A few months ago, Donetsk was a vibrant, thriving and ambitious city. Hosting the European football championship in 2012 coincided with the peak of its hopes for world recognition. Today, it stands partially destroyed, sad, hopeless and fearful for its future. The European metropolis of one million people now holds around 80 per cent of its previous population, mainly working classes. The wealthier people who could afford it left the city in order to escape the war. Donetsk has become a centre of the Ukrainian conflict after the Kiev government announced an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ (ATO) against ‘pro-Russian separatists’ in mid-April 2014.
Social life in public places is now almost non-existent, aside from one or two entertainment establishments, such as the Opera House. Most theatres, cinemas, cafes, bars and clubs are closed and many shops and businesses boarded up their windows. The curfew, which was announced in summer, is still not cancelled, and even though there are rumours that one night club is functioning, the streets are empty at night. By day, there are no traffic jams in Donetsk anymore and ‘camouflaged armed men walk where shoppers and businessmen once strolled’. But not everywhere is quiet, depending on where you are. An occasional cannonade can be heard, or even continuous explosions.
Each shelling and shooting incident is still seen in the city as an unfortunate accident or state of emergency. People have resigned themselves to the fact that there are several ‘armed conflict zones’, for example, near the airport or near Karlovka/Maryinka, where still-populated civilian quarters adjacent to the airport are bearing the brunt. Even though it is morally totally unacceptable, amongst Donetsk residents it is now if not fully accepted, then at least expected. However, now and again, shells and bombs fall on central civilian areas that are nowhere near the usual fighting zones, e.g. for no apparent reason central Gladkovka area of Donetsk was shelled, when the Local History Museum was destroyed.
More than 4,300 people have been killed in Donetsk and Lugansk since April, and according to the UN, an average of 13 have died every day since a formal ceasefire was agreed in Minsk on September 5. All deaths are terrible, but some are particularly gruesome, such as the death of a 12-year old boy in Donetsk on 27th November, who was blown apart by a shell and was only identified by his textbooks as all that was left of him was a pile of meat. These incidents shake not only Donetsk civilians but also the rest of the sympathising world to its core.
Both sides of the conflict blame each other for civilian casualties and given that most Ukrainian soldiers and self-defence militias speak the same language (mainly Russian) with the same accent and use the same weapons, it’s not easy to determine who’s responsible for civilian casualties. There are ‘witnesses’ that emerge to produce conflicting evidence and Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and OSCE all reported both sides as guilty of the use of indiscriminate weapons, but more often than not it’s the Ukrainian side which is responsible for shelling residential areas, while separatists are blamed for situating their weaponry there.
As a journalist from Odessa reported from within the Kiev’s forces’ frontline, the Ukrainian artillery aims at Donetsk randomly, or as a Ukrainian soldier summarised: “Shooting in the direction of separatists, but then… who knows how the cards will fall.” However, even when there’s irrefutable evidence of Ukraine breaking international humanitarian law, such as the recent Human Rights Watch’s report of Ukraine’s widespread use of cluster bombs (which are banned by most countries excluding Ukraine and USA), President Poroshenko still attempts to dismiss evidence as ‘Russian propaganda’.
So far, Petro Poroshenko has avoided a declaration of war or martial law. That would have undermined the legitimacy of the presidential and parliamentary elections, both of which were lavished with praise by Western politicians. Both Kiev and their supporters continue referring to a so-called ‘Russian invasion’, even though the International Committee of the Red Cross described the events in the Donbass region as a “non-international armed conflict, and many western journalists, OSCE representative and even a brave Ukrainian Major and military expert confirmed that there are no Russian troops in East Ukraine. Kiev consistently refuses to admit that they have launched a civil war against their own population, treating 8 million Donbass civilians like terrorists, second-rate citizens or even non-humans, simply because they have decided to exercise their right to self-determination.
There is no law in the Ukrainian constitution which says that a person who votes in a pro-independence referendum should face the death penalty. Cancelling pensions and other state benefits, which Kiev has done recently, on the basis of someone living in an area together with many people who have separatist sentiments is equivalent to sentencing those people to slow death by starvation. Even serial killers, by Ukrainian law, have the right to life, but Donbass pensioners, who may even have participated in a referendum, irrespective of whether they are politically illiterate or even very politically aware and who may be convinced that Donbass should be independent, are denied their right to life. Having cut their pensions, Kiev offered them no support to reallocate to other parts of Ukraine and survive. People simply do not have the means to move elsewhere. For many people, state benefits, however meagre, are their only source of income. This winter will be tough for those people and even if there won’t be thousands dead, even if only 10 people will die from undernourishment or even one, it will still be a tragedy for which the Kiev government will be responsible.
Aside from cutting off state benefits, Poroshenko stopped all monetary transactions and banking services, leaving millions unable to withdraw cash or even use cards to access their savings. The Ukrainian Army keeps targeting water, wastewater, and power plants in order to damage the electricity, water and heat supply to Donetsk and Lugansk regions’ and in the winter months this could lead to people freezing to death. Medical staff and teachers have not been paid for months and hospitals and schools are operating on a volunteer basis. Medical drugs are still available, but prices have gone up almost two-fold, as a result of hryvnia devaluation. Food is available, but just like with medicines, some people will not be able to pay for it, now that their accounts are blocked and benefits are cancelled. Finally, trains will no longer operate between Ukraine and Donbass, thereby not only inconveniencing the already impoverished population, but impairing deliveries of industrial cargo as well as food and other goods. Please note that so far, Russia and Akhmetov’s Fund have been the main providers of humanitarian aid to Donbass, but they cover only 10 per cent of humanitarian necessities.
Before these events, the Ukrainian side could still claim that shells and Grads falling on Donbass civilians were ‘unfortunate accidents’ which were ‘inevitable’ as they tried to liberate the country from ‘terrorists’ and ‘Russian invaders’. However, the stopping of the pensions and the blocking of bank accounts, transport links and energy supplies are evidently not coincidences, but conscious decisions to isolate Donbass from the Ukrainian infrastructure, while still claiming it as Ukraine’s territory. All of the above measures would be justifiable if Poroshenko openly said: “Dear citizens, the Russian Federation has invaded Donbass, Ukraine cannot withstand this aggression, and therefore we announce Donbass to be an occupied territory. And as it’s not Ukrainian land anymore, we cannot guarantee or control anything that happens on it. We are renouncing our responsibilities in that region, but we will do everything we can to help civilians to evacuate themselves”. No such statements were ever made.
On the contrary, Kiev’s socio-economic blockade reveals the real attitude of Kiev’s government: Donbass’ land with all of its resources is valuable to Ukraine and its western supporters, but the people, who inhabit that land are not only of no value to Ukraine, they are a hindrance to be eliminated. The government of a country which calls itself European and harbours hopes of one day joining the European Union is consciously creating a humanitarian disaster in an area where people have different political beliefs.
What exactly is Kiev trying to achieve with all these inhumane extreme measures and how effective will they be? Firstly, Ukraine is trying to create impossible-to-live-in conditions, forcing defiant people to either move or die, thereby reducing the numbers of a ‘pro-Russian electorate’. Secondly, they are trying to create a state of chaos, where hungry and angry people will turn against Donbass authorities. Thirdly, there is a more simple and banal explanation – Ukraine’s economy is faltering and something needs to somehow cover its deficit. Withholding state benefits saved Kiev $2.6 billion, as well as helping the leadership gain extra points with the Ukrainian nationalists, who believe that anyone who’s not pro-united Ukraine is an enemy and deserves death.
Both governments of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics are far from ideal – they are mainly military men, not that experienced in political and economic matters. They make many mistakes, e.g. the most recent propaganda campaign to encourage the population to demand pensions from Kiev does nothing but undermines their own authority. If they have announced themselves a government, then they should assume all the governmental responsibilities, including provision of state benefits (which should have been planned following the May referendum). However, the majority of Donetsk and Lugansk civilians are very well aware who is shelling them and who is trying to create a humanitarian catastrophe on their land. The amoral and aggressive position of Kiev towards them gives a trust boost to the LNR and DNR authorities, and Donbass governments should make every attempt to not betray this trust. In other words, Kiev is achieving the opposite of what it would like – it is strengthening the support for the LNR and DNR, who even despite their inexperience, hold a much higher moral ground in the eyes of the majority of the remaining Donbass citizens. Though of course, there are people who believe that the troubles will stop as soon as LNR and DNR will leave.
The reality is that LNR and DNR will not be defeated easily. Just as NATO provides military help to Ukraine, there are many claims Russia is helping self-defence forces. Russia didn’t support a violent overthrow of power in a territory bordering the U.S. such as for example, Mexico: it was the U.S., with EU support, that decided to meddle in the zone of geopolitical importance to Russia. Openly aiding a pro-NATO government to get to power through violence near Russia’s borders is a provocation, which can result in a third world war with devastating consequences for the entire world.
If rockets are positioned near Belgorod they can reach Moscow in 20 minutes. This leaves Russia in a situation of threat and significantly lowers its bargaining power in world politics. The Maidan people and their western supporters, who thought that they can just pull Ukraine out of Russia’s geopolitical sphere of influence without any prior agreement with Russia, were overly optimistic. In the world of cynical dirty politics, the U.S. has the right to just bomb nations which ‘threaten US security’, however there was an assumption that Putin will be too busy with the Sochi Winter Olympics to worry about his obligation to protect 150 million people of the largest country in the world. He was hardly going to come on the Red Square to shed tears in front of his voters because Klitschko and Turchynov ‘cheated’ on him.
From its beginning, the conflict in Donbass should not have been addressed using military means. In 2004, during the Orange Revolution, there was a similar situation – there was a kind of Maidan, which won, but the first thing that Timoshenko did was to fly to Donetsk to negotiate with Akhmetov. Even though the content of their discussion is not known, it did prevent any further conflict escalation, even though tensions were high. What happened in the spring of 2014 is that a self-proclaimed government, which came to power via a violent coup (i.e. illegitimate means, using the force of extremist nationalists), gathered in the Rada and the first thing it did was to defiantly cancel the special status of the Russian language – a law which didn’t make much difference practically but which carried an important symbolic meaning for Donbass.
Originally, the 2012 language law was invoked by the Party of the Regions to please its electorate. It couldn’t make Russian a second national language because it would need 300 out of 450 votes in Parliament, which they would never get. But as the party made some promises to its electorate about the issue of the Russian language, it managed to pass this special status law. In the summer 2013, when the law was passed, the pro-Ukrainian electorate began a ‘language Maidan’ in Kiev, but it didn’t gather wide support and nothing came out of it. So when the new self-proclaimed Kiev government threatened to cancel the law, over which there’s been so many tensions in the past, many East Ukrainians, who had witnessed the russophobia and violence of Euromaidan in horror and saw the government they had elected run from its responsibilities, feared that the new government would be doing whatever it pleased against the Russian speaking population. This is what led to the initial Donbass civilian protests and Kiev should have negotiated with the leaders of the movement, rather than assume an arrogant position of ‘non-negotiation’ and reckless implementation of military force.
The longer this senseless war, which should not have been started in the first place, will last, the more hate will be bred between West and East Ukrainians, the more people will die, the more tensions will rise between Russia and the West. This war should be stopped as soon as possible and there should be international pressure on both sides of the conflict to observe a new ceasefire. On Tuesday 2nd December, a truce was agreed for Donetsk airport and a ceasefire announcement starting from 5th December was made for the Lugansk province, but the agreement fell apart within hours. A new truce was announced beginning on 9th December with an agreement that Ukraine would begin withdrawing heavy weapons from the eastern frontline on December 10 – as long as the other side also observed the truce.
There is little hope that this ceasefire will be effective and long-lasting without successful negotiations between Kiev and Lugansk/Donetsk People’s Republics. Lifting the economic blockade as a measure to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe and the question of federalisation should be the main topics of these negotiations. After all that has happened in the last year, Ukraine as a unified centralised nation would not lead to any stability. Donbass residents have totally lost faith in Kiev’s government and there is a tense atmosphere of hate and contempt between them and West Ukrainians. The inhabitants of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions are well aware that not only is there not a Ukrainian peace movement trying to stop the civil war or socio-economic blockade, there are many West Ukrainians who actively support the ‘killing of separatists’. This amoral thinking that ‘territories are eternal values, while people are a secondary and dispensable resource’, has led to civil war, widening the long-existing divisions between West and East Ukrianians. This divide will take decades to re-bridge again and federalisation can significantly help to diminish these tensions. Some western politicians, like Germany’s vice-chancellor Simar Gabriel, already backed federalisation in Ukraine, as they see it as an important step towards peace. If other western leaders are serious about peace in Ukraine, they should do the same.
Unfortunately, as with any war, there’s always someone who benefits from it, so even the news about a new ceasefire, which gave a glimmer of hope, was followed by intense shelling over the weekend of 6-7 December. Donetsk City Administration website published that ‘the whole evening of 7th December and night of 8th December, the sounds of artillery bursts and explosions did not stop’, leaving 10 peaceful civilians dead and 13 wounded. The morning of 8th December, the situation was reported as ‘relatively peaceful’ – there was even a Christmas Tree mounted on the central Lenin Square. However, whether Donetsk civilians will be able to celebrate their New Year and Christmas in peace depends largely on what will happen on the day of the negotiations between the Kiev and Donetsk/Lugansk leaders.
Vera Graziadei is a British-Ukrainian-Russian actress and writer who resides in London. Ramil Zamdykhanov lives in Donetsk and worked at Kiev Rus Television.