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Ukraine’s Unlucky Town Called Happiness
Ukraine’s Unlucky Town Called Happiness
Ukraine-Russia Prisoner Swap: Necessary, Not Sufficient
Ukraine-Russia Prisoner Swap: Necessary, Not Sufficient
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.

Ukraine's President Zelensky welcomes former prisoners as they disembark from a plane on September 7, 2019 at Boryspil international airport in Kiev after a long-awaited exchange of prisoners between Moscow and Kiev. AFP/Sergei Supinsky
Q&A / Europe & Central Asia

Ukraine-Russia Prisoner Swap: Necessary, Not Sufficient

A long-awaited prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia marks a positive development in their bilateral relationship. Both countries should now build on their recent progress to implement the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements, the surest path to ending the war in eastern Ukraine.

What happened?

After months of rumours and negotiations, Ukraine and Russia finally exchanged dozens of prisoners, all held in connection with the conflict that began when Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014, and which continues violently in Ukraine’s east.

Moscow released 35 Ukrainian citizens. They included four Crimeans arrested shortly after Russia’s February 2014 takeover of the peninsula, along with 24 sailors whom Russian security forces apprehended in the Black Sea last year. Russian courts had charged them with crimes including terrorism, espionage, conspiracy to violate state borders, and, most bizarrely, killing Russian troops in Chechnya in the mid-1990s. Human rights groups and governments decried these detentions, and viewed the sailors as prisoners of war.

Kyiv also released 35 detainees: 22 Ukrainian citizens, twelve Russian citizens and one Moldovan. Best known is Kirill Vyshynsky, who had directed the Ukrainian branch of Russian state news outlet RIA. Arrested on treason charges last year, he renounced his Ukrainian citizenship. According to Moscow and international human rights groups, his arrest and imprisonment were politically motivated. Other prisoners had been charged with fighting alongside Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine or aligning with Russian troops in Crimea. Most controversially, Kyiv freed Vladimir Tsemakh, a Ukrainian citizen and separatist air defence commander who may have helped conceal the missile that shot down flight MH-17 in July 2014, killing all aboard.

How are Ukrainian and Russian publics reacting?

As the 35 men stepped off the plane in Kyiv on Saturday, the runway erupted with cheers, family members sobbed with relief, and President Zelenskyy teared up. Ukrainian media reflected a celebratory public mood. In Moscow, reactions were more subdued. “Our people have been freed!” tweeted the Russian Embassy in Ukraine after the plane carrying the former prisoners left for Moscow. Yet just a handful of officials met them upon landing and only Vyshynsky has received substantial coverage in the Russian press.

Many in and outside of Ukraine were critical of Tsemakh’s release, arguing that he was needed to prove Russian responsibility for launching the missile that downed flight MH-17. But speaking on the runway Saturday, Zelenskyy told reporters that Dutch investigators had questioned Tsemakh prior to release, and the exchange had been delayed to ensure they and their Ukrainian counterparts had the information they needed from him. Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok told his own country’s parliament the same. But the exchange may well not have happened without Tsemakh.

Are any prisoners still being held?

Ukrainian officials say over 200 citizens, including journalists, are held by de facto authorities in the Russian-backed self-proclaimed republics in Ukraine’s east, known as the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. Some of Kyiv's critics say Ukraine holds thousands of political prisoners, a claim that prominent rights groups have not backed up. Ukrainian authorities have indeed arrested large numbers of people in relation to protests and violence linked to the conflict, but Russian officials generally do not champion these prisoners’ cases publicly. According to media reports, representatives of Kyiv and the breakaway regions may meet on 18 September to discuss a trade.

Separately, according to Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman Lyudmila Denysova, 113 Ukrainian citizens are imprisoned in Crimea and Russia for political reasons. They include 89 Crimean Tatars accused of terrorism (critics of Russia say these are false charges premised on silencing opponents of annexation). On 10 September, Denysova said Kyiv was negotiating with Moscow for their release too.

What does this mean for prospects for peace?

The prisoner exchange is the latest and most notable in a series of recent positive steps. Kyiv and Russian-backed entities in eastern Ukraine recommitted to a ceasefire that has, over the past six weeks, brought civilian deaths down to zero. They further agreed to repair a long-destroyed bridge connecting the de facto Luhansk People’s Republic to government-held Ukraine. Kyiv has also spoken of reinstating trade across the front lines, which, apart from rebuilding commercial and social ties, could improve dire living conditions in separatist-held areas. In this context, the exchange signals Kyiv’s and Moscow’s willingness to make concessions. Moreover, the apparent public support for Saturday’s exchange strengthens Zelenskyy’s mandate to pursue compromise and defy hardline critics.

Still, no one should overstate the significance of this event: real progress in ending the conflict requires each side to implement the stalled 2014-2015 Minsk agreements. That means Russia must withdraw its forces from eastern Ukraine and suspend support to groups it backs in that region. Kyiv, for its part, needs to hold elections, implement an amnesty, permit some form of self-governance in these territories and fulfil its other obligations to enable reintegration. The two sides have yet to agree on the sequence of these steps.

What’s next?

Kyiv seeks a meeting of the Normandy quartet, which brings together Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany, to chart a way to peace. Should it take place soon and produce clear steps to advance the Minsk agreements or otherwise improve Russia-Ukraine relations, the meeting could be cause for optimism. Further prisoner exchanges, restoration of legal trade and eased travel restrictions between Ukraine and its breakaway regions (including by repairing the bridge mentioned above), or between Ukraine and Russia, would signal a continued thaw.

Much could derail progress; worst would be a recurrence of fighting in eastern Ukraine. How Zelenskyy responds to domestic pressure from those opposed to further concessions bears watching, as does rhetoric from both Moscow and Kyiv in the coming weeks and months. The EU and its member states, the U.S., and other interested parties can improve prospects for peace by welcoming the steps Ukraine and Russia have taken so far and facilitating further dialogue, including through the Normandy format.

Contributors

Senior Analyst, Ukraine
Program Director, Europe and Central Asia
OlyaOliker