested interests on both sides of the line. Even though food prices are much higher in the breakaway areas than in the rest of Ukraine, a Schastia local with acquaintances in Lugansk says one reason that more border crossings have not been opened is that this might disturb an existing monopoly on meat supplies. So in both the government and separatist areas, profits stay high for the well-connected few.

Keeping Ukrainians together

Attempts by ordinary people in eastern Ukraine to keep their options open for a possibly reunited future can face official obstructions, however.

There are some 618,000 people registered as displaced in the Ukraine-controlled Donetsk oblast. Ukrainian authorities are now reviewing the registration lists and removing from them those who do not appear to live in their places of registration on a permanent basis. This will in practice mean they will not be entitled to get pensions or other social benefits – and their links with the Kyiv-controlled areas will wither.

The Kyiv authorities say that people ‘cannot live on two chairs’, or that they have to choose whether they wish to receive Ukrainian pensions or Russian pensions in the self-proclaimed republics. But the reality of people affected by conflict is that livelihoods are a constant juggling act. Similarly, the Ukrainian government is strapped for cash, and lacks what one official in Kyiv called the “bandwidth” to think through a strategy on local issues until bigger picture political and security dilemmas are resolved.

Keeping the door open to people in the territories Kyiv does not control through maintaining pensions and social benefits, or providing healthcare even for those who have not re-registered in the Ukraine-controlled side, may be a hard sell for the more nationalist-minded constituencies in Ukraine. But isolating – or even just ignoring – populations trapped in conflict will be a big obstacle to an eventual restoration of links if and when the big-picture political issues are settled. There are strategic issues Kyiv alone cannot control, but these local ones it can – and should.

Back in Schastia, Severodonetsk and Kramatorsk, people say they need investment and jobs not just for themselves but also to convince those living on the other side of the divide that life in government-controlled areas is developing and attractive. For now, starting up small businesses is hard, investment is scarce and many young people have left.

But there are islands of entrepreneurial spirit. My dinner companion from Severodonetsk says she has opened up a construction firm. Finding welders is a challenge despite the region’s tradition of heavy industry skills, so she is now advocating for more vocational training in a local high school. The extra time she has goes to voluntary work on recreating public spaces in the town. Her warm irreverent manner opens conversations, and gives hope that people are starting to take ownership of change.

Enhancing Prospects for Peace in Ukraine

EU-Russia ties are frostier than ever. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2021 – Spring Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to forge consensus with the U.S. and UK on responses to any threats, or evidence, of Russian attacks on Ukraine, and to work with the U.S. on breaking the impasse in talks.

Relations between Russia and the European Union (EU) are frostier than ever. Reasons include disagreements old and new, with Europeans concerned about issues from Moscow’s treatment of opposition activist Alexei Navalny and other dissidents, to its alleged meddling in their elections, to newly surfaced reports of Russian involvement in a 2014 explosion at a Czech munitions depot. Those reports formed the backdrop for a rash of diplomatic expulsions by Prague and other European capitals, on one hand, and Moscow on the other. But it is the continuing war between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian state forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that remains the sorest point of friction.

Russia raised worries of a substantial escalation in Kyiv and among Ukraine’s Western partners when it massed forces near Ukraine’s borders in March and April. While these anxieties were largely assuaged when Russia started to pull back its forces in late April, the situation as a whole remains fraught. A ceasefire Kyiv and Moscow agreed to in July 2020 has broken down. Negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow are deadlocked. Neither side is taking steps prescribed by the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements that ended the worst of the fighting and were intended to bring peace. The Normandy Format peace process that includes France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine is largely dormant, with no new summit on the horizon. Absent changes, the coming year could bring new problems and new dangers of further outbreaks of violence. The EU, for all its difficulties with Moscow, can and should work with member states and allies to mitigate the risks and seek ways to break the impasse.

To deter future threats to Ukraine and reduce tensions with Moscow, the EU and its member states should:

  • Forge consensus with the U.S. and UK about how they would respond to evidence of Russian threats to attack or actual attacks on Ukraine, focusing on what additional sanctions they would apply and under what circumstances. Options for increasing military pressure should be viewed cautiously, given that they could bring further risks of escalation.
  • For purposes of deterrence, quietly communicate agreed-upon red lines and repercussions to the Kremlin, being careful not to rely on bluffs that Moscow would be likely to call.
  • Encourage Kyiv, on one side, and Moscow and its proxies, on the other, to return to observing the July 2020 ceasefire as a prelude to renewed talks among the Normandy Format countries and the U.S.
  • Work with the Biden administration to create incentives for breaking the long-running impasse in talks, including by delineating, and communicating, a clear plan for gradual, reversible sanctions relief for Russia in response to measurable progress.
  • Develop and propose economic incentives to aid and support Kyiv’s planning for Donbas’s eventual reintegration, to include proposals for restoring social, economic and transport links between government-controlled and separatist-held Donbas.

Political Stalemates

In December 2019, as French, German, Ukrainian and Russian leaders met in Paris to hold their first Normandy Format meeting to advance the Ukrainian peace process in three years, there seemed to be cause for hope. With a new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had averred his commitment to peace both on the campaign trail and upon taking office, the summit might have been a first step on a new path after years of stalemate and disappointment.

A year and a half later, those hopes are foundering. The conflict parties have taken only two of the seven joint steps promised in Paris: Kyiv and the Russian-backed leadership of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Donbas exchanged detainees in December 2019 and April 2020, and Kyiv and Moscow agreed to a ceasefire starting 27 July 2020. But other important steps – including, crucially, disengagement of forces from front lines, demining, particularly around key infrastructure facilities located on the line of separation between Ukrainian and separatist forces, and full access for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission – remain outstanding.

Moreover, even the slim progress made in 2019 and 2020 has begun to unravel. By March 2021, the ceasefire, the most successful of the many reached since the war began, had collapsed. As shelling and sniper fire resumed across the line of separation, a new crisis emerged. Russian troop build-ups near Ukraine in late March and early April sparked fears of a return to large-scale combat. The Kremlin said the soldiers were conducting routine training, but the deployment of paratroopers to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and establishment of a base camp at Voronezh (a few hours’ drive from the Ukrainian border) were nonetheless unusual and, understandably, alarming for Kyiv and its Western allies. When Ukraine asked for help, European countries, the EU, U.S. and UK spoke supportively but took no overt action in response.

At the end of April, ten days after Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden discussed a possible summit in a call, Moscow announced that the troops had completed their training and would be coming home. The announcement helped assuage concerns (although leaving unclear what precisely Moscow’s motives had been), but by then relations between Russia and the West were taking new twists and turns. In mid-April, the Czech Republic made public its findings of Russian involvement in a 2014 explosion at a Czech munitions depot and announced the expulsion of eighteen Russians affiliated with Moscow’s mission in Prague. Further expulsions by both sides ensued, with other European countries also expelling dozens of Russian diplomats. At around the same time, Washington announced its own expulsions of Russian diplomats along with new sanctions in retaliation for Russia’s alleged hack of U.S. government infrastructure through software provided by the SolarWinds company. In response, on 14 May, Russia said it deemed the Czech Republic and the U.S. “unfriendly” countries, curtailing the staff of their diplomatic missions. Then on 19 May, Washington imposed sanctions on a total of thirteen Russian vessels involved in laying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bypass traditional routes for which Russia pays lucrative gas transit fees to Ukraine and pump Russian gas directly to Germany.

Yet amid the rancour there are positive signs. Even as the new U.S. sanctions were announced, when Putin and Biden’s top diplomats met in Iceland in preparation for their possible summit in June, they noted their differences but struck an optimistic tone. Moreover, the Kremlin and Kyiv were exchanging invitations for summits of their own: Zelenskyy invited his Russian counterpart to meet in Donbas and Putin countered with an invitation to Moscow – although only to discuss issues unrelated to the war. Ukraine and Russia confirmed in late May that preparations for a meeting between Putin and Zelenskyy were under way.

But for there to be any chance of progress toward resolving the Donbas conflict, itself necessary for improving relations between Moscow and the West, the parties will need to address certain core areas of disagreement relating to implementation of the Minsk agreements. Among the most contentious is a Minsk requirement that Kyiv grant local autonomy (“special status”) to the separatist-held areas and hold local elections there in exchange for Ukraine regaining control of its eastern border. Ukraine says it cannot run credible polls in these regions until it has reassumed territorial control, and indeed its parliament has prohibited elections without first regaining such control. Russia says Minsk is clear: elections and special status come first, control only afterward. Moving past this fundamental impasse will be hard, but in theory, a deal is possible. The parties might agree, for example, that the OSCE and UN will monitor the border and region as a whole while elections are held, in order to assuage Kyiv’s concerns about their integrity.

The longer the war continues, the more positions harden, and the more difficult concessions seem.

In practice, however, the longer the war continues, the more positions harden, and the more difficult concessions seem. Complicating things further, Moscow sees Donbas-related sanctions as part and parcel of a broader Western pressure campaign, with Ukraine only one component. Russia is particularly rankled by what it perceives as the EU’s interference in its domestic politics. Russian parliamentary elections scheduled for September are likely to be a source of friction alongside the dispute over Navalny, particularly if, as appears likely, the Kremlin escalates its crackdowns on independent media and opposition. European positions may also harden due to forthcoming polls in European countries – notably Germany in September – in which European leaders will likely fear Russian meddling given Moscow’s previous alleged interference. Broader tensions make it all the harder to find mutually acceptable ways forward on Donbas.

Recommendations for the EU and Its Member States

Still, with Russia reversing its troop build-up and Washington interested in a June summit with Moscow, the EU and its member states may have an opportunity to work with the U.S. and UK to develop a joint deterrence strategy and revive the peace process.

Brussels, Washington and London should coordinate a common approach to deterrence in the face of future threats or aggression in Donbas. The first step would be to reach agreement on both red lines and consequences if Russia crosses them. For these purposes, sanctions, for all their limits, remain the primary non-military tool at the West’s disposal. Existing sanctions could be augmented through steps that would curtail lending to certain Russian enterprises, cut off Russian access to the SWIFT banking network or block Russian purchases of sovereign debt on the secondary market. Moscow is likely to be particularly concerned about the possibility of U.S. secondary sanctions, through which the U.S. could block access to the U.S. financial system for third parties that engage in prohibited transactions. The secondary sanctions could have a negative impact on EU member states, however, and risk adding to transatlantic tensions over the cost to European companies of U.S. sanctions on Nord Stream 2. (On the latter front, in a nod to ties with Berlin, the Biden administration waived sanctions on the company behind the pipeline and its chief executive.) Brussels and Washington should reach as good an understanding as possible about when Europe would back U.S. sanctions of this nature.

As for whether military pressure could be useful for purposes of deterrence, the West’s somewhat muffled response to the Russian troop build-up only reinforced awareness on all sides that neither the U.S. nor European countries want to get drawn into conflict in Ukraine. The Western powers should not make bluffs that Russia could well call. They should be extremely cautious about taking or threatening measures that would increase the likelihood of confrontation – such as putting Western advisers on the front line in Ukraine. While ramping up the provision of weapons to Kyiv might be less risky, doing so is not likely to yield the kind of battlefield advantage that would change Moscow’s calculations.

Whatever combination of economic and other measures the EU, U.S. and UK agree upon, they should communicate clearly to Moscow what their red lines are and what the consequences will be for crossing them.

Whatever combination of economic and other measures the EU, U.S. and UK agree upon, they should communicate clearly to Moscow what their red lines are and what the consequences will be for crossing them. Sending the message through quiet rather than public channels may give Moscow more political room to absorb it without reacting counterproductively. To maximise the usefulness of sanctions as leverage, the Western powers should not threaten measures that they would be unwilling or unable to rescind in the event that Russia reverses course.

As the EU and its partners are developing their approach to deterrence, they should also be focusing on easing tensions on the ground and encouraging dialogue. This means getting the parties back to the table, ideally for a near-term summit among the Normandy Four and possibly the U.S. Either before or at the summit, France and Germany could press for a suite of de-escalatory measures: for example, returning to the July 2020 ceasefire; broader and freer access for OSCE ceasefire monitors; a roadmap to restoring civilian freedom of movement across the line of separation; and broader military deconfliction and resumption of prisoner exchanges.

Ideally, over the course of the summit and ensuing negotiations, the EU, U.S. and UK would also present Moscow with incentives for charting a path out of the current standoff. They could, for example – as Crisis Group has argued before – offer the Kremlin a concrete plan to exchange the lifting of specific Minsk-related sanctions (eg, against banks and companies) for specific Russian military and political concessions in Donbas (eg, compromises on the Ukrainian border, disarmament of combatants or flexibility on special status). The proposal would make clear that should Russia or its proxies renege, the sanctions will be reimposed. There is some risk in this course of action: should Russia pocket the concessions and then backslide, Brussels may find it difficult to cobble back together the consensus required for the reimposition of sanctions. But if the U.S. and its European partners are not ready to use sanctions relief to motivate incremental progress by Moscow, the combination of high demands and inflexible tools offers little hope of breaking the deadlock.

Brussels should also work with Kyiv to encourage flexible thinking along the lines suggested above about how to work through the impasse over “special status” and begin planning for the near-term reintegration of Donetsk and Luhansk. The latter point is controversial: on one hand, Zelenskyy’s team has rallied to produce a roadmap for reintegration, but on the other, they appear to increasingly favour relegating the task to a distant and speculative future. If Brussels wants to help reverse this tide, it should keep up its promises of an EU economic support package to help rehabilitate the war-torn region, as well as offer plentiful guidance on overhauling Donbas’s fossil fuel-dependent economy. As further preparation for reintegration, Brussels should also maintain pressure on Kyiv to build an independent judiciary and adopt transitional justice legislation that encourages combatants to disarm and provides a framework for the fair trial of accused war criminals on both sides.