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Reintegrating Donbas is starting to look like a Russian trap

2017-02-09 19:07 | Network |

FROM her roadside stall in eastern Ukraine, Svetlana Tsymbal watches the cars creep past the Mayorsk checkpoint. This used to be a peaceful provincial highway. Now it is a border crossing at the front line of a conflict that has left some 10,000 people dead. Parents return home “to the other side” after visiting children. Pensioners cross to receive payments on Ukrainian-held territory. Traders lug supplies and sometimes contraband back and forth. The road is lined with mines.

It has been nearly three years since Russian-backed separatists seized chunks of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The Minsk agreements, signed in February 2015, envision Russia returning control over the border and withdrawing its troops, and Ukraine holding local elections and granting the occupied territories “special status”. A stretch of relative quiet in 2016 raised hopes of progress. But in late January, combat erupted around the industrial hub of Avdiivka. The fighting has slowed, but the outbreak showed how intractable the conflict has become. “How can we go back to the way things were?” asks Ms Tsymbal. “Blood has been spilled.”

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Most Ukrainians say the war in Donbas, as the region is known, is the country’s most important issue. Yet they dislike the proposed solutions: fewer than 10% view the Minsk agreements positively. Although the Ukrainian government publicly supports implementing them, in private officials say that doing so could be disastrous. Compromise is politically fraught. Nadia Savchenko, the Ukrainian fighter pilot who returned from Russian captivity to a hero’s welcome last year, had her allegiance questioned after meeting with separatist leaders. Some of President Petro Poroshenko’s rivals have called for blockading the territories. “This is our September 11th, just stretched out over three years,” says Pavlo Malykhin, the head of Avdiivka’s civil-military administration.

From the point of view of Ukraine and its backers, the Minsk agreements were imposed at gunpoint. Russian regular forces, equipped with artillery, armour and anti-aircraft support, intervened to rescue the separatist militias in mid-2014 and soon outmatched the Ukrainian Army. “[At one point] I was down to one battalion,” says Mr Poroshenko. In 2015, “90% of all negotiations in Minsk were simply about halting fire.” Russia got almost everything it wanted: a Russian-controlled autonomous territory with its own militia and administration. Given Ukraine’s economic problems, Mr Putin expected it to collapse quickly.

Shotgun divorce

Instead it survived. While still weakened by corruption, Ukraine has stabilised its economy, pushed through some reforms and rebuilt its military. “When I came to power we had no army, a massive budget deficit, a 50% inflation rate and no money,” says Mr Poroshenko. “Today I have one of the strongest armies in Europe, with unique experience of fighting a hybrid war against Russia.” Ukraine’s combat-ready forces total 250,000 men, of whom 60,000 are deployed in the east. In Donbas they have been creeping forward, seizing positions in the “grey zone” occupied by separatists in violation of the agreements.

Yet Russia, too, has been building. It has created a force estimated at 40,000 men in the separatist territories, including, covertly, about 5,000 Russian soldiers. It has rebuilt the local administration, repaired road infrastructure and eliminated some of the unrulier rebel commanders. (One such commander, Mikhail Tolstykh, better known as “Givi”, was blown up with a grenade launcher on February 8th.) Mr Putin now hopes to use the Minsk process to incorporate this separatist administration into Ukraine. Yulia Mostovaya, the editor of Zerkalo Nedeli, an independent weekly, says this would be like implanting a cancerous cell into Ukraine’s body. It would give Russia control over a portion of the electorate and could lead to further disintegration of the country. Many in Kiev would prefer to preserve the status quo.

In Avdiivka that status quo has its costs. “Before, we could duck into Donetsk for pizza, we were the centre of the region,” says Galina, a shopkeeper at the town market. “Now we’re the edge of Ukraine.” The city depends on a Soviet-era coking factory (one of the largest in Europe) near the front lines. The factory, part of the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s sprawling empire, once sat at the heart of a regional supply chain, turning Donbas coal into coke for steel mills. Now dozens of employees live with one foot on either side of the line.

Politically, the town is divided. Many support Russia and its separatist proxies—partly because they watch Russian state TV. In Ukraine’s western regions, 79% favour membership of the European Union, while only 3% prefer the Russian-led Customs Union; in eastern regions under Ukrainian control, just 24% prefer the EU and 40% the Customs Union. “We have different values,” says Galina.

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