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Ukraine’s Unlucky Town Called Happiness
Ukraine’s Unlucky Town Called Happiness
Getting Aid to Separatist-held Ukraine
Getting Aid to Separatist-held 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.

Pro-Russian separatists patrol the street in front of Russian humanitarian trucks in Makiivka (Makeyevka) in Donetsk region, 12 December 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Getting Aid to Separatist-held Ukraine

The front lines in eastern Ukraine are slowly freezing in place, as is civilian deprivation in the conflict zone. An embargo, bureaucracy and distrust conspire to keep humanitarian aid out. Russia and Ukraine should find politically neutral ways to unblock the flow of assistance.

After five years of war, a humanitarian crisis drags on in the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (L/DPR), the parts of eastern Ukraine nominally governed by Russian-backed separatists. More than 3.5 million people in eastern Ukraine are in need of aid, according to UN figures. The need is particularly dire in the rebel-held territories, which confront a Ukrainian economic blockade as well as isolation imposed by the rebels themselves. The aging segment of the L/DPR’s population is hardest-hit of all, struggling to get by on pensions as low as $30 per month. But humanitarian groups face several obstacles in getting these people the aid they need.

All sides are erecting hurdles. Citing obstruction by the L/DPR authorities, the UN has scaled back its humanitarian response in rebel-controlled areas, focusing on the less hard-hit but still in need people on the government-controlled side of the line. Ukraine’s trade blockade of the L/DPR limits aid access. Russian humanitarian groups say indiscriminate shelling from the Ukrainian side of the contact line makes aid distribution dangerous, and that they also face obstacles from L/DPR authorities whom they decry as corrupt. They perceive the Russian government as doing too little to coordinate assistance efforts and say they cannot trust anyone in power.

Humanitarian aid could yet be a rare, vital avenue of cooperation among the Russian, Ukrainian and European governments.

“The Russians, they have forgotten about them [people in eastern Ukraine]”, said Marina (not her real name), a Muscovite who regularly travels to Donetsk to deliver goods and help families buy groceries. After trying to work through established charities operating in Russia, she decided to go solo, citing a lack of transparency and corruption. “The government of L/DPR, when it comes to big convoys there, they just steal the goods”, she added. Another aid worker in Rostov-on-Don, a Russian city not far from the separatist-controlled areas, told a similar story. Exasperated, she founded her own charity, which distributes food, money, toys and animated films to children in affected areas.

Many of the independent Russian aid workers who raise these concerns sympathise with the separatist cause. But the depth and frankness of their frustration reflects their belief that both Kyiv and Moscow have abandoned the people whom the workers are trying to serve. As the conflict stagnates, and contact across the front lines becomes ever more difficult, humanitarian aid could yet be a rare, vital avenue of cooperation among the Russian, Ukrainian and European governments. That, however, will require all sides to focus on the residents’ plight rather than tactical gains vis-à-vis their adversaries.

Many Obstacles

Over five years of conflict, humanitarian access to the east has shrunk. Early in the war, militias supporting the Ukrainian government, such as Dnipro-1 and Aidar, were known to intercept humanitarian convoys headed to L/DPR territories because they did not want supplies getting through to people they regarded as the enemy. In 2017, Kyiv imposed an economic blockade on the separatist-controlled areas, not only paralysing what remained of the war-shattered L/DPR economy, but also in effect slashing the volume of assistance distributed there. As Crisis Group has reported, the embargo made an explicit exception for humanitarian convoys crossing the contact line. Yet in practice it kept aid out, because charities legally registered in Ukraine could no longer function in the L/DPR due to a combination of Ukrainian and L/DPR regulations, and to the ways in which L/DPR authorities adapted to the embargo. Before the blockade, for instance, one of the chief aid distributors in these territories was a foundation run by steel magnate and Kyiv loyalist Rinat Akhmetov. After the embargo, self-declared DPR authorities seized Akhmetov’s assets, causing aid distribution to fall precipitously. Meanwhile, these authorities have also interdicted aid shipments from politically neutral parties: as late as this year, forces loyal to the self-proclaimed republics reportedly blocked Red Cross convoys, giving no explanation.

Self-proclaimed L/DPR authorities obstruct efforts by groups entering from Ukrainian-controlled territories on the grounds that they are not humanitarian agencies, but enemies.

Today, many humanitarian organisations cannot reach people in need, according to aid workers from Russian and international groups interviewed by Crisis Group. Ukrainian authorities will often refuse accreditation to organisations trying to deliver aid to the L/DPR from the western, Ukrainian side if in the past they have crossed into the L/DPR from the eastern, Russian side. Kyiv distrusts such groups, viewing them as collaborators with L/DPR de facto authorities. For their part, self-proclaimed L/DPR authorities obstruct efforts by groups entering from Ukrainian-controlled territories on the grounds that they are not humanitarian agencies, but enemies.

Russian groups, which enter through Russia and therefore should be both free of Ukrainian red tape and trusted by the L/DPR, also face problems. Alexei Smirnov runs the crowdfunded Angel Humanitarian Group, based in Moscow. Angel volunteers travel to residential areas along the contact line on the L/DPR side as often as twice a week to deliver goods and medicine. Smirnov does not deny that some of his foundation’s personnel may have fought alongside pro-Russian rebels in the past. He says they no longer do so, however, and adds that his organisation seeks to be politically neutral. Smirnov complains that Ukraine nonetheless treats his staff like combatants. “We get shot at [by the Ukrainian forces] because they think we are enemies and because we show what it is like in those residential areas”, he said, referring to Ukrainian forces’ shelling of civilian areas.

Smirnov insists that his group does not seek support from Russian authorities. “We don’t accept help from Russia because that would only increase suspicion. Or they could take advantage of us”.

The economic strangulation of these isolated territories dims prospects for their peaceful reintegration into Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russian aid groups find that coordination with Russia’s Emergencies Ministry, which gathers medical and food aid supplied by federal and regional bodies and ships it to L/DPR, is difficult or non-existent. “There is no documentational framework for us to coordinate together with [the Ministry]”, said one independent Russian aid worker. “We can’t really track the aid they send there or verify that it has actually reached civilians”. Amid the lack of both coordination and common guidelines, grassroots groups distrust each other as well as Moscow, trading accusations that some workers are merely enriching themselves instead of delivering aid to needy people. This mistrust, the aid worker said, dominates the sector and keeps grassroots groups from getting along. “There is no friendship. No coordination”. The inability to get along hampers the formation of more effective networks that could work with government agencies to maximise access.

Life Support

As a result, the overwhelming bulk of aid to rebel-held areas comes from the Russian government, via regular convoys sent by the Emergencies Ministry, but independent aid workers say it’s unclear how many of those goods actually reach the people in need. Since the conflict began, the Ministry reports, it has dispatched more than 80 convoys, each carrying up to 500 tonnes of goods. Though these numbers seem impressive, other figures point to huge unmet needs: as of late 2018, also according to Ministry figures, 160,000 of the DPR’s 2.3 million people were able to receive aid packages at distribution points. The UN estimates that over 20 per cent of the L/DPR’s population is food-insecure. Indeed, independent Russian aid workers who travel regularly to the affected areas say that Emergencies Ministry aid is, in their words, barely keeping civilians on life support. Moreover, its convoys are part of the reason why Smirnov and his volunteers have such a hard time: Ukrainian and international groups accuse Russia of secreting undeclared weapons and ammunition amid the supplies. Ukrainian authorities assume that independent Russian aid workers are doing the same – and thus treat them like combatants.

Aside from the humanitarian implications, the economic strangulation of these isolated territories dims prospects for their peaceful reintegration into Ukraine. Reliance on Russian aid, insufficient though it is, makes both the civilians and authorities of L/DPR more dependent on Moscow and more alienated from Kyiv. But it is also bad for Russia. The trickle of assistance from Russia and the lack of coordination with grassroots groups undermines the morale of once dedicated aid workers, leading to even fewer aid deliveries and greater dissatisfaction with Russia’s efforts both at home and in L/DPR. Russia is already seeking ways to pay less for assistance, local media reports suggest, and the Emergencies Ministry recently postponed a planned column of its aid trucks amid plans to “restructure” aid. The more difficult it is for grassroots groups and international agencies to deliver aid, the larger the burden for Moscow in feeding a hungry region outside its borders.

Bringing Order to Chaos

Both Russia and Ukraine should explore politically neutral options for getting more humanitarian aid into the affected regions. Facilitating aid to civilians in the unrecognised statelets could open up avenues of bilateral cooperation that, with time, could make political dialogue easier.

Kyiv in particular should explore ways to facilitate aid as part of a wider policy of treating civilians of the east as Ukrainian citizens in dire need of aid, rather than as combatants or instruments in political battles.

One way to ease access for aid groups might be to set up an independent observer body staffed by Russians, Ukrainians and nationals of a third European country perceived as relatively neutral, such as Austria, Germany or Italy. This body could establish transparent guidelines to verify the neutrality of aid groups regardless of their country of origin, while ensuring aid, not weapons, are delivered. The body could work together with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – which is monitoring the ceasefire at the contact line and overseeing negotiations that are part of the Minsk peace plan – in accrediting aid providers.

Even such a body, however, will not be enough absent a broader shift toward reconciliation. Kyiv in particular should explore ways to facilitate aid as part of a wider policy of treating civilians of the east, regardless of their political affinities, as Ukrainian citizens in dire need of aid, rather than as combatants or instruments in political battles. There are many ways to signal this, and a new president means new opportunities to do so. Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky has argued in favor of re-engaging with Ukrainians in the east. One concrete way to start could be for Kyiv to make a concerted effort to ensure that pensions reach civilians in rebel-held territories, in accordance with Ukrainian laws. Kyiv should also explore ways to ease the embargo – something that may also indicate Kyiv’s newfound interest in reintegrating the rebel-held territories rather than isolating them or pushing them toward Russia.

As matters stand, as Alexei Smirnov put it, aid provision “is in a state of chaos. It doesn’t work”.