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The cost of five years of war in Donbas

Beyond the catastrophic economic price Ukraine has been forced to pay, the war in Donbas has taken a terrible toll on the lives of millions of ordinary Ukrainians. Nothing but a lasting peace and reintegration can turn this situation around.

September 24, 2019 - Janek Lasocki - Hot TopicsIssue 5 2019Magazine

Remains of a shelled Eastern Orthodox church near Donetsk airport. For anyone living close to the frontline, everyday life has been transformed. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov (CC) commons.wikimedia.org

Seven years ago, in the summer of 2012, some ten thousand English and French football fans made the journey to Donetsk in eastern Ukraine to see their teams play in the group stages of the UEFA European football championship and then party in the centre of town. They took the newly delivered Hyundair Rotem Intercity trains from Kyiv or flew into the recently opened terminal at Sergey Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk. It was the capital of the country’s industry, the most populous region and at this time a calling card for Ukraine. No one then could have foreseen that the conflict that erupted less than two years later would turn the region into an active war zone.

Today the battles of Ilovaisk in 2014 and Debaltseve in 2015, the cyborgs of Donetsk airport or the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 have passed into Ukrainian history. The scale of Russia’s military involvement has long since been proven – thanks in no small part to investigative groups like Bellingcat. In the past five years since it began, this war has, in many ways, transformed Ukraine. Ukrainians have had to pay a heavy price. Above all, there has been the cost to human life. The United Nations estimates that the number of conflict-related casualties has reached at least 43,000: 13,000 killed (including 3,000 civilians) and more than 27,000 injured. According to the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), a further 1,500 people remain unaccounted for as a result of the conflict. Two million fled their homes heading predominantly to neighbouring oblasts (regions), but also west to Kyiv, and east to Russia. It is the bloodiest war and biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the collapse of Yugoslavia.

Life in a war zone

Although most of the intense fighting took place back in 2014 and 2015, this is no frozen conflict. Hiding from shells and gunfire has become routine along the conflict zone. In 2018 alone the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission observed 312,554 individual ceasefire violations. Unlike the frozen conflicts in the South Caucasus or Transnistria, the frontline is not completely stable, nor is the situation predictable. In November 2018 the Russians took the conflict to the sea, opening fire on three Ukrainian vessels on their way to the Azov Sea through the Kerch Strait, capturing 24 crew members.

For anyone living close to the frontline, everyday life has been transformed. Ukraine is one of the most severely mine contaminated areas in the world. It has had the highest number of anti-vehicle mine incidents globally for three consecutive years and is third globally in terms of overall casualties, behind Afghanistan and Syria. An estimated 7,000 square kilometres in government-controlled areas alone are littered with mines and explosives, causing over a thousand recorded deaths and injuries since 2014. Access to farm land and between many villages is seriously restricted, while many people have been cut off from essential services.

Despite the presence of warning signs, incidents continue to happen. In April 2018 a family of four was killed when their car exploded on a landmine by the Siverskyi Donets River in Pishchane (the government controlled Luhansk region). In May 2018 three teenagers were injured and one 14 year old boy was killed when the grenade one of the boys had in his school bag exploded on a public bus in Debaltseve (the non-government controlled Donetsk region). In October 2018 two workers were injured returning from repairing a damaged pipeline supplying clean water to 45,000 people near Zalizne (the government controlled Donetsk region) when their truck hit a mine. Mine-related incidents remained the leading cause of child casualties in 2018.

Water shortages have also become a fact of life. Almost all water supplies for the region come from the Sieverskyi Donets River. Water is pumped from the river to 1.2 million people in the Luhansk Oblast, via the Sieverskyi Donets Donbas Channel to supply the Donetsk Oblast with the use of a number of pumps that raise the height of the water. Continuous shelling has seriously damaged the infrastructure, limiting access to water in both the government-controlled and non-government controlled areas. According to international humanitarian agencies who are involved in providing water and purification chemicals, 30 per cent of people living within 20 kilometres of the contact line experience water shortages. In 2018, there were 37 stoppages of water and wastewater facilities with a cumulative total duration of 226 days, which was an increase from the previous year. Stoppages force families to buy expensive bottled water or use wells. Yet in some instances they have no choice but to rely on contaminated water and unsafe sanitation. As a result, in April this year there was an outbreak of gastroenteritis within days of a water stoppage.

Throughout the conflict, workers at the Voda Donbassa water maintenance company have risked their lives to restore water supplies. Nine have been killed and 26 injured since the conflict began, including three this year.

Economic costs

Donbas residents have had to adapt to life within a new border, erected on the 457-km-long contact line which divides the government controlled and non-government controlled areas. Around one million people per month now make time-consuming trips to buy goods or to access social services, crossing through just five checkpoints. It is the elderly who are the worst affected.

Although there are 1.52 million registered IDPs (internally displaced persons), it is estimated that close to half this number never actually left and are in reality old people claiming pensions. A November 2014 a law made pension payments conditional on registration as an IDP, for which they must have a permanent address in government-controlled territory. Every 60 days they must be verified and re-register. As a result, a disproportionate number of pensioners can be seen standing in line to cross each day. Conditions at the checkpoints are dire, with long queues outside, a lack of sufficient toilets and medical facilities, and no guarantee of safety when making the journey. In the first six months of this year, there were 28 incidents of people dying while crossing or waiting to cross the contact line. Most of these were pensioners who suffered heart attacks.

There is no doubt that Ukraine has also paid a catastrophic price, economically, for the war. Trying to calculate any precise figures, however, is difficult. In January 2018 Heorhiy Tuka, deputy minister for the temporarily occupied territories, told journalists that, as long as the “temporary occupation” continues, there is no way to put a number on the damage caused to Donbas. Looking at the extent of the physical damage, the collapse of heavy industry and the loss of tax revenue, however, can give a good illustration. In March 2015, following some of the most intense fighting, the World Bank assessed the total physical damage in Donbas from the war was at 463 million euro. According to economist Anders Åslund, who has studied this issue, this figure was “seemingly a very low estimate given the extent of the destruction”.

The assessment factored in extensive damage to state owned buildings, natural resources and environmental protection services, electricity generation and distribution, and, especially, roads. The effects of shelling and the use of heavyweight armoured vehicles as well as the destruction of bridges has left the road network in a critical state. Five years on it is now thought that over a third of hospitals and clinics in Donbas have been damaged or destroyed; in addition, over 750 education facilities and at least 50,000 homes have also been damaged.

Government estimates have varied. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, when he was the prime minister, gave a figure of nine billion US dollars in 2015, while Hennadiy Zubko, the minister of regional development, said that 15 billion dollars would be needed for reconstruction. More recently, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the 2019 Ukraine Reform Conference in Toronto that “According to tentative estimates, the restoration of Donbas will cost over ten billion euros.” While these estimates get across the sheer scale of the destruction, there is a lot they cannot quantify, including the psychological scarring of children who have experienced their schools shelled or friends killed by mines, or the thousands of soldiers who have returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder (and in many instances then died by suicide), or the people whose lives could have been saved by hospitals and doctors that are no longer present.

Industrial heartland no more

The economy of Donbas, which used to be the industrial heartland of Ukraine, is today a shadow of its former self. In 2013 Donbas contributed 16 per cent of the country’s GDP and 25 per cent of its total exports. But war led to looting, damage and destruction of industrial equipment and infrastructure. Supply chains were broken, the banking system collapsed, and the region was cut off from the international financial transaction system. According to government estimates, by summer of 2014 the region’s GDP had plunged by 70 per cent.

Around 20 factories were moved to Russia, including the Topaz radio-electric manufacturer, the Luhansk cartridge factory and the Khartsyzk machine building plant, while many others continued to function under their owners from before the war. This changed in March 2017 when Kyiv imposed a blockade of goods coming from the non-government controlled areas. The Russian-backed separatists then took control of over 43 large industrial enterprises in what they called a policy of “nationalisation”. While the blockade was damaging for both sides, it was harder for the non-government-controlled areas to adapt to the loss of export markets and inputs from suppliers from the rest of Ukraine. With a lack of reliable data, Artem Kochev of the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, innovatively calculated the quantity of night time luminosity as a proxy for economic activity. He estimated that separatist rule had decreased economic activity by 38 per cent in Donetsk Oblast, 51 per cent in Luhansk Oblast, and that the 2017 blockade decreased GDP in the whole region by approximately 20 per cent.

Ukraine also lost substantial tax revenue from Donbas while at the same time it was forced to increase defence spending. According to the Swedish International Peace Research Institute, Ukraine boosted military expenditure by 21 per cent in 2018, amounting to 3.8 per cent of its GDP. Since the war began, defence spending has increased by 53 per cent. Although modernisation of the Ukrainian armed forces was long overdue, these funds could have been used on improving infrastructure or public services.

Artificial divide

Ukraine has often been characterised as a country that can broadly be divided in two parts: the Russian-speaking south-east and the Ukrainian-speaking north-west. Maps of election results were often used to illustrate this. But this was always an artificial divide. Many people in Donetsk felt as Ukrainian as people in other regions, and no opinion poll conducted after independence has ever shown a majority in Donbas that either did not identity as Ukrainian or who wanted to secede from Ukraine. In the past five years, however, and for the first time, there is a physical border and Russian-backed separatists have done their best to cut ties from the rest of Ukraine, separating people for real.

In the first weeks after the conflict began, local media – such as the Donetsk TV channel Union, the 62.ua news site and the Donetsk News Agency – were forcefully taken over and became Russian propaganda outlets. Russian state TV, however, is still the main news source. Three new TV towers have been erected since 2014 to try and boost the signal of Ukrainian channels for viewers in the non-government controlled areas. It is difficult to know how much impact this has had but it is safe to assume that most residents are only exposed to anti-Ukrainian narratives. As Emine Dzhaparova, a then deputy information minister, said in April 2018: “Ukraine is far from winning the information war… Ukrainian media have practically been erased from the self-declared ‘People’s Republics’”.

New school curriculums have been introduced in non-government controlled areas, with a policy to erase Ukrainian historical narratives and celebrate local separatist “heroes” as well as present history from a Russian perspective. Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, has been replaced with the Russian rouble and the separatist “republics” started issuing their own identification papers in 2017. In the days following Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s election, Putin announced he would simplify the procedure for residents in the non-government controlled Donbas to be issued with Russian passports.

It is impossible to know how much impact this isolation has had on the people (although it is notable that, unlike some “frozen conflicts” in the former Soviet Union, people continue to cross the contact line in large numbers). No reliable opinion polls can be conducted; nonetheless, surveys that have been carried out can give us at least some indication. In December 2016 the Berlin-based Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) conducted a telephone survey of 1,200 people living in the areas not controlled by Ukraine. They found that since the start of the war, a quarter of those living in the separatist-controlled territory felt more Russian and 54 per cent reported that they felt less like Ukrainian citizens now than before. Another survey conducted by Natalia Mirimanova for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue found that a decreasing number of IDP entrepreneurs would consider moving back. This would seem to suggest that the longer the status quo is maintained the more difficult it will be to successfully reintegrate the regions.

Long road to reintegration

The war in eastern Ukraine has had a profound impact on the lives of millions of ordinary Ukrainians, many of whom now live in a permanent war zone. The local economy of the Donbas region has been devastated with implications for whole of Ukraine; and a new divide has been instituted where previously there was none.

There is much the Ukrainian government can – and should – do to ease the burden of life on the frontline. As Jana Kobzova of the European Council on Foreign Relations has argued, a new programme of revitalisation and reconstruction “should aim to reconnect the region – physically and mentally – with the rest of Ukraine”. There is also more that Europe and other international partners can do. In 2018 the international humanitarian response was only 37 per cent funded. A continued commitment to reform in Ukraine is also essential to fulfilling the promise of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity.

Ultimately, however, there needs to be a lasting peace and reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine and it is no secret that this is something that cannot happen without Russia’s acquiescence; and at this moment Russia seems to see little incentive in enabling such a scenario. International pressure on Russia should be maintained to clearly show that a resolution is an international priority. Perhaps one day, then, it might be possible to imagine Donetsk, again, being a calling card for a successful and united Ukraine.

This text was first published in New Eastern Europe issue 5/2019. Click here to see more about this issue.

Janek Lasocki was formerly an advocacy coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations and currently writes about Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He tweets @janeklasocki.

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