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The story of a blockade: Lessons from the hybrid war

Ukraine: The European frontier – a blog curated by Valerii Pekar.

March 24, 2017 - Valerii Pekar - Articles and Commentary

trade blockade

Wars in the 21st century differ from those of the past. The Russian-Ukrainian hybrid war is the first, but definitely not the last of its kind. This is why lessons from the conflict are likely to be useful for all countries which could find themselves in the arena of future hybrid wars – that is to say, most countries in the world.

Sometimes the situation is so complex that it is hard even for Ukrainians to comprehend what is happening, not to mention the Western public. The trade blockade of occupied territories of Donbas is an example of such a situation.

One of the strange features of hybrid war is trade across the frontline. People who have seen movies about the First and Second World Wars picture the frontline as a double line of trenches and fortified points, from where the fighters occasionally shoot at one another. This vision is largely correct yet in the new hybrid war in Ukraine, one of the warring parties denies its presence in spite of evidence to the contrary. Moreover, unlike in the past, there is constant exchange across the frontline. This exchange consists of people (for instance, Ukrainian pensioners living in the occupied territory and visiting the mainland to get their pensions) and humanitarian aid, as well as commercial cargo. For the most part, this cargo includes coal of different grades: coal mined at occupied territories is used by power stations in mainland Ukraine and vice versa.

Over the past three years, Ukrainians have been asking themselves whether it is possible to trade across the frontline while Ukrainian soldiers are under fire on a daily basis (thus far there has been no ceasefire as the first requirement of the Minsk agreements has not  been observed by Russia). The answer is that trade must continue. Otherwise power stations supplying adjacent Ukrainian territories would stop running and, at the same time, miners living under occupation would lose their means of subsistence. In fact, rates for energy have increased, using the calculation of import coal prices and delivery, but coal continues to be transported from behind the frontline, not from new sources. The practice has enriched the Ukrainian coal and energy tycoon Rinat Akhmetov (the richest man in Ukraine, who was the only oligarch not to explicitly support Ukraine’s integrity) as well as some of his partners among the Ukrainian authorities, and has brought millions to poverty.

Ukrainians can endure for a long time, but not forever. Different groups have begun to block railways used to deliver coal and other cargo across the frontline. The stance of the blockade participants has been primarily ideological: it is simply wrong to trade with an enemy who kills our soldiers and civilians every day. Their opponents have countered, not with idealistic, but rather with pragmatic economic arguments: without this trade many towns on both sides of the frontline cannot survive and in fact this is not trade at all, but simply the supply of raw materials for vital industries located in the mainland, which employs tens of thousands of workers.

Indeed, the blockade immediately created substantial problems for the Ukrainian energy sector. However, the more important consequence was that puppet “governments” in the occupied territories “nationalised” (simply passed into Russian jurisdiction) many enterprises including several of Akhmetov’s companies (the reality of a hybrid war is that taxes are being paid from the occupied territories to the Ukrainian budget, while pensions are paid to pensioners living in the occupied areas). Another consequence is that people living in the numerous one-plant towns on either side of the frontline are losing their jobs because of the cutting of production links. Currently the metallurgy industry is in trouble, as well as the coal mining and power generation sectors. The powerful Russian propaganda uses this as an argument against the Ukrainian authorities.

The Ukrainian authorities, for their part, thought that trade across the frontline could keep the balance, contribute to the loyalty of people living under occupation and in the adjacent zone on our side of the frontline, support the economy, and ensure the loyalty of Akhmetov. But such a belief proved short-sighted. Trading with the enemy is always dangerous as they may break the trade link whenever it suits them. Preserving old economic models, defending monopolies, hampering reforms, and preventing improvement of the business climate will always cause problems. Trying to keep the status quo when only fast changes can be effective is a bad choice.

The Ukrainian authorities have tried to unblock trade routes by police force. However, the public reacted negatively to this in spite of the terrible behaviour of some of the blockade participants. Finally, the authorities decided to suspend the trade across the frontline, stating that it will be resumed once the enterprises in the occupied territories are returned to their Ukrainian owners (civilians continue to cross the frontline).

The full story is much more complex, as far as many important figures of Ukrainian politics are concerned. Indeed, many members of parliament have behaved outrageously: one group, relying on their immunity, broke the law by attacking policemen, while another group broke the law by bringing these policemen to speak at the parliament where only MPs are allowed a voice. However, at present these are secondary issues.

Alas, the authorities are failing to explain their actions. People ask why we are trading with the enemy, why we use double standards, and why we are keeping Akhmetov afloat at the expense of the common people. Explaining the policies to the people from the start was the authorities’ obligation which was never fulfilled.

Currently, Russia can force Akhmetov to take a more pro-Russian position in exchange for returning his property, as he controls many members of parliament and some influential TV channels. Suspension of trade de facto leads to the permanent loss of territories because the new Russian business owners will begin to install their own infrastructure on the ground (I have to mention that supporters of the conspiracy theories say that this entire story with “nationalisation” is just a performance played by Akhmetov and his Russian partners).

However, one major consequence of the blockade is positive for Ukraine. It would be harmful to continue with the illusion that business as usual will be possible to keep. It is finally becoming clear that we need to implement changes. First, we need to determine whether what we are fighting is a war or an “anti-terrorist operation”, the status of the occupied territories, and who the people living in those areas are. We need to ascertain the legal status of these issues. Then we have to concentrate on developing the economy by expanding economic freedom, not just continuing to exploit the old Soviet industrial legacy.

Here are some lessons to learn from the hybrid war:

1. A hybrid war thrives off uncertainty and ambiguity. Clarity is the best weapon against it.

2. Status quo works for the more powerful party in the conflict, in the Ukraine’s case – for the aggressor. To overcome the power imbalance is to go forward, not backward. Success is not possible unless there are genuine attempts to create change. Those who do not have the vision and strategy, invariably lose.

3. Communication is vital. Ambiguity increases tension. Any loss of trust can have dire consequences.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, a lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council. He curates a blog titled Ukraine: The European frontier.

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