In doom-laden Lunhansk, signs suggest that the pressure on Kyiv won’t be ending any time soon
The Donbas is not only frozen, it has gone back in time. Even the misery of the 1980s or the 1990s does not compare with the depression that prevails now. Luhansk looks dark and doom-laden despite the traditional Christmas tree in the city centre and the donkey rides put on for the kids. At school, these same kids now learn that they live in the "LNR", and not in Ukraine.
People expect the military situation to get worse. With the earth now frozen, it is easier for heavy armour to move around and there has been an increase in rebel activity since early November. All signs seem to suggest that the pressure on Kyiv won’t be ending any time soon. Every day the rebels shoot on Ukrainian military units and civilians. Every day people die. However, the new head of the OSCE, the German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that he was satisfied with the observance of "ceasefire" in the Donbas and hopes that this continues. He must be closing his eyes to the obvious aggravation of the conflict in the hope of delaying the inevitable.
Nonetheless, despite the huge numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the region and the dark atmosphere of the place, Luhansk continues to buzz with activity and many people have returned. This is clear to see, even from just observing public transport. At times, there is simply no room on the bus. Those who have returned are not ready to build anything new, but have returned home because they have been unable to settle elsewhere. And the people returning here are not just Ukrainian. Many are Russians, and pro-Russians at that.
No-one wants pro-Russians here in Luhansk. People often ask them why they aren’t off fighting. After all, Russian propaganda constantly talks about the threat of fascism to Eastern Ukraine and how it must be confronted head on. It is also clear how tired Russians are of refugees from the Donbas. Moscow just sent a number of antisocial groups to the Donbas who, after stealing from the local population and being paid to fight, have realised that the money has run out. As a result, these criminals continue to attack Ukrainian soldiers, provoking retaliation, in order to exert pressure on the Minsk talks and extract more money from the Kremlin.
The city of Luhansk itself is more or less safe due to the media attention it received. It is the outlying villages that are bearing the brunt of gang warfare. Irina, who came to Kyiv with her student daughter, can tell us what is going on in Rovenky: “My husband is a boxer. But even he is too afraid to go outside during the day unless he really has to”. In Luhansk itself, the shops shut at two in the afternoon and people are being paid half-days. Returnees from Russia have noted that food prices have gone up and are much higher even than in Russia. Since the end of October there has been a shortage of petrol so the price has gone through the roof. All fuel has been requisitioned for military purposes, indicating that the proxies are planning more attacks.
Luhansk did not suffer significantly during active combat operations in the Donbas. In the summer of 2014, it was exposed to mortar shelling from inside the city. These were local provocations by Russian security services who wanted to frame the Ukrainian army for crimes against the civilian. In actual fact, it was the villages lying close by which suffered the most –Khryashevatoe, Novosvitlivka, Stanitsa Luhanskaya, Metalist, and Shchastya. These villages were fired at with rockets from Luhansk itself, which was already occupied by Russian troops at that time. Attacks on Stanitsa Luhanskaya village continued until August this year.
In Luhansk itself, the destruction has not been too bad. It is either public buildings such as cafes, hospitals, or markets that have been attacked, or residential apartment blocks. Some of the latter have been repaired and many flats and houses are simply empty, their owners having fled long ago. Christina is from Luhansk but now lives in Kyiv; she says that “in my apartment in Luhansk the broken windows are boarded up, and some of my things were stolen last autumn. I cannot go back because there have been threats made against me for my pro-Ukrainian position. So I have constantly been on the lookout for work in Kyiv to pay the rent here. I’m a university graduate with a decade of teaching experience under my belt, with my own flat, and I was forced to flee. But today’s Luhansk is not my peaceful Luhansk. It is a city of Stalin’s terrible past”. Christina is not alone in having experienced this kind of theft. Nataliya, a Luhansk resident said that “Russian troops from Pskov and Tula were staying in the former dormitories of the Agricultural University on the eastern side of the city. When they left, for some reason they took with them the plastic window frames of the building. They left behind a total mess; they even extracted the sockets from the walls. Local rebels are unhappy at not being paid any more so their commanders are stealing everything they can lay their hands on.
Education has suffered hugely from the disruption in Luhansk. The university is effectively closed. In early 2014, the leaders of the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) announced that education was to be free. However, it was unclear who exactly would teach students and indeed whether there were any students left to teach. Most of them have moved to other cities to continue their education. The teachers who have stayed on have agreed to continue giving lectures for half the salary at times, and mostly on the basis of promised future payments. Lab assistants became heads of department, heads became rectors, and the one rector who stayed on has become minister for education. Scientific knowledge has been lost and universities have become fake organisations issuing dubious diplomas. Students who receive this “free” education have become fighters in camouflage uniforms carrying guns. Student accommodation belonging to the East Ukrainian National University has been used to create torture chambers and cells. Some secondary schools are still open, but of course we cannot know the standard of education they provide.
Last year it was already clear that life here would be impossible without social benefits. People had to wait over a year for humanitarian relief to arrive. However, when it did arrive, the criminal underworld quickly got involved. The leader of the LNR separatists, Igor Plotnitsky, took over the local supermarket ATB and renamed it Narodny. Humanitarian goods were sold at these stores. And, surprisingly, locals did not openly protest against this. The lack of public response is probably due to the climate of fear which reigns here. Local uprisings in Luhansk or other occupied cities are unthinkable. There have been some cases of such disturbances being actively suppressed. Plotnitsky’s business is not limited to the food trade. His influence extends to the trade in petrol and control over the illegal coal mines.
Recently, a group of armed separatists opposed one of Plotnitsky’s “ministers” who has control over some illegal coal mines. Plotnitsky had instructions from the Kremlin not to rock the boat. The rebels pretended that everything had been smoothed over. To this day, coal is sent from the occupied territories to other parts of Ukraine, which means that miners still get paid. Because of Luhansk’s tradition of coal mining, this scandal nearly turned into a coup.
But what about pensioners? While it was still technically possible to pay pensions, Kyiv ensured the payment of benefits in full. But, as the fighting increased, it became more and more difficult to ensure the circulation of cash. Back in September 2014, Russia promised to start making payments in the occupied territories, but it only started to do so relatively recently. To get their pension, pensioners had to cross the frontline after having registered as IDPs. In some cases, they began receiving two pensions – one in roubles from the occupied cities and one in hryvnia in Ukraine. Others receive no pension at all from either Ukraine or Russia.
The humanitarian situation in Luhansk is not critical as it may be in other places. It is more like the twisted reality of a post-Soviet city where you can live, but you cannot flourish. And this is precisely the problem. In general, the main source of income here is to be derived from smuggling coal and food. Most people cannot plan their income for any fixed period of time. We are saved by the fact that the connection with “free” Ukraine has been preserved, not least because the broken bridge in Stanitsa Luhanskaya, the logistics centre, has been reopened. Svetlana, from Stanitsa village, says this has enabled locals to pass the checkpoint and get to Ukraine proper: “They’ve opened the bridge. Happy locals, having gone on a shopping trip to Stanitsa, drop by the humanitarian distribution centre and ask – no, demand – aid!”
Vladimir Nikolaenko, who goes to the regional centre of Severodonetsk once a month, says: “My grandson fell ill. There is some sort of epidemic in the city, but they won’t say what it is, as they do not know. Doctors are leaving. They were giving medicine out at the hospital because elsewhere there is no heating, no food, and no nurses. Well, at least the medicine they gave us was free. The latest news, confirmed by many sources, is that near Slavyanoserbsk some local separatists switched to the Ukrainian side and shot at fighters from Luhansk. The mood among many is becoming more pro-Ukrainian. My wife overheard some old women on the Luhansk bus swearing at a Russian because he was carrying a weapon. In the end, they just threw him off the bus. Russian mercenaries are saying that they will spend the winter here and then run off. They are not being paid. No-one is being paid. Luhansk is just being looted”.
Bashir Saed, a Pakistani with Ukrainian citizenship, whose business in Sverdlovsk was taken over by Chechen mercenaries, recently returned to Luhansk undercover for a few days. He met up with a friend of his who used to work at the jail. This friend has left his job because, as he says, there is no-one to guard. The criminals that he used to keep under lock and key were released so that they could stand duty at checkpoints. It is criminals who are now manning checkpoints, letting people pass or stopping them according to their whims.
Those who believed in Russia have either left for Russia itself long ago or become isolated in their views, fuelled by Russian propaganda. It is important to note that there is no Ukrainian TV or radio in Luhansk. The local population gets its information from Russian sources with their own version of events.
Alyona says: “I dream of the day when I can go to Kyiv, away from this Russian idiocy imposed on us at every turn. My mother gets her pension from Ukraine, but still it’s not enough to get by. It is impossible to sell a flat in Luhansk – nobody wants it or is only prepared to make a completely ridiculous offer. And to sell up and leave is the only way to get out of here. We are waiting for Plotnitsky to steal everything he can here and for everyone who is waiting for the Russian world to just ask to come back to Ukraine”.
According to UNHCR statistics, there are now 1.5 million IDPs in Ukraine, and another million refugees in other bordering countries. The war in the Donbas and the resulting occupation has lasted for over 18 months and already has all the hallmarks of a frozen conflict.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.
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