Alexander Mozhaev, a pro-Russian separatist whose photograph has appeared in numerous publications in recent days and who says he is not employed by the Russian state, stands with fellow separatists in the town of Slavyansk on April 20.
Maxim Dondyuk

Donbass: Europe’s Latest Frozen Conflict

Brutal life in Ukraine’s separatist ‘republics’, explained

by Chris Dunnett, Hromadske International

produced by Maxim Eristavi, Randy R. Potts

What You Need to Know:

✓The Donbass region of eastern Ukraine is the country’s heavily-populated industrial heartland, now caught up in by the brutal conflict that has left over 4,000 dead;

✓Life in the territories run by theLuhansk and Donetsk ‘People’s Republics’, the self-declared pro-Russian entities, can best be described as difficult and often dangerous for those who remain. Many warn of a pending humanitarian disaster;

✓The rule of law and security remains evasive, and openly expressing pro- Ukrainian views or criticizing the armed groups is undoubtedly dangerous;

✓Rebel-controlled areas of the region held a ‘vote’ on November 2, a move supported by Moscow but condemned as de-stabilizing by Kyiv and its Western partners;

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Where Is It?

The Donbass, short for Donets Basin in Russian and Ukrainian, is Ukraine’s industrial hub. The region has more recently fallen on hard times, even before the Russian incursion. It is a region of factories, coal mines, and an ever aging population. Spoil tips from coal mining disrupt a landscape of open fields and industrial sprawl. It’s a region that was once celebrated for its proletarian spirit, a cornerstone of Soviet ideology.

The region makes up 5 % of Ukraine’s territory; 10 % of the population lives there while it produces 20 % of gross domestic product and about a quarter of Ukraine’s export volume.

The eastern Ukrainian Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are highlighted in yellow. Collectively, both regions are known as the Donbass. The self-declared separatist Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ control less than half of the region’s territory but contain a majority of its population. (Wikimedia Commons)

What Went Wrong?

Donbass’ geographical proximity to Russia makes this part of eastern Ukraine a place of intertwined identities and mixed loyalty. The Soviet mentality still runs deep, especially among the older generation. Many long for the stability and sense of purpose that is perceived to have existed during the Soviet Union. The Kremlin-backed rebels tap into this sentiment, marketing fashionable pro-Russian sentiment alongside communist-era nostalgia. As Vice News explains:

“The scars of failed Communism can still be found throughout Donbas in the form of its people. Those who work in illegal coal mines and chemical plants, wearing the same uniforms their grandfathers did, long for a reunion with Russia.
To them, the Soviet Union represented a quality of life that is unattainable in an independent Ukraine; a life safe from uncertainty and risks. To this day, Russian propaganda fills the spaces between the tight walls of every Donbas household.”
As is evident in this recent poll from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, the Donbass region of Ukraine is the most supportive of closer relations with Russia compared to other regions of the country.

How Big Is The Mess?

As lawlessness and violence gripped the Donbas during the recent conflict here, many of those with the means left to other regions of Ukraine or Russia. The United Nations estimates that more than 1 million people have fled their homes in Donbass.

‘“The total includes 814,000 Ukrainians now in Russia with various forms of status, as well as compatriots who have fled to Belarus, Moldova, the three Baltic states and European Union’, a senior official of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said.
‘It’s safe to say you have over a million people now displaced as a result of the conflict, internally and externally together,’ Vincent Cochetel, director of the UNHCR’s bureau for Europe, told reporters in Geneva.’

As the self-declared separatist states of the Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s republic extend their political grip over the territories controlled by their militia forces, a frozen conflict is being created in the Donbass.

The November 2 rebel ‘vote’ is only solidifying this new reality. Seeing as neither Ukraine nor Russia is likely to invest in re-building the badly damaged infrastructure of the separatist region of Ukraine, the economic and political situation is likely to continue to deteriorate. Many people remain without jobs or security. Pensions are unpaid. Lawlessness prevails. The region will continue to be on the verge of conflict, especially as Kyiv grapples with an appropriate response to the elections held contrary to the terms of the cease fire.

Lyubov Mykhailova, the founder of the art center “Izolatsiia, a Platform for Cultural Initiatives,” and Nataliya Udovenko, a volunteer with the volunteer organization, Vostok SOS joined Hromadske International’s Sunday Show to speak about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine’s eastern regions.

As winter approaches eastern Ukraine, the residents’ living conditions will only deteriorate, deepening a humanitarian crisis. Famous American historian Timothy Snyder warns that Eastern Ukraine is transforming into a humanitarian catastrophe not seen in Europe for decades.

Just to get a grasp of the extend of the damage to the local infrastructure:

watch the video from our reporters who decided to take a drive along the frontline between the Ukrainian army and separatists. The first place they went was the village of Pisky — a few kilometers from the Donetsk airport — the hot point of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Life Near Donetsk Airport. Part 1

read our explainer on theStalingrad-like battle for the Donetsk International Airport:

Elderly Ukrainians in eastern parts of the country are the demographic most supportive of closer ties with Russia. (Valeriya Myronenko)


The Donetsk ‘People’s Republic’ (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), collectively refer to themselves as the Federal State of Novorossiya. The two republics tap into both Soviet and Russian nationalist ideology. Russian nationalist and Soviet-era flags are often visible side-by-side during official events and rebel-sponsored protests. The ideology of the self-declared republics emphasizes Soviet and Russian history, depicting the West as immoral aggressors against conservative values and Russian Orthodoxy.

“In the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, the Supreme Soviet, as its separatist legislature is known, is nationalizing coal mines and reviving collective farms. At parades, people wave hammer-and-sickle flags; school officials talk of revising the curriculum to celebrate the triumphs of the Soviet Union.
There is now a secret police force called the M.G.B., reminiscent of the K.G.B. Some rebels call it, only half-jokingly, the N.K.V.D., the notorious Stalin-era secret police force.”
“The fate of the Russian people- repeat the feat of their fathers, defending their native land. Enroll in the people’s army of the Donetsk republic.” The pro-Russian rebels draw upon Soviet nostalgia, invoking the memory of the Russian Civil War and World War II.

Despite the general lack of security, some locals who had previously fled the region are starting to return to the occupied territories since the declaration of the cease fire in September. However, serious economic and security problems remain in the region. As The Globe and Mail reports from the region:

“But while most of those who left are staying away, others are trickling back. And the centre of Donetsk, once all but paralyzed by the war, has started to come back too.
While the areas near the airport remain a no-go zone for non-combatants, the city’s yellow buses and red-and-white trams are now running as usual on many routes. There are no functioning commercial banks in the city, but some of the restaurants along the central Pushkin Boulevard are open again, and children were playing in the park there at dusk on Friday.”

A woman walks through unfinished and damaged buildings in the Donbass region of Ukraine.

Quality of Life

The region’s infrastructure is badly damaged from months of fighting. Access to basic utilities such as heat and running water are threatened in many areas.

The town of Popasna in the Luhansk region after horrific shelling. Fifty-seven people were killed.
The ‘Ceasefire’ Near Luhansk. Popasna

According to the Ukrainian government, as many as 2/3 of the region’s coal mines were flooded or rigged with explosives as pro-Russian rebels retreated in the face of a Ukrainian offensive in the summer 2014. Some of these mines returned to separatist hands in early September when they counterattacked, supported by Russian troops.

Rail lines, bridges, and other key infrastructure have also been destroyed, likely by rebel forces during the active stages of the fighting. It’s difficult to estimate the amount of damage to LNR and DNR-controlled territory, but for the Donbas region as a whole, overall damage to infrastructure is probably over 1 billion USD.

A village of Pervomayske is the gateway to the Donetsk airport. Almost all of the buildings in the area have sustained mortar attacks and attacks from Grad missiles. People live without electricity and gas for months. The villagers don’t receive pensions or wages. They’re living in a neighborhood together with the soldiers.

With industry damaged or destroyed and key workers having found refuge elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs in DNR and LNR territory.

Devastation in the Donbass. This infographic from Ukraine Crisis Media Center provides one estimate of total damage in the region as of October.

Elderly residents of the territory are especially vulnerable because of the region’s economic malaise. Given that the Ukrainian authorities do not have access to the territory, pensioners and others must travel to Ukrainian-controlled territory to collect regular entitlement payments, a daunting task for the elderly or disabled. Economic insecurity and the inability to collect pensions has thus far been the primary source of discontent, with several reports indicating that pensioners have staged protests about the issue.

“While rebel authorities desire total autonomy, the regions have yet to sort out their finances, leaving pensioners without funds and social benefits unpaid.
Kiev will continue to supply gas and electricity to separatist regions, but “so long as the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions are controlled by imposters, the central budget will not send funding there,” Yatseniuk said in a government meeting. Ukraine refers to the rebels as terrorists.”

Due to regular shelling, many live in outdated bomb shelters for months. Take a video tour inside one of them:

As an extreme case, activists point out Donetsk, where 7,000 people hide out in just 10 bomb shelters, left from Soviet times:

An armed pro-Russian activist stands guard as a woman casts her ballot for the referendum called by pro-Russian rebels to split from the rest of Ukraine, on May 11, 2014 in Donetsk. Image: KHUDOTEPLY/AFP/Getty Images

The ‘Vote’

On November 2nd, both separatist republics held elections for prime minister and their newly-created parliaments. While Moscow hailed the votes as a step to legitimize the authorities in the region, Ukraine and the West denounced the exercise as a farce and provocation.

Foreign reporters noted numerous irregularities. Armed men guarded the polling stations, there were no voting lists, and rebel officials supplied voters with discounted food products. Reputable election observers boycotted the elections, while those foreign observers that did bother to attend largely represented European extremist political parties such as the far-right Hungarian Jobbik Party and the Stalinist Communist Party of Greece.

Former Swedish Minister Carl Bildt speaks out against the elections. The rebel elections in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were widely condemned or ignored by the international community.
Extremist parties of the European far-right and far-left observed the widely disparaged elections in pro-Russian territory.

Pro-Russian fighters of the Vostok Battalion man a checkpoint in Donetsk oblast. (Reuters)

Law and Order

While the declaration of the ceasefire on September 5 has brought a semblance of normality to most parts of the territory, violence continues to flare up in many areas, particularly around the Donetsk airport. Civilians continue to be caught, and die, in the crossfire. Human rights organizations have blamed both parties to the conflict for the harm inflicted on civilians.

Pro-Kremlin armed groups have also been accused of shielding themselves from the Ukrainian military by placing troops and vital military material in residential areas, exacerbating civilian casualties and potentially committing a war crime.

Pro-Russian militia at a rally in Donbass ( Evgeniy Maloletka/ AP)

Human Rights

Human rights investigators and journalists have long reported on rebel fighters disposition towards arbitrary arrest, torture, forced disappearances, and even execution. Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov the former military leader of the DNR, a Russian citizen from Moscow, even resurrected a Stalinist era law to legitimize the extrajudicial execution of alleged looters.

“In one of the most high-profile incidents to date, a document surfaced in May purportedly showed one of the separatists’ main leaders, Igor Strelkov, had ordered the executions of two DNR militants on charges of looting.
The document apparently showed Strelkov, a Russian citizen also known as Igor Girkin, had based the ruling on a 1941 Stalin-era law introducing capital punishment for theft of property.
A month later, in June, separatist leader Igor “The Imp” Bezler published a video showing two blindfolded Ukrainian army officers apparently being shot to death by a firing squad as a warning to Ukraine government forces. He later dismissed the video as fake.”

Trying to prove their conservative, religious credentials, the rebel republics have also banned public drinking, swearing, and other displays of social disorder. According to some reports, those who break these bans may be forced to join labor brigades or work on the front lines.

The Guardian correspondent in Moscow
Insurgent forces are detaining civilians on allegations of violating public order and then subjecting them to forced labor. Rebels appear to be using public order infractions as a pretext to obtain unpaid labor.

Certain groups have come under particular scrutiny by rebel authorities. The Russian Orthodox Church is the official religion of the self-declared rebel ‘republics’, and all other denominations are prohibited. Members of other religious groups have allegedly been targeted for discrimination and even violence.

Vice News investigates a story about executed civilians in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk oblast. Among the killed were petty thieves and four members of a local Protestant church.

Public dissent from officially sanctioned ideology is almost certainly dangerous in the two separatist republics. Local pro-Ukrainian activists, in the past, have been detained and subject to beating and torture. In August, a pro-Ukrainian activist from Yasynovata, Iryna Dovgan, was publicly humiliated and beaten, allegedly for assisting Ukrainian troops. Other activists have reported enduring arbitrary detainment and torture for expressing anti-separatist and pro-Ukrainian views.

“Somebody even said to me: ‘you should have suffered more.’”
“Since the separatists took total control here, human rights and Ukrainian activists say, an untold number of loyalists have been extorted, abducted, tortured and, allegedly, executed…
…He pauses, as tears well in between manic laughs. “They don’t just beat you,” he hissed through a tormented smile. “They torture you.”He was held for two weeks, he said. His face was so beaten that he’s now missing teeth. He was suspended upside down by a rope, he said.”

The LGBT community has also come under attack, with the Luhansk People’s Republic threatening lengthy prison terms for homosexuality. Rebel leaders have referred to homosexuality as a perversion and a result of Western influence.

“Failing to decide such key questions, the council opted for a law everyone in the smoking room seemed to agree on: punishment of homosexuals. They voted to imprison people convicted of being gay for two years and six months. And they voted the death penalty, no question about that, for the rape of a minor whether of the same or opposite sex. The law did not stipulate execution for homosexuals, as some media reported. But the question of how it will be interpreted, like so much else in Luhansk, remains an open question.”

Since the declaration of the September cease fire, LNR and DNR have only extended their policy of extrajudicial justice wrapped in the slogan of people’s justice. DNR rebels publicly convicted a man for rape after a hasty “people’s trial,” and members of the audience later voted with a show of hands for the man to be executed by firing squad.

“During a 50-minute “trial” conducted by separatist militants, the Alchevsk residents heard cases against two local militants, fighting with the separatists, accused in separate incidents of rape…
...He then asked for a show of hands on whether one of the alleged defendants should be “subjected to the highest form of punishment — death by firing squad.”
An online video shows a majority of the crowd raising their hands, drawing despairing cries from the man’s mother, who was attending the proceedings.” ​

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