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Ukraine’s Unlucky Town Called Happiness
Ukraine’s Unlucky Town Called Happiness
Reducing the Human Cost of Ukraine’s War
Reducing the Human Cost of Ukraine’s War
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.

Reducing the Human Cost of Ukraine’s War

A confrontation in the Azov Sea in November 2018 exacerbated hostilities between Russia and Ukraine and dashed hopes for an early resolution to the six-year war. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to continue its support for a negotiated settlement and pressure Kyiv to protect civilians.

The war in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas between Kyiv and Moscow-backed separatists will soon begin its sixth year. Its resolution seems ever further away. While death counts and civilian casualties in Donbas are down, a new flashpoint in the Sea of Azov adds another potentially explosive layer to hostilities between Ukraine and Russia. The Minsk II agreement that sets forth a way out of the conflict and which both sides signed in 2015 remains unfulfilled, with Moscow unwilling to withdraw its troops and material from separatist-held areas of Donbas, and Kyiv seemingly uninterested in devolving power to those areas or taking other steps that could prepare for the reintegration of the territory it has been battling for.

The standoff presents numerous risks. Russian authorities continue to restrict Ukrainian access to shared waters off of Crimea, and the parties have taken no measure to prevent a repeat of a November 2018 incident in which Russian security forces opened fire on a Ukrainian naval boat and took 24 of its sailors, who remain captive. Any further confrontation in these waters could prove deadly, open up another front in the war and increase pressure on NATO to respond. Even absent further incidents, the Azov crisis distracts from Donbas, where despite reduced casualties, military action regularly exposes civilians to the threats of death, injury and property loss. The Moscow-backed armed groups have worsened the situation by drastically reducing humanitarian access, but some of the blame lies with Kyiv, which has been dragging its feet on measures to soften the humanitarian impact of hostilities.

After Russia’s November 2018 attack in the Azov Sea, Ukraine’s Western allies may understandably be hesitant to press the Ukrainian government on adhering to the ceasefire, which has been violated by both sides, and proactively addressing humanitarian concerns. While Ukraine is indeed the victim of Russia’s aggression, Kyiv should take these steps, which are critical for the future reintegration of areas of Donbas outside the government’s control and Ukraine’s overall stability.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Call for an internationally-chaired bilateral commission to investigate the 25 November events and reiterate the offer to mediate between Russia and Ukraine in maritime disputes; it appears unlikely that either side for now would accept such a commission, but calling for it would send a strong signal on the need for de-escalation and transparency.
  • Appoint a special envoy for Ukraine, as recommended in the European Parliament resolutions of 25 October and 12 December 2018, to spearhead mediation efforts on both Donbas and the Azov Sea and serve as point person for that bilateral commission if one is established;
  • Continue to urge Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, as parties to the Trilateral Contact Group for the implementation of the Minsk agreements, to observe and, when necessary, renew the Donbas ceasefire; the Contact Group’s work has proven valuable in reducing violence, despite the lack of progress toward resolving the conflict;
  • Maintain pressure on Kyiv to reduce the Donbas conflict’s human costs and take steps that could help address the anger many Ukrainians along front lines and in separatist-held areas feel toward Kyiv by: first, restoring pensions for those residing in those areas; secondly, compensating residents for property losses caused by fighting; and, thirdly, guaranteeing financial support to civilians injured in hostilities.

Azov Sea Militarisation

A confrontation on 25 November 2018 in waters off Crimea marked Russia’s first acknowledged use of force against Ukraine since the peninsula’s annexation. As three Ukrainian naval boats headed through the Kerch Strait to the Sea of Azov, Russian security services rammed one boat, then opened fire on another before seizing all three and their 24 crew members. The attack, which violated a 2003 agreement between the two countries, marked the culmination of a months-long Russian effort to assert ownership of these shared waters, involving regular, costly detentions of Ukrainian commercial boats as well as foreign vessels corresponding with Ukrainian ports. It signalled Moscow’s resolve to consolidate its control of Crimea. It was also met with calls from Kyiv among others for some form of NATO response in support of Ukraine. Further incidents remain a real possibility, as neither side has shown any inclination to seek ways to prevent a repeat – or worse – of November’s spat, and would likely increase the volume of such calls.

If the clash illustrates Moscow’s increasing assertiveness and belligerence in the Azov Sea, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s response hardly helped. No evidence supports Moscow’s assertion that Poroshenko engineered the incident to bolster his ratings ahead of March’s coming elections and prevent his opponents from campaigning by declaring martial law. But Poroshenko has attempted to harness events to his advantage – most blatantly by proposing 60 days of martial law, which would have undermined his opponents’ ability to campaign for the March 2019 presidential elections. (Martial law was only imposed for 30 days, thanks in part to EU pressure). The prospect of his seeking to capitalise on another confrontation cannot be ruled out.

The Impact of Grey Zone Incursions

While Kyiv and Moscow are unlikely to make progress toward resolving the Donbas conflict this year, 2018 offers lessons as to how parties can reduce harm to civilians and lay the groundwork for Ukraine’s future reintegration – or at least avoid further undermining it. Civilian casualties in Donbas more than halved in 2018 compared with the previous year. The steepest month-to-month reduction in casualties occurred between June and July with the start of the “harvest ceasefire” agreed upon by the Trilateral Contact Group, showing that Contact Group negotiations can have a real impact even when the larger peace process has stalled.

Despite the overall decrease in casualties, the occasional flare-ups that still occur entail high costs for civilians. These clashes are mainly linked to advances by the Ukrainian army and National Guard in the so-called grey zone between the two sides’ front lines – and the responses by rebels and their allies to those advances. The government describes its actions as means to lift troop morale and “liberate” the civilian population. Military analysts mostly dismiss the moves as public relations ploy with negligible on-the-ground effects. Both interpretations are misleading: the military dividends from the operations may be minimal but their effects are real enough, given the resulting civilian casualties. Injuries and deaths peaked between April and June 2018, coinciding with Ukrainian troops’ moves into the Horlivka suburb of Chyhari (Pivdenne), as well as Zolote-4 (Partizanske), a settlement that is part of greater Zolote, near the disengagement zone of the same name.

After the Azov Sea incident, any further implementation of the Minsk deal appears even less likely.

Apart from increased exposure to shelling and live fire, civilians in these areas, who are disproportionately elderly and female, often suffer destruction or military appropriation of their homes. The financial costs of these losses, as well as those of any serious injuries, may be severe. While local authorities have made efforts to house families evacuated from Chyhari, the state still has no legal mechanism for restitution for property damaged as a result of hostilities, nor has it followed through on February 2018 legislation that provides for regular financial assistance for civilians injured. The overall impact of grey-zone incursions is to harm civilians and their trust in the Ukrainian state.

Moving Forward

For Europe, the priority should be to reduce risks of further incidents in the shared Russian and Ukrainian waters of the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait while signalling to Moscow that it should not use its de facto control of Crimea to hinder Ukrainian or international shipping or strangulate Ukraine’s economy. European governments and Western powers more broadly are caught between, on one hand, needing to hold the line as Moscow (having illegally seized Crimea and backed Donbas separatists) again appears to be probing to see how far it can push and, on the other, avoiding further militarising the crisis or incentivising Kyiv to engage in risky behaviour in response to Russia’s aggression. 

The EU should continue to offer mediation to help prevent another incident; it should also follow through on recommendations to appoint a special envoy for Ukraine. This envoy would spearhead EU efforts and stand ready to oversee some form of investigative commission comprising representatives of both Russia and Ukraine. Prospects of either side agreeing to such a commission for now appear slim, particularly during the Ukrainian election season: Kyiv will be loath to appear conciliatory toward Moscow, while Moscow may wish to hold out for what it hopes will be a friendlier president and/or parliament. Calling for a commission would signal that Moscow cannot indefinitely deny its actions, whether in the Azov or Donbas. At the same time, it would remind Kyiv that its own behaviour is also open to scrutiny.

The EU should also ensure member states stay focused on the search for medium-term solutions to the humanitarian crisis in Donbas. Even before the 25 November events, any progress on negotiations during Ukraine’s 2019 election season was highly unlikely. Talks over a potential peacekeeping mission for Donbas, which proceeded sporadically throughout 2018, have largely petered out with little progress made. After the Azov Sea incident, any further implementation of the Minsk deal appears even less likely. Ukraine’s partners therefore need to keep up pressure on the sides to agree, through the Trilateral Contact Group, to observe the ceasefire, renew it when necessary, and cease grey zone incursions. They should also encourage Kyiv to lay the possible groundwork for the future reintegration of separatist-held areas by cushioning the humanitarian impact of continued violence and signalling to people in areas affected by the conflict along both sides of the front lines that it prioritises their well-being – even if they are unlikely to vote for those in power. On these topics, too, a European envoy could help deliver messages to Kyiv.