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Donbas: An imported war

This report is based on a visit to Kyiv, Donbas, and Vienna in late August. In Donbas, we visited Kramatorsk, Slavyansk, Severodonetsk, Bakhmut, Maryinka, Mariupol, and several Ukrainian positions along the frontline. We also passed through two Donetsk Peoples’ Republic (DNR) checkpoints in Horlivka. Our account is based on our impressions, conversations and interviews along the Ukrainian-controlled areas of the frontline.

November 3, 2016 - Gustav Gressel, Kadri Liik, Fredrik Wesslau - Articles and Commentary


As night falls over Donbas, the sound of artillery fire begins. Two damp sounds in quick succession. One, two, three… twenty seconds pass until the next round. And so it continues throughout the night – as it does almost every night in Donbas. After more than two years of war, the local residents have learned how best to hide from shelling, but they remain wary.

“This war did not start here,” says an elderly lady in Maryinka, while listening to the shelling and identifying it as “still remote”. The idea that the war was brought in by outsiders in pursuit of geopolitical goals, is heard from everyone. There is not much belief in the viability of the self-proclaimed people’s republics, but people are also frustrated with Kyiv and what they see as neglect for the region by the central authorities.

The preceding weeks had seen a clear spike in hostilities and an increased use of heavy weapons. Most shelling takes place at night when there are no OSCE patrols, but recently there has been an increase of shelling during the day, as Russia has stepped up its military pressure on Ukraine.

On the ground it is clear that there is no ceasefire to speak of and there has been no implementation of the Minsk agreement terms. Our main conclusion from the visit is that the possibility of implementing the political provisions of the Minsk package – notably holding local elections and granting special status to the territories – is highly unrealistic under current security conditions.

Conditions on the frontline

Both sides are engaged in a “sitting war” along the 500 kilometre contact line. They have dug in their positions and do not appear to be making any serious attempts to take more territory – at least for the moment. The war is more or less at a military equilibrium: the Ukrainian side does not have enough military strength to enforce victory and Russia could only advance if it were to commit a much larger number of troops, and be willing to accept additional casualties. But this would come at a high political cost for Moscow, both internationally and domestically.

Nevertheless, the operative stalemate does not signify a truce, as the fighting continues. In certain areas along the contact line the parties are very close – only 50 metres apart – close enough to scream an insult before shooting a round, a soldier told us. Salvos of shelling are met with retaliatory rounds as no self-respecting commander can let an attack go unanswered. The proximity leads – by default – to clashes and provocations.

Several interlocutors told us that the number of casualties was relatively low compared to the amount of shelling. Analysis of the craters points to nose-fused rounds being used. This suggests that the shelling of positions is meant to keep the other side in check and to deter them from launching an attack, rather than to soften positions as preparation for a subsequent assault. From the disposition of the troops, it does not seem that either side is making any serious attempts to take more territory.

Over the past two years, the Ukrainian armed forces have improved considerably and are more capable of defending their ground. Wartime experience, improved training, higher salaries, better oversight, improved command structures, better supply, higher numbers of contract soldiers and better officers have improved the fighting ability and discipline of the troops.  Russia has the capacity to defeat Ukraine, but Ukraine is in a much better position than two years ago.

Nonetheless, several Ukrainian interlocutors expressed fears that Russia may attempt to carve out a land bridge to Crimea, or make a push to the boundaries of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. However, such an offensive would require the deployment of at least two to three additional divisions (15,000 to 25,000 troops in total) and leave an extremely vulnerable flank in the north. It is more likely that Russia will continue chipping away at Kyiv’s resolve by shelling Ukrainian controlled territory or by launching smaller offensives with much narrower aims in the hope that the pressure will lead Kyiv to make concessions on Minsk.

Those manning the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (OSCE SMM) are doing an admirable job under adverse circumstances. They seem to provide some limited deterrence through their patrols, as the sides avoid shelling when OSCE monitors are present. The OSCE mission also facilitates reconstruction of infrastructures across the line and prisoner-exchanges, as well as serves as a link between the two sides to deescalate tense situations. But it is clear that the mission’s mandate and capabilities are limited. The local population holds mixed views about the OSCE’s presence. Many see it as the hapless face of the international community, unable to do anything to end the conflict. The OSCE shows up to observe and patrol, but ultimately nothing changes. There have been several large demonstrations in the DNR, likely organised by the de facto authorities, against the OSCE. Others see the organisation as their only insurance against the separatists. Without the OSCE, they would be left completely to the devices of the separatists.

A glimpse into life in the people’s republics

Residents of the self-proclaimed people’s republics seem to be losing faith in the longevity and future of their republics. While the most dedicated supporters of the separatist cause never leave the territory, and were thus not accessible to us, we managed to talk to some people who were crossing through the checkpoints. Above all else, they appeared tired and dejected. People complained about the constant shelling, lack of work, high prices, and the legal limbo they live in. Unification with Russia was seen as highly unrealistic and not necessarily desirable. We were told that many residents of the so-called republics prefer to handle their personal legal affairs according to the framework of Ukrainian legislation: they want to study in Ukraine to receive recognised diplomas, and they come to the Ukrainian-controlled areas to get married, to give birth, and obtain birth certificates. We spoke to a student at Donetsk University who said that he would now have to do another degree at a Ukrainian university since his diploma from Donetsk would no longer be recognised.

According to the local authorities, some companies have also registered and pay taxes in the Ukrainian-controlled areas in order to be able to export and do business there. More than two-thirds of the staff in the Ukrainian administration for the Luhansk Oblast – now based in Severodonetsk – used to work in Luhansk itself and moved when the town was taken over.

We saw hundreds of cars standing idly on the road waiting to cross checkpoints to enter the DNR. Thousands of people cross the division line every day. It can take as much as a full day to cross, or longer if you happen to be in no man’s land when the crossing closes for the evening. There are four functioning checkpoints in the Donetsk Oblast. In the Luhansk Oblast just one checkpoint is open and attempts to open more have been repeatedly rebuffed by the de facto authorities – despite being agreed with the help of OSCE. By now, most checkpoints do have basic facilities, such as chemical toilets, but the conditions remain primitive.

Local DNR soldiers guard the checkpoints. They are a ragtag bunch. We crossed two DNR checkpoints and spent hours waiting at a third before returning to the government controlled side. The first DNR checkpoint was manned by soldiers in their early twenties or possibly even younger. They seemed eager to show who was in charge by starting an argument with the local driver. It was early afternoon and a group had started drinking by the side of the road. The ultimate source of power – the Kalashnikov – was always close by.

Russian troops are said to wear DNR/LNR insignia and operate on the second line, often manning heavy weapons, while local separatist troops are on the front line so as to give the impression of a purely separatist force. Russia is in charge of command and control and supplies the DNR/LNR forces with arms and ammunition. Its involvement is so deep that the DNR/LNR military structures would instantly collapse if Russia decided to withdraw.

Russian troops are more disciplined and competent than their local comrades. Ukrainian soldiers said that they could tell when they were being shelled by Russian troops because of the accuracy of the incoming artillery. It is difficult to say exactly how many Russian troops are operating in the entities, as many of them rotate constantly and are supported by Russian units who come over the border at night to shell Ukrainian positions. Given the frontline’s proximity of the border with Russia – as little as 30 kilometres in some places – there is often no need to maintain regular Russian forces along the frontline in the DNR/LNR. Russian reserves are also ready across the border.

Our interaction with representatives of the DNR de facto authorities – even though limited – gave us the impression that they were distrustful and insecure and operate with minimal freedom of manoeuvre. They compensate for this insecurity on the one hand by acting bullishly and recklessly, on the other hand by insulating the local population from outside influences. Medecins Sans Frontiers were driven out of the DNR because their initiative to offer psychologicalcounselling was interpreted as brainwashing.

The spoiler potential of the separatists is substantial. If Kyiv ever regains full control over Donbas, reintegrating them will present a massive challenge – a challenge that is becoming more complicated with every day that passes. The separatists will not disappear – they cannot return to Ukraine and Russia does not want them either. Nor is Moscow likely to welcome back its own citizens who moved to Donbas as soldiers of fortune or idealistic fighters against “Ukrainian fascism”.

 The DNR is gradually losing the foundations for any future economic development. Some enterprises are relocating to the Ukrainian-controlled territory and some factories are reportedly being dismantled and moved to Russia – though the latter still needs to be verified. “Donetsk is no more,” a local resident told us. “And will never be.” The increasingly war-weary population may be interested in re-integration, but the opposing vested interests seem, at least for the time being, more powerful.

The notion that there can be progress on the Minsk package under the prevailing security situation seems fanciful. How can special status be implemented for the DNR/LNR when there is daily shelling? It is unimaginable that free and fair elections can be held when young motley groups of soldiers with Kalashnikovs roam the countryside and there are mines in the ground. How could international monitors observe elections if not even the OSCE SMM is able to move around freely or securely? A sustained ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, the pulling back of troops, and a period of calm, seem an obvious prerequisite for any meaningful political process. If Moscow is serious about wanting peace in Donbas then it should stop the shelling and withdraw its troops.

Government-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts

More than two years into the war, life along the frontline is a mix of the mundane and the surreal. The local population in the government-controlled areas keeps itself focused on the practicalities of daily life, on getting by. People living in these areas who we talked to do not hold any notable pro-Russian sympathies and see the conflict as something that has been instigated by outsiders. They recognise that the “people’s republics” are highly dysfunctional entities that have brought misery to the region. The idea that the conflict had local roots was rejected by virtually all of our interlocutors. But this does not mean that people are happy with the policies of Kyiv. There is a widespread feeling that Kyiv abandoned the region during the most active part of the war in 2014 and has done little to support it since. But it is important to stress that all grievances towards Kyiv have to do with practical issues, not geopolitics or language questions. People may dislike those in power, but they do not dispute the legitimacy of those politicians or the borders of the country.

It was interesting to observe the use of Ukrainian and Russian languages in the region. While Russian may be dominant, we also heard Ukrainian in the streets. Sometimes our questions in Russian were answered in Ukrainian – and this was not in order to make a nationalist point, but because the region is effortlessly bilingual, just like Kyiv. The two languages are interchangeable and in conversations people easily switch from one to the other or mix them as they see fit. The language issue – so hyped by Russia – simply does not exist.

The mood in the local towns was very calm. There is some wariness of terrorism and sabotage. Bigger gatherings, such as for Independence Day celebrations, were well guarded and peoples’ bags were searched. But one could feel no social tension. Local people said that the situation had in fact improved since 2014 – partly as a result of the most hardcore elements and criminals moving over to the DNR/LNR side, but also because of the sobering effects of the war.

Nonetheless, in settlements that border the frontline – in the grey zone – shelling is a constant part of life. To an extent, people have adapted to it – as far as one can adapt to shelling. On the day we visited the Luhansk Oblast the deputy governor opened the meeting by announcing that the same day a woman had been killed in her apartment because it has been hit by a mortar. In Maryinka, another woman’s recent death from a sniper bullet was reported to us.

Local authorities try to cope with the situation as it is and try to restore public services and normal life as quick as possible. We didn’t hear any primitive political spin during our visit – on the contrary they are very focused on practical problems. They are also consciously trying to develop region to make it more attractive for people living on the other side of the line – the “West Berlin model” was often mentioned. It was also encouraging to see that a number of young activists have entered into politics in Donbas – echoing the similar trend towards more activist-politics that has transformed the political scene in Kyiv.

The regions’ practical concerns are manifold. They include coping with tight budgets, unemployment, tax collection, the scarcity of investments, handling internally displaced people (IDPs) and making sure the IDP status is not abused. There is also the challenge of reconstructing civilian and industrial infrastructure – including power lines, gas and water pipes that run to or from the self-proclaimed people’s republics which can only be accessed with the OSCE’s assistance. Since 2014, government controlled regions have also lost access to higher education and sophisticated medical care, as a number of key institutions providing those services were located in Donetsk or Luhansk respectively – so these services need to be compensated for and/or created again from scratch. The embryonic decentralisation reform has sometimes resulted in a mismatch of resources and responsibilities, which further complicates things.

IDPs have put an enormous burden on the local economy that was already suffering from high unemployment before the war. There are currently 640,000 registered IDPs in Donetsk Oblast and 276,000 in Luhansk Oblast. Nowadays, the inflow of IDPs has slowed, and the ones that have resettled in the regions for up to two years have begun to integrate. Some have found housing and employment, but many are still in need of additional social support that the regions are trying to provide as best as they can. IDP status has also been falsely claimed by a number of people who reside in the self-proclaimed people’s republics because it gives them access to benefits. Stricter checks and exposure of such behaviour in recent months has reduced the overall number of Donetsk Oblast IDPs by about 100,000.

There was a general feeling among those in the region that Kyiv is not paying much attention to their problems. While IDPs are entitled to benefits, the local residents who have lost their apartments to shelling are currently not entitled to any compensation. In this context, the region represents a huge untapped resource for Kyiv. A more comprehensive reconstruction effort would go a long way towards assuring people and creating good will. Loyalty towards Ukraine is already there anyway.


The trip to Donbas made it even more clear to us that the war in Donbas is an imported war. The power to resolve the conflict sits with Moscow, but what the Kremlin wants to achieve –leverage and veto rights over Ukraine’s future decision making – is not just unacceptable to Ukraine and Europe, it is impossible from a practical point of view. There is no local constituency for “special status”. On the contrary – it was often pointed out to us that the war-ravaged region would need to lean heavily on help from the central authorities, and for this reason any devolution of powers is considered somewhat premature. Thus, when it comes to “special status”, Moscow would need to make constant destabilising efforts to keep up that appearance. Also, as regards Ukraine as a whole, it is fanciful to imagine that Ukrainians could accept being dictated to by Moscow – after EuroMaidan, the annexation of Crimea, and the war in Donbas. Russia has lost much of its soft power over Ukrainians and this will not be restored any time soon. 

So what could change Moscow’s calculation? If Ukraine manages to reform and become a stable consolidated democracy with a functioning economy, Moscow may in the end realise that its strategy will not work and seek a face-saving way out. But this will take time. Moscow is betting on the reform effort collapsing and the EU losing interest. The EU needs to be in this for the long haul. Its task is to prevent the situation from dangerously escalating, to try to keep options open for the future, and to alleviate the suffering of the local population to whatever extent it can.

Fredrik Wesslau is Director of the Wider Europe Programme and Senior Policy Fellow at ECFR. He previously worked for the EU, OSCE and UN on conflict and crisis management in the Balkans, South Caucasus and Africa. He served as political adviser to the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus with a particular focus on the Russia-Georgia conflict between 2008 and 2011.

Kadri Liik is a Senior Policy Fellow at ECFR, specialising in Russia and Eastern Europe. She previously was the Director of the International Centre for Defence Studies in Estonia. She also worked as Editor-in-Chief at the foreign affairs magazine Diplomaatia and was a Moscow correspondent for several leading Estonian newspapers.

Gustav Gressel is a Senior Policy Fellow at ECFR, specialising in security and military affairs. He previously worked on international security policy and strategy in the Austrian Ministry of Defence, having earned his PhD in Strategic Studies and served five years in the Austrian Armed Forces.

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