Last September, a few weeks before Ukraine’s general election, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, then as now prime minister, issued a pamphlet listing his aims. One was stark: “To get through the winter.” Given that rebel soldiers in the eastern part of the country paint “To Kiev!” on their tanks, that Ukraine relies on Russia for much of its energy, and that its economy is in dire straits, it is nonetheless safe to say that he has succeeded. The rebels, despite inflicting two major recent defeats on the government forces, have not advanced significantly. Winter power cuts in regions unaffected by the war were short and survivable. Also, while the current cease-fire, agreed to on February 12, is not expected to last, Ukraine and its government have not collapsed, nor do they show any signs of being on the brink of doing so, as some of the Russian media keep saying hopefully.
As winter turns to spring, soldiers on both sides of the front line are anything but tired of the war. Spirits are high and demoralization and exhaustion have not yet set in. Both sides are better organized than before and their commanders are trying to second-guess where the other will attack when the cease-fire breaks down completely, as they all assume it will soon. If and when it does, there are three main possible outcomes. The first is that the rebels, with the Russian support they need, will take more territory and, depending on how easy it is for them to advance, will push north, west, and south as far as they can. The second is that the Ukrainians will retake territory and push the rebels back, but this can happen only if Vladimir Putin decides not to help the rebels any longer. The third is that even with the front line moving somewhat one way or another, the conflict will morph into a frozen one.
In the latter case, the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics together will become a giant version of all the other post-Soviet frozen conflicts, such as Transnistria in Moldova or Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. In these places Russia is in de facto control of slices of other countries, but they have not much of an economy or prospects of a brighter future for their people, and so the young and dynamic leave. We cannot know what Putin may decide to do, but right now this third outcome seems the most likely.
There is a big gap between what leaders on either side want and what is attainable. On the Ukrainian side the maximum and, for now, unattainable objective is to reconquer the lost eastern territories. (No one is even talking about Crimea, which, as far as Russia is concerned, has formally become a part of the Russian state.) What is far more realistic, though, is for Ukraine to hold the line to prevent further losses, while over the next few years its armed forces are transformed into a far more formidable fighting force. British military trainers are already in Ukraine and American ones are due to arrive in April, while shipments of American army vehicles have already begun to arrive.
According to the two cease-fire agreements signed in Minsk, the second on February 12, the two breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine are supposed to gain a higher degree of autonomy than other parts of the country. Legislation has been passed to that effect by the parliament in Kiev. But while we can safely assume that the rebels were forced to agree to this by Putin, who certainly wanted to avert the imposition of new economic sanctions on Russia by Western countries, it is clear that the rebels have no intention of letting their regions ever become functioning parts of Ukraine again. Andrei Purgin, one of the most powerful men in Donetsk and the speaker of its parliament, told me that this could only happen if Ukraine became a “different country” from the one it is now. That is to say that its government would be so pro-Russian that Ukraine would be a Russian satellite.
In the short term, however, the rebel leaders have other immediate goals. Now that they control about one third of the territory of their two eastern “oblasts,” or provinces, they have declared that at the very minimum they want to go to their oblast borders (see the map below).
In theory, the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, or to use their Russian acronyms the DNR and LNR, are supposed to be uniting as the federal state of Novorossiya, or “New Russia.” In fact, apart from a flag and to a certain extent the army, that project has remained on paper, as have its territorial ambitions, which take in much of the east and south of Ukraine. But for some, even those territories would not be enough.
Sergei Baryshnikov, one of the leading local ideologists of Novorossiya and the rector of Donetsk University, told me that we were now “at the first stage” of the recreation of a Russian state that would eventually take in everything that had once belonged to pre-revolutionary, imperial Russia. That would mean most of modern Ukraine and the three Baltic states. The exception would be Lviv and the far west of Ukraine, which before 1941 had belonged to Poland, and to the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. They might be left out of the new expanded Russia. But he sees the restoration of the imperial Russian borders as “our historical mission.” The very idea of a Ukrainian nation was like a cancer and needed to be extirpated, he said.
Whether or not everyone in the local leadership agrees with Baryshnikov and his call for a struggle that he believes could last years or decades is not so important. What is important is that his are ideas that feed into the creation of a general worldview, not just of the rebels but in policymaking circles close to Putin, whom Baryshnikov described as “our president” and “de facto, our leader.”
The problem for the DNR and LNR leaders is that even taking control of their entire oblasts, let alone advancing as far as, say, Odessa, has proved, as Purgin says, “impossible” thus far. Likewise it has proved impossible for the Ukrainians to achieve more than the odd minor victory in pushing the rebels back during the last seven months. In January, Donetsk airport, which had been fought over in bouts of varying intensity since the beginning of the war, finally fell to the DNR, as did Debalsteve, three days after the February cease-fire was supposed to come into effect. Here the Ukrainians had found themselves trapped on three sides.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tried to downplay the significance of these defeats, and the rebels trumpeted their victories. The reality was that while the Ukrainians were indeed defeated, they had managed to hold on for a very long time in both places. As interviews with disillusioned soldiers from Russia in the Russian and foreign press have shown, there are constantly fluctuating numbers of regular Russian troops and volunteers aiding the rebels. Why, in that case, did the rebels take so long to conquer these places? Perhaps militarily the Russians and the rebels may not be that good and the Ukrainians, who originally were hopelessly disorganized, may not be so bad.
The test of whether the conflict has reached a stalemate will come at Mariupol. In late August rebel forces advanced rapidly along the coast of the Sea of Azov, to within shelling distance of the eastern outskirts of this grimy steel town and port. It is home to some 500,000 people, including an estimated 30,000 refugees. Then there was panic and many fled, thinking an assault was imminent.
Ever since, not only have the rebels failed to advance, but in one place they have been pushed back by the Ukrainians, including men from the small but highly motivated Azov Battalion. It is notorious for having neo-Nazi members and a Nazi-like symbol, though many may join the unit not for these reasons, but because it is successful. Moreover, while the Azov Battalion gets all the headlines, other Ukrainian military units have also spent months preparing the defense of the city. For whatever reason the rebels and the Russians hesitated to attack in the autumn, and taking the city today would be far harder than it would have been then. Ukraine’s forces, one security source told me, are in much better shape than before, although he conceded that “that is still not enough.”
Then as now, Mariupol and this region along the coast are divided. Here I met both staunch pro-Ukrainians and people who think their future would be better if they were part of the DNR and Russia. But above all, as the war drags on, it is clear that many of those who dislike Ukraine are not prepared to sacrifice lives or property for the sake of the rebels or Russia. They just want the war to stop. On social media pro-Russians are constantly announcing the beginning of one anti-Ukrainian uprising or another; in the end they let their fantasies get the better of them. The uprisings are not happening. Part of the problem is that on the rebel and Russian side, so much of the political and media narrative constructed about Ukraine goes back to World War II, with the Ukrainians now playing the part of the Nazis. Many thus mistake a small number of real neo-Nazis flaunting their swastikas on Facebook for a horde of millions, and are thus disappointed when eastern towns do not revolt in a glorious rerun of the Warsaw Uprising.
Many of those in the east who never felt pro-Ukrainian have also begun to see that the DNR and LNR have become twilight zones. Banks in rebel territory have closed. ATMs are dead screens. Cash is hard to come by and those who still have jobs are lucky if their employer can find any to pay them. More and more easterners are unemployed and the economy has begun to wither and die. Pensioners can’t get their pensions there. It is becoming harder to get Ukrainian passes to cross back and forth from rebel territory. Large numbers of shops have closed and while food is available, there is less and less choice. In Donetsk, Maksim Petrovich Kalinichenko, acting dean of the economics faculty at Donetsk University, summed up the situation succinctly: “There is no economy today.” When it came to the future, he could not really say anything, because it depended on how the war ended.
Donetsk is the hometown and business heartland of Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest oligarch. Last summer the rebels threatened to nationalize his property, coal mines, and steel plants. In the end they did no such thing. Akhmetov employs some 300,000 people. When the war began some muttered that the oligarch, who had been close to deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, had somehow helped the separatists as a means of furthering his own interests. There was never any proof of this. Now, while the management of his firms has moved from Donetsk, all his workers who have not left rebel territory are still being paid, even if their mines or factories are not operating, though some still are. Akhmetov is also helping to feed tens of thousands of people with humanitarian aid. If he were not doing this, then the rebels and Russia would have to look after these people.
The complexity of the situation is even clearer in Mariupol. Here there are two giant steel plants owned by Akhmetov’s Metinvest company, plus a third business. Together they directly employ 45,000 people. When you take account of how many families that means, plus how many jobs depend on the plants indirectly, from suppliers to port workers and so on, it is no exaggeration to say that Mariupol is a company town. The Ilyich iron and steel plant, which has been operating here since 1897, covers an area that straggles for nine miles from end to end.
The war has already placed the plant under huge strain. It used to get 100 percent of the coke it needs for its furnaces from Akhmetov’s coke and steel plant in Avdiivka, just on the Ukrainian side of the front line near Donetsk. Rebel shells have hit the Avdiivka plant, but some two thousand workers have literally moved in to help keep it running because if its furnaces ever all went cold, it would cost $1 billion to restart them. If that happened, then the factory would probably never reopen and the workers would have lost their livelihoods in an area that no one would invest in again for many years.
Now, according to Yuriy Zinchenko, the general director of the Ilyich plant, only 20 percent of the coke he needs comes from Avdiivka. He has managed to find more in other places, including Russia, but he says that he firmly believes that his plant has a future only in a united Ukraine, and he has explained this to the workforce in no uncertain terms. If they become part of the twilight zone of the DNR, there would be no access to finance and exports to the West might end, as also might business with the rest of Ukraine. Today only 8 percent of their steel goes to Russia while the rest goes to the US, Italy, and elsewhere.
Inside the Ilyich plant huge vats spew flame and sparks and then slabs of bright glowing-amber steel plates roll out along the production line. Following an attempt to seize Mariupol last year, workers were asked to help patrol the town. According to Vitaly Voroshenko, a factory official, of 1,500 workers who were asked, 1,200 responded positively. Many pro-DNR activists from Mariupol, Odessa, and other southern towns have fled, thus decapitating the leadership of the pro-rebel cause in those parts of the south and east under Ukrainian control.
So the rebels have stalled. Mariupol is now far better defended than before and many have understood that coming under DNR control would deal a fatal blow to the economy of the town. And there is another factor at work here. According to Alex Ryabchyn, a young pro-Ukrainian economist from Donetsk who in October became a member of Ukraine’s parliament, Putin has been given to understand that an assault on Mariupol is a red line.
Germany has opposed calls, especially from the US, to supply the modern arms that Ukraine needs. The German leaders believe that Russia would always respond by upping the ante because it regards Ukraine as belonging to its sphere of influence. But Ryabchyn told me that he had been told on a recent trip to Brussels that Angela Merkel would reconsider this position if Mariupol were attacked. Likewise, Western nations would reopen the possibility of banning Russia from the SWIFT financial payment information system that underpins banking transactions around the world. This, said Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev in September, would result in an “unlimited” reaction. A Western source in Kiev, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me however that what Ryabchyn had heard was a story being deliberately planted by certain Western officials, not because their governments were deadly serious about such threats, but because they wanted Putin and the Kremlin to think they were.
On January 24 a salvo of missiles lasting less than a minute hit Mariupol, killing thirty. Then nothing happened. In theory the rebel forces could isolate and surround the city if they moved westward to link up to Russian soldiers moving out from Crimea; but this would leave the rebels and the Russians with long supply lines and long lines to defend. None of this is impossible, but it would be very difficult and for Putin a huge gamble. If they have not done it until now, then maybe they will never do it.
In Kiev, the mood is gloomy. Most people realize that they are in for a long conflict. Mykola Kapitonenko, an adviser to parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said that suing for peace now would be tantamount to accepting a deal “in which Putin is offering, ‘I stop the war and you come under my control.’” A new IMF loan package will help keep the economy running but salaries have been cut or eroded by inflation. The currency has fluctuated wildly, which is of huge concern to everyone, especially since imports are now more expensive. In January last year a dollar cost eight hryvnias. During the last two months it has oscillated between forty and twenty-two hryvnias, making it extremely hard to do business.
In March President Poroshenko came into conflict with Igor Kolomoisky, another Ukrainian oligarch. The government passed legislation that had the effect of diminishing Kolomoisky’s control of two energy companies. Kolomoisky, who has funded Ukrainian military battalions and is credited with doing much to keep his home region of Dnipropetrovsk out of rebel hands, sent armed men to defend his interests in the two companies in Kiev. It seemed as if a violent showdown was about to take place. Then Kolomoisky was sacked from his position in Dnipropetrovsk and capitulated without a fight.
There are two credible explanations of what this means. One is that the government is actually trying and succeeding in curbing the power of the oligarchs, who retain, in one form or another, deputies in parliament to defend their interests. The other is that in the constant oligarchical battle for assets and power, Kolomoisky overstepped and had his wings clipped by a more powerful oligarch—Poroshenko himself. Meanwhile parliament has been passing laws to reform everything from taxes to the traffic police to regional decentralization but much remains to be done and, especially in the current circumstances, it will take time, years even, before the results make a tangible difference to people’s lives, and this is making them angry.
So Ukraine is in a race against time. If Putin’s goal is simply to destabilize the country, rather than actually take more territory from it, then its angry people suit his aim. His problem is that the longer the war drags on, the worse it is for Russia’s economy and future too. Will he react by discreetly moving to help the rebels even more or by moving to delicately extricate Russia from the conflict? Only zealots who see Putin as some sort of messiah still believe that he is not fueling it. For the rebels themselves and their supporters, the reality is that militarily the campaign has stalled, at least for now.
In Adminposiolok, a badly shattered rebel-held suburb of Donetsk, I met Ivan Tokarev, aged seventy-eight, who had come to try to clean up his apartment in a large block. Every single apartment in the front of the building facing the Ukrainian lines had been destroyed or had been rendered uninhabitable. His was in the back. He showed me a hole in the floor of one apartment in which a shell or rocket had fallen, blowing up the flat of his son below. No one lived in the block anymore. His son and his family had gone to Russia. Tokarev and his wife, who had moved to a safer part of town, did not want to join them because, he said, it might be fine for a month or two but then everyone would start arguing, so it was “better to die here.”
On the Ukrainian side of the lines, stories are similar. But it is clear that some of the changes that the war has wrought are going to be irreversible. In Kiev the price of renting an apartment has shot up because so many people have come from the east. Many of these people are from the educated middle classes; the longer the war drags on, the less chance there is of their ever going back. On the other side, hundreds of thousands have gone to Russia, and likewise, as they settle down, find jobs, and put down roots, many of them will never come back either. Of the region’s pre-war population of some 4.5 million, more than 1.5 million are estimated to have left.
In the east aid comes from Russia, and while the Ukrainians say that these aid convoys carry military equipment, they carry food too. By chance I saw one such shipment of food being unloaded at Donetsk University. It is baffling, however, why the Ukrainian government has not sought to win over the easterners by trying to send them its own aid convoys, even if the rebels prevented them from crossing into their territory. To ordinary people in the east it looks like Kiev does not care much about them and considers them the enemy.
When it comes to Ukrainian fighters in the east, however, lots of aid is getting through. Volunteer doctors from a group called Hospitallers have boxes of food and medicine donated by supporters at home and abroad. In Pisky, a mile or so from Adminposiolok, but on the Ukrainian side, they have a modern ambulance with a mobile surgical station to treat the wounded that has been donated by supporters in the US; it used to belong to the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Service in Virginia.
In the central Ukrainian heartlands, in places where there is no ambivalence about which side people are on, the war no longer seems something utterly remote. In the village of Karapyshi, ninety minutes’ drive south of Kiev, Galya Malchik, aged seventy, told me that a local man with a big truck called on everyone to give him potatoes, pickles, and salo, a traditional Ukrainian salted pork fat, which he would drive to the front to help the army. But before she got to deliver her contribution, he had already left because he had so much. Now she is waiting for the next time.
It has often been said recently, by way of warning, that Russians can endure phenomenal hardship and that in any Western calculations about the future of the war, this needs to be kept in mind. But the people who say this forget that in this fratricidal war, the same is true of Ukrainians. The cellars of Karapyshi and thousands of other villages are full of potatoes, pickles, and carrots covered in sand to better preserve them. A large proportion of city people throughout Ukraine still have relatives in their ancestral villages and if things become really dire they will look to them to help with food. Hardly anyone’s stocks are depleted yet, and while some on both sides are hiding from the draft, there are still more than enough men ready, willing, and able to fight.
—Kiev, April 8, 2015
RECENT BOOKS ABOUT UKRAINE
A number of recent books provide essential background on Ukraine. Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post–Cold War Order by US academics Rajan Menon and Eugene B. Rumer (MIT Press, 2015) is a short and insightful primer that concentrates on the current crisis to give readers a brief but useful introduction to the history of the country.
Coming at the subject from a different angle is Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West by British scholar Andrew Wilson (Yale University Press, 2014), who in 2000 wrote The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation, which is now in its third edition (Yale University Press, 2009) and takes the country’s modern history up to 2009. For the new book he observed the Maidan revolution.
To anyone who wants to delve deeper into the history of eastern Ukraine, two books will be of interest. In The Iron Tsar: The Life and Times of John Hughes (Author Essentials, 2010), Roderick Heather tells the extraordinary tale of a barely literate Welshman who founded Donetsk in 1870, bringing his knowledge of coal, iron, and steel from his native Wales. A shorter book on the history of Donetsk is Dreaming a City: From Wales to Ukraine by Colin Thomas (Y Lolfa, 2009), which comes with a DVD of three documentaries made by Thomas and a Welsh historian about the history of the city