The Minsk-2 peace agreement is a sham, but neither side can pull out
Having just lost Crimea and lacking a functioning government or military command after the Maidan revolution, Ukraine was stunned. As Russia massed its forces on the border with Ukraine, most observers (and participants such as Mr Girkin) expected a swift invasion followed by annexation. Instead, the Kremlin created an ersatz civil war, absurdly portraying the Kiev government as a “fascist” regime and the separatists as freedom fighters. As the Ukrainian army moved in to try to retake Donbas, Mr Girkin and his fighters took up positions in a psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of Sloviansk, using its patients as human shields.
Today, the ruined psychiatric hospital, resembling a scene out of the battle of Stalingrad, is a symbol of the madness of an essentially theatrical conflict that has cost 10,000 lives and displaced more than 1.7m people. Yet officially, Russia and Ukraine are not at war. They maintain diplomatic relations and trade with each other. Ukraine has euphemistically designated the conflict zone an area of “anti-terrorist operations” (ATO). Most of the people caught up in the war do not care who started it, or what they call it.
“I am against everyone,” says Lyudmila Prikhodko, who lives in a restored building among the hospital’s ruins. (The names of civilians in the conflict zone have been changed.) An engineer, Ms Prikhodko was forced to flee Donetsk after refusing to support the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). She feels equally alienated from Russia and Ukraine. “DNR treats people like me as enemies. Ukraine sees us as potential separatists.”
A nation divided
On paper, there is no border between the two parts of Ukraine. In practice, there are several frontier control points, manned by border guards and customs officials and crossed by those who live in the separatist territories but must work, receive pensions or handle bureaucratic problems on the Ukrainian side. Andrei Borisov, a smuggler who carries food, cigarettes and pesticides from Ukrainian territory across the line of control, says everyone is in on the business: customs officers, local officials and separatists on the other side.
During the day, while the Mayorsk crossing is open, things are relatively quiet. When it closes and darkness falls, the two sides start firing mortars at each other, while people living in no-man’s land take shelter in their houses. In the morning they come out to inspect their vegetable plots, dotted with craters, and collect their harvest of potatoes and shrapnel.
In nearby Avdiivka, one of the flashpoints a few months ago, the firing is more intense. Four civilians were recently killed. Alexander Samarsky, a commander of the Ukrainian army’s 72nd Brigade, says the main purpose of this seemingly pointless pounding is the need for the separatists to boost morale and keep soldiers active and disciplined. The same applies to his troops, who have been stationed here without rotation for over seven months. The army is in much better shape than it was three years ago, but drinking and drugs have become enough of a problem for Kiev to send in the national guard, a militarised police force. Without being asked, two national guardsmen take out a smartphone and display a video of drunken army officers having their bootleg liquor and bags of white powder confiscated.
The two guardsmen’s own story is compelling. Three years ago, at the Maidan demonstration, they were on opposite sides of the barricade: one, a militarised police officer from Kharkiv, was called in to defend the presidential administration; the other, from Kiev, was a student protester. Today they man one post. Yet such solidarity is uncommon among civilians. Most of the local population in Avdiivka, according to Mr Samarsky, are not on his side. Russian television continues to broadcast there, and absurdly, despite the daily shelling, most of the locals blame Ukraine rather than Russia for their misery.
Unable to beat them, the government joined them, imposing a trade and energy blockade on the occupied territories. This disturbed the situation in Donetsk. The separatists responded by seizing control of all of the coal mines and steel and chemical plants owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest oligarch. Mr Akhmetov was not only the biggest employer in the occupied territories but also their greatest benefactor, providing up to 400,000 humanitarian food parcels per month to the elderly and those in need. The parcels have now been stopped by the separatists, and Mr Akhmetov’s 56,000 well-paid miners and workers have lost their income.
When Mr Akhmetov’s workers attempted to protest, they were met with a mixture of threats and bribes by the separatists and their Russian backers. The miners’ protests would have destroyed the illusion the Russians have tried to create of a model Soviet-era proletarian city. The half-empty city has been kept spotless, the lawns mowed and pavements swept clean. Oksana Mironova, who lives in Donetsk and manages a medium-sized business on the Ukrainian side, says the separatists are trying to introduce the symbols and attributes of a state and create an impression of permanence. Yet it remains a gangster-run territory: “They put on lipstick but forgot to wash their necks.”
Unable to offer much of a future, the separatists are cultivating the symbols of the Soviet past. On May 11th, they marked the third anniversary of their “republic” with a Soviet-style march. A voice boomed from loudspeakers: “We greet this day with joy and pride for a glorious past and in confidence for a peaceful and happy future.” Workers with balloons and Soviet flags marched in columns along Lenin Prospect. Yet keeping up a Soviet veneer may not be easy without jobs, particularly as industrial production plummets.
However disillusioned most people in Donetsk feel with the “Russian spring”, few believe that the territory could ever be reincorporated into Ukraine. But it is not just Ukraine and Russia that have been engaged in a game of make-believe. So has the West, whose leaders continue to endorse the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement, while privately admitting that it is dead.
From the time Minsk-2 was signed two years ago, it was designed to mask an effective defeat of the Ukrainian army by Russian forces. The agreement calls for Russia to return control over its border and over the separatist territories to Ukraine, something it will never do. Ukraine, meanwhile, lacks the military power or Western support to take it by force. America has refused to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons, let alone fight on its side. Some Western politicians argue that it would be more honest and productive to pronounce Minsk-2 dead and enforce the current line of division between the separatists and the rest of Ukraine with an armed peacekeeping force. Ukraine, the argument goes, would lose only a swatch of land which it does not control anyway. And it would prevent the rest of the country from being frozen in a permanent state of war.
The problem is that too many parties in this conflict have an interest in keeping up the charade. This includes both Mr Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. Both have rejected any talk of changing the Minsk-2 agreement, as this would undermine their credibility. Yet neither is interested in taking formal responsibility for Donbas. Mr Poroshenko’s legitimacy rests almost entirely on the fight against Russia, and he has no interest in letting Donbas vote in the presidental elections in 2019. The Kremlin does not want either to pay for Donbas or to limit its options in meddling in the rest of Ukraine.
Yet leaving things as they are does not mean they will stay this way. As Mr Girkin said recently: “sooner or later [Russia] will have to face either a victory or a defeat. A military confrontation is inevitable.” His ideal outcome would be a resurrection of Novorossiya, the historic Russian term for the eastern parts of Ukraine, as part of a new state comprising Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. This may seem like a delusion. But then so did his first raid on the hospital in Sloviansk three years ago.