Since 2014, a new conflict has been fought in post-Soviet space, this time in eastern Ukraine. Two new unrecognized territories have emerged, calling themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic (DNR and LNR). They share some similarities with the other cases considered here, but they also diverge in some very important ways.
The chief difference is that in Donbas, the eastern Ukrainian region, local political grievances were not by themselves sufficient to start a full military conflict. Russian volunteers and the Russian state, which later supplied the rebel side with heavy weaponry, turned those grievances into major violence. The DNR and LNR leaders have a role in the negotiations and in resolving local issues, but they lack even the partial legitimacy that makes serious engagement with their counterparts in Abkhazia, Transdniestria, and northern Cyprus a worthwhile endeavor. Leaders come and go (sometimes through assassination) or are installed from Russia, while Moscow runs military and financial affairs. The regions are also heavily criminalized. The patrons in Moscow are the key interlocutors in resolving the conflict.
The chief difference between eastern Ukraine and the other case studies here is that Russian volunteers and the Russian state turned local grievances into major violence.
The DNR and LNR have built de facto institutions but they are much more artificial than in the other de facto states considered here. The Line of Contact that divides the breakaway territories from government-controlled Ukraine has been drawn by war, as in Cyprus; yet, unlike in Cyprus, people on both sides have similar identities. As in Transdniestria, there is no ethnic component to the conflict, only concerns about political status, language rights, and other contested issues.
Yet international actors should do more than wait for the statelets to collapse. Reports from the territories indicate that local people are disappointed with their leaders and angry about their difficult everyday lives, but this translates more into apathy than a burning desire to rejoin the Ukrainian state.1
As in other conflict zones, a situation of separation, disruption, and violence risks becoming the new normal. Already in early 2016—before a Ukrainian blockade cut off the territories from the rest of the country—an International Crisis Group report recorded apathy as the prevailing emotion:
The general mood, a Donetsk resident said, seems to be “to avoid contact with the regime as much as possible.” An active civil society figure estimated that the population is split three ways: for the regime, against it and neutral. The strongest proseparatist constituency is probably pensioners, villagers and unskilled workers. The middle class generally keeps its distance, he said, and a floating segment includes those with nowhere else to go or business or family obligations keep in the area.2
So the other conflicts can teach important lessons here, first of all that long-term separation creates new realities and that disconnection—especially economic disruption—and a different information space conditions people to different ways of life. While interlocutors should exercise caution when interacting with the de facto leaders of these territories, keeping open lines of communication with people living in these territories is vital to give the region a realistic chance of being reintegrated with Ukraine.
The Donbas conflict broke out suddenly in April 2014. It took almost everyone, including most people in the region itself, by surprise. Its impact on a large region in eastern Europe has been devastating. The conflict zone is far larger than the other contested regions examined in this report. Prior to the war, more than 6 million people lived in Donetsk and Luhansk. Now, an estimated 3 million people live in the non-government-controlled areas.
For at least a century, Donbas was Ukraine’s most industrialized region, the center of its coal industry, and an area where Russian, not Ukrainian, was the lingua franca. This gave it not so much a Ukrainian or Russian as a Soviet identity. Unlike in Abkhazia or Transdniestria, the region had little interest in separatism during the breakup of the Soviet Union. In a 1991 referendum, more than 83 percent of the population supported Ukraine’s independence in both Donetsk and Luhansk.
Fast forward to early 2014. Ukraine was in turmoil after the Euromaidan uprising, the flight of then president Viktor Yanukovych to Russia, and the lightning operation by Russia to annex Crimea. In April 2014, Russian activists and fighters seized control of the town of Sloviansk in the Donetsk region, then moved to take other urban centers. As violence escalated, pro-Russian forces held two votes on May 11, after which they declared the creation of the DNR and LNR. The votes were recognized by no one, including Moscow. A top Kremlin aide said merely that Russia “respected” the vote.3
An alliance of Russian nationalist radicals and locals led the activism and fighting in the early months, though none of them had a high profile in the region. There were two key Russian figures: Igor Strelkov, a freelance warrior who had fought for a number of Russian nationalist causes, and Alexander Borodai, a philosophy graduate and veteran of the Transdniestria conflict. The local men, notably Pavel Gubarev, Alexander Khodakovsky, and Alexander Zakharchenko, had no political experience and are best characterized as a counter-elite who quickly took advantage of a power vacuum in Ukraine to seize control of their region. One international visitor to the region reported that they “frequently expressed amazement at finding themselves in charge of a ministate. Most had dreamed at best of lucrative positions in a new oblast [regional] administration.”4
Many in this counter-elite were also criminals. In the early months of the conflict, around 150 rebels were killed by other rebels.5 Many more members have been subsequently removed or assassinated in what may have been gangland fights over assets. The Luhansk leader Igor Plotnitsky survived an assassination attempt but was then deposed in 2017. The August 2018 assassination of Zakharchenko, probably the most popular leader in Donetsk, may have been politically motivated, but it has also been attributed to criminals.
As the rebellion got under way in the spring of 2014, there was a general assumption in Ukraine and the West that Moscow was directing it. More recent research by the most detailed chronicler of the Donbas movement, Anna Matveeva, as well as by others, suggests that the local activists got somewhat ahead of their patrons in Russia. When Strelkov was perceived as being too independent, Russia brought him home. That said, the rebellion would have had almost no chance of success if the Russian government had not intervened directly in the summer of 2014, when it first sent weapons and men to the conflict zone in large numbers. Matveeva writes of “Donbas curators from Russia who promoted pliant figures into politics and took out non-conformists. Commanders had to integrate into the system not on their own terms and the rules of the game were determined elsewhere. Those who were prepared to accept, survived and gained appointments.”6
At two critical moments for eastern Ukraine, in August 2014 and January 2015, Russian military units appear to have changed the course of events.
At two critical moments, in August 2014 and January 2015, Russian military units appear to have changed the course of events. On both occasions, a military defeat led the Ukrainian side to sign agreements in Minsk for a ceasefire and a special status agreement for Donbas.
Since the second Minsk agreement, fighting has reduced considerably, but has not stopped altogether. There were several hundred casualties, both military and civilian, in 2018, adding to a grim overall death count that now exceeds 10,000 people. The Line of Contact cuts across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Around 200,000 people live within 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) of the line and are vulnerable to the ongoing fighting.
The DNR and LNR are rudimentary de facto regimes. Life carries on after a fashion but reports from the territory speak of unpaid wages, criminality, and arbitrary detentions involving torture. Hundreds of thousands have left, either for western Ukraine or for Russia. Normal life continues after a fashion, with many businesses still operating. Since 2014, the two territories have adopted some of the trappings of a de facto state, passing their own constitutions, creating courts and ministries, and adopting their own flags, symbols, and license plates. The ruble has mostly replaced the Ukrainian hryvna. A strong pro-Russian and anti-Western ideology prevails. There have been no attempts to seek legitimacy in the West. Western organizations and media are treated with hostility. Prisoners and alleged drug-dealers have been executed.
The official Russian position on the two regions remains ambiguous. In contrast to Crimea, which Putin quickly claimed as Russian territory in March 2014, the Russian government wants to see Donbas be given “special status” within Ukraine. Officially, Moscow denies that it is militarily involved, despite the presence of heavy weaponry that could only have come from Russia. Russians killed in the conflict have been buried covertly.7
Yet Russian financial support keeps the territories afloat. By 2018, the Russian government had ceased to pretend that it was not the region’s sponsor. After meeting Kremlin aide—and Moscow’s chief “guardian” of the region—Vladislav Surkov in October 2018, the de facto head of the DNR Denis Pushilin was quoted as saying in Moscow that he had received “guarantees of support from Russia in everything concerning security and raising the standard of living of citizens.”8 Essentially Surkov had offered a wage rise for Donbas. In 2017, Ukrainian sources estimated that Moscow was spending around $3 billion a year on the DNR and LNR, none of it coming from the official Russian budget.9
Thanks to actions taken on both sides, the Line of Contact has hardened into a strong dividing line. Infrastructural connections, such as water pipes and electricity lines, have been cut, and the two sides use different mobile phone networks. Most critically, an economic blockade has been in place since the start of 2017 from the Ukrainian-government-controlled side. The subsequent economic dislocation resembles a sped-up version of Georgia’s self-destructive policies toward Abkhazia in the 1990s, when economic links were broken and the breakaway region turned toward Russia.
The Ukrainian blockade was initially a unilateral initiative imposed in January 2017 by far-right nationalist volunteers and veterans, including some parliamentarians. In a mirror image of the other side, it demonstrated how radicals could set the agenda. President Petro Poroshenko initially opposed the blockade and said that the businesses on the other side were “little islands of Ukraine” and “an anchor which attached these territories to Ukraine.”10 However, he yielded to political pressure and made the blockade official policy in March 2017. Opinion polls showed that there was popular support for the move. Yet it has undoubtedly hurt Ukraine’s economy, cutting GDP growth forecasts by at least 1 percent. The flow of goods was disrupted in both directions. Ukraine’s metallurgy industry, reliant on fuel from the region, suffered. 11
The gravest effect was ending trade with Donbas for anthracite coal, which had been the main fuel for Ukraine’s thermal power stations. A strange situation developed whereby the ban on anthracite imports from Donbas ended up benefiting Russia, as Ukraine made up for the shortfall by buying larger amounts of coal from Russia, estimated to be worth $1.5 billion in 2017. Russia meanwhile appears to be exporting Donbas coal from the ports of Azov and Rostov.12
The blockade had been intended to crack down on smuggling, but reports indicate smuggling continues across the Line of Contact, sanctioned by elements in the security and intelligence services. Anecdotal reports in government-controlled areas spoke of convoys of trucks crossing the Line of Contact at night.13
The blockade does not impact individuals. They are permitted by the Ukrainian side to carry goods across the Line of Contact weighing up to 75 kilograms and cost no more than 10,000 Ukrainian hryvnia (about $350). However, they are restricted to “permitted goods” rather than forbidden from bringing certain goods. Thus, for example, lamb meat is not on the list, meaning it can be confiscated from travelers on the whim of the security forces at crossing points.
The de facto authorities responded to the blockade by consolidating control of their regions. They took control of more than 40 regional companies that had been still working within the Ukrainian legal regime and paying taxes to the government in Kyiv—something the rebel leaders said they found unacceptable.14 Most of these businesses belonged to the powerful Donbas oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Akhmetov had been the most powerful businessman and benefactor in the region, who had up until that point continued to work politically with both sides.
The region’s de facto prime minister Alexander Zakharchenko justified the move in an interview to the Russian newspaper Izvestia in April 2017:
In those industrial enterprises which ought to have simply stopped working as a result of the blockade from the Ukrainian side, causing tens of thousands of our citizens to end up on the street, we imposed external management so that they could carry on working. A second point of principle was that we put these enterprises under our own jurisdiction, in part so that they would pay taxes to our budget and not the budget of the aggressor.15
In parallel, the Russian authorities for the first time declared public assistance for the two regions. Putin decreed that Russia would recognize documents such as passports, driving licenses, and diplomas issued in the DPR and LPR for “humanitarian” purposes.
The blockade and the expropriations have hit living standards. Several factories closed or laid off workers, and humanitarian aid for the needy provided by Akhmetov was cut. This helps explain why 1 million people on both sides of the Line of Contact were reported in 2018 to be “food insecure”—in other words facing hunger.16 In addition, the World Food Program shut down its operations in Ukraine in February 2018, citing both a shortfall in funding and also restrictions on access in the non-government-controlled territories.
The eastern Ukrainian conflict zone has one major resource for peace, compared to the other conflict zones considered in this report. Importantly, the local population on each side of the Line of Contact closely resemble each other, and most of them regard the dividing line as an unwelcome construction. Most local people have relatives on the other side and regard the line as artificial—around 30,000 people crossed the line each day in 2018. This makes the conflict zone more akin to that of Transdniestria—even though it is far less peaceful—and raises the possibility that, if the political problems can be fixed, the divided communities of Donbas would be happy to live together again.
However, parts of the Ukrainian government are not making use of this resource and treat residents of the non-government-controlled territories effectively as second-class citizens. In this political context, many Ukrainian politicians accuse Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainians of being pro-Russian, disloyal, or even traitors.
Many of those who cross the Line of Contact from the rebel-held territories do so to claim their entitlements as Ukrainian citizens. They come to acquire documents such as birth and death certificates, passports, and pensions, but they face difficult bureaucratic hurdles in doing so. Even some residents of government-controlled areas have had difficulties getting Ukrainian documents as their official records are in archives on the other side.
Pension rights are the biggest problem. In 2014, there were more than 1.2 million people of pension age registered in the non-government-controlled areas. The government in Kyiv then decreed that in order to receive a pension, a resident of the non-government-controlled territories must register as an internally displaced person (IDP). In practice, many older people registered as IDPs but stayed in their homes in rebel-controlled territory. These people comprise a large number of those who cross the line, often on foot and in hazardous conditions, to receive their pensions—which are meager by international standards.
As of May 2018, 650,000 residents of the non-government-controlled territories were not receiving Ukrainian pensions, or around half of those entitled to do so. Many of those who have remained at home have been stripped of their pension rights. Needless to say, many others are too sick, infirm, or scared to make the crossing. Different parts of the Ukrainian state view this situation differently. Some say that this policy saves the government money, by cutting down on fraud and on elderly people “double-dipping” by getting two pensions. Others, backed by Ukraine’s international partners, see this as a basic rights issue. Draft law 6692 was introduced in the Ukrainian parliament to simplify procedures and remove the requirement to register as an IDP. It follows the practice the Georgian government has adopted on pension rights for residents of Abkhazia. However, it has not been adopted.17
Humanitarian organizations working in the region report similar problems for those wishing to obtain Ukrainian birth and death certificates or foreign passports. Frequently, people are told they do not have sufficient proof of identity for themselves or their children, and are forced to go to court to try to receive the documents. In 2017, only 38 percent of children born in non-government-controlled Donbas received Ukrainian birth certificates (and only 10 percent of those born in Crimea), according to United Nations estimates.
This battle for everyday rights continues, despite strong lobbying by the EU, the United States, and international humanitarian organizations, who cite the Namibia judgment as an international precedent Kyiv should follow. Needless to say, those who want to keep their Ukrainian citizenship resent the bureaucratic hurdles and are hearing the message that the Ukrainian government is not especially interested in them.
Those who want to keep their Ukrainian citizenship resent the bureaucratic hurdles and are hearing the message that the Ukrainian government is not especially interested in them.
The battle on the ground reflects a battle within the Ukrainian government. The Ministry for Temporarily Occupied Territories, founded in 2016, is nominally in charge of policy toward Donbas and is advocating a “hearts and minds” policy. Yet many in Kyiv argue that the government has saved money by reducing pension payments. The minister of social policy went on the record in 2017 accusing international organizations of “brazen interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs” when lobbying on behalf of pensioners.18 The clash of views means that progress is slow on the ground. “You change one law and forget to change another. Each office and each court has its own solutions,” observed one international humanitarian worker in the region in 2018.19
The Donbas conflict has shallower roots than the other conflicts considered here. Moscow is the most important actor for resolving the conflict. If the Kremlin decides a solution is in its interests, it can reduce support for the DNR and the LNR, withdraw its forces, and press for a deal with Kyiv.
However, as in the other situations, as years pass the temporary situation becomes more and more permanent. That means that local dynamics and de facto separation are an ever-stronger negative factor. Here the burden of responsibility to turn things around lies more on Kyiv. Since 2014, the two sides have been living in a different information space, with the rebel-controlled territories getting their media message entirely from Russian sources. An anti-Kyiv identity has flourished. Since early 2017, there has also been greater de facto integration of the two territories into Russia. A 2017 report on business attitudes by Natalia Mirimanova found that while businesses in Donetsk still hoped for economic linkages with the rest of Ukraine, businesses in Luhansk had mostly given up on Ukraine and were looking to Russian markets.20
As in the other conflicts, the passing of time hardens attitudes in the parent state. A sizable political constituency in Ukraine now talks of Donbas as a “gangrene” or “cancerous growth” that should be “cut off.” They disparagingly refer to Donbas residents as “sausage-eaters” or “Muscovites” who have no role to play in a future Ukraine.21 Electoral politics is a big factor here. IDPs in the region are already excluded from voting in local elections or in local constituencies in parliamentary elections.22 If 3 million residents of Donbas, along with 2 million residents of Crimea, are permanently excluded from voting in Ukrainian elections, that would tip the electoral balance firmly in favor of western Ukrainian and more nationalist parties.
As years pass the temporary situation becomes more and more permanent. That means that local dynamics and de facto separation are an ever-stronger negative factor.
As in all unrecognized territories, engagement should be considered on an issue-by-issue basis. A key difference here is that the leaders of the DNR and LNR do not actively seek much international engagement, working only with a small range of actors, such as the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission and the Red Cross.
There is no reason to engage directly with the de facto authorities in this case. They lack legitimacy, rotate quickly, and are not the key decisionmakers. Political dialogue only makes sense within the framework of the negotiations around the Minsk agreements.
Focus on Humanitarian Issues
There is a much stronger case for engagement on humanitarian issues—although even this is more limited than in other conflict zones, as international humanitarian organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières have been forced to leave the territory. Yet the conflict has caused many urgent problems, such as food insecurity and environmental hazards. The OSCE monitors for example play an important role in trying to allow the continued operation of the Donetsk Filtration Station, which provides drinking water for more than 300,000 people on both sides of the line.
Improve Trade Ties
Severing economic ties threatens to re-create the unfortunate dynamic that hurt Georgian-Abkhaz relations in the 1990s. A hardline agenda on both sides hurts livelihoods, disadvantages businessmen, and threatens to reorient the two territories away from Ukraine and toward Russia. Engagement on this crucial topic should be a high priority.
Support People-to-People Contacts
Finally, it should be emphasized again that mass engagement of a different kind does already occur between the people on either side of the Line of Contact, something that keeps up a strong web of human connections vital for any future resolution to the conflict. This phenomenon is a positive aspect of this dispute and should not be taken for granted. Keeping open those connections and encouraging the Ukrainian government to connect with its citizens on the other side through a “hearts and minds” strategy should be a big priority.
1971 A poll conducted by ZOIS in December 2016 found that 55 percent of residents of DNR and LNR were in favour of being part of Ukraine, either with special status or as normal parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Given that many people with such views have either left the territories or may be afraid to speak up the numbers are remarkably high. https://www.zois-berlin.de/fileadmin/media/Dateien/ZOiS_Reports/ZOiS_Report_2_2017.pdf
2 “Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine,” International Crisis Group, February 5, 2016, https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/eastern-europe/ukraine/russia-and-separatists-eastern-ukraine.
3 “Russia Stands By Ukraine Ceasefire Deal, ‘Respects’ Rebel Vote,” Reuters, November 7, 2014.
4 Paul Quinn-Judge, “The Revolution That Wasn’t,” New York Review of Books, April 19, 2018.
5 Anna Matveeva, Through Times of Trouble: Conflict in Southeastern Ukraine Explained From Within (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018), 140.
6 Matveeva, Through Times of Trouble, 180.
7 “Russian Reporters ‘Attacked at Secret Soldier Burials,’” BBC News, August 27, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28949582.
8 Сурков пообещал Пушилину повышение зарплат в ДНР [Surkov promised Pushilin a salary hike in DNR], TASS, October 10, 2018, https://tass.ru/politika/5657257. Surkov’s control over government in Donbas contrasts strongly with his often unsuccessful attempts to steer the elite in Abkhazia, as seen above.
9 Vadym Kolodiychuk, “Expensive Donbas as Burden for Russian Budget,” 112.ua, January 17, 2017. https://112.international/article/expensive-donbas-as-burden-for-russian-budget-13172.html
11 Hrant Kostanyan and Artem Remizov, “The Donbas Blockade: Another Blow to the Minsk Peace Process,” Center for European Policy Studies, June 2017, https://www.ceps.eu/system/files/WD2017-08%20The%20Donbas%20blockade.pdf.
12 “Ukraine Imports Coal Worth 2.7bn Dollars in 2017,” LB.ua, January 4, 2018, https://en.lb.ua/news/2018/01/04/5273_ukraine_imports_coal_worth_27bn.html. Russia meanwhile appears to be exporting Donbas coal from the ports of Azov and Rostov. See: Brian Milakovsky, “Cut Off: What Does the Economic Blockade of the Separatist Territories Mean for Ukraine?,” Focus Ukraine (blog), Wilson Center, January 9, 2018, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/cut-what-does-the-economic-blockade-the-separatist-territories-mean-for-ukraine.
13 Interviews in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, June 2018
14 See Matveeva, 253. The rebel leader Alexander Juchkovsky welcomed the blockade, saying factories in the DNR were funding the military operation against them.
15 “Александр Захарченко: «Спрос на паспорта ДНР увеличился в разы»” [Alexander Zakharchenko: “Demand for DNR passports has increased signicantly”], Izvestia, April 24, 2017, https://iz.ru/news/689846.
16 “As Civilians Bear Brunt of Four-Year-Old Conflict in Ukraine, Continued Ceasefire Violations Test Credibility of Global Community, Officials Warn Security Council,” United Nations, May 29, 2018, https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13357.doc.htm.
17 “‘Nobody Wants Us’: The Alienated Civilians of Eastern Ukraine,” International Crisis Group, October 1, 2018, https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/eastern-europe/ukraine/252-nobody-wants-us-alienated-civilians-eastern-ukraine. This report is the most detailed analysis on the plight of ordinary people in the conflict zone.
19 Interview with author, eastern Ukraine, June 2018.
20 Natalia Mirimanova, “Economic Connectivity Across the Line of Contact in Donbas, Ukraine,” Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, September 2017, https://www.hdcentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/2017-study-ENG-web-version.pdf.
21 For a good discussion of this issue, see “‘Nobody Wants Us,’” International Crisis Group.
22 IDPs are allowed to vote for party lists in the parliamentary elections and in presidential elections.