On Monday, separatists in Eastern Ukraine issued an ultimatum to the Ukrainian government. The Russian-backed organization warned that if the rail blockade against rebel-held territories continues, they will seize Ukraine-run businesses in the rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. The blockade went into effect a month ago and has halted the transportation of coal supplies across the country.
Leaders of the respective rebel organizations operating in Donetsk and Luhansk wrote in a joint statement that states: “we are forced to announce that if by midnight on Wednesday the blockade is not taken down, we will introduce a system of external management on all companies registered in Ukraine’s jurisdiction that operate in the [Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics].” Additionally, the rebels have threatened to stop selling coal to Ukraine and will, instead, turn to buyers in Russia and elsewhere.
Nationalist activists in the capital city of Kiev are responsible for blocking the railway lines leading to and from Eastern Ukraine. According to the organizers of the blockade, at least 74,000 cargo cars have been stopped from crossing rebel lines. The protest is in direct opposition to the buying and selling of coal across the disengagement line between government and rebel-held territories. This trading has continued despite the nearly three-year conflict that has taken the lives of more than 10,000 people and has displaced more than 1.8 million.
The Ukrainian government opposes the blockade but fears that the measures necessary to stop the protests would incite violence. Nationalists view the government’s allowance of trading with rebels as treasonous.
Without the coal produced in rebel areas, low coal supplies in power plants threaten the power supply in government-controlled areas. As a result of the threat to Ukraine’s energy industry, Kiev has since declared a state of emergency.
Steel manufacturing is one of Ukraine’s largest industries. Its economy relies heavily on the profits from its export. Ukraine’s largest steel producer, Metinvest, is located in the Eastern region. It had to close its doors due to the blockade. Thus, the jobs of more than 20,000 Ukrainians are at risk.
A ceasefire went into effect on February 20. Since then, two Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and another four have been wounded by the combined Russian-separatist forces. This ceasefire is the thirtieth that has been negotiated since the start of the conflict in 2014.
With the conflict over coal intensifying, deadly clashes between government and rebel forces on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine are likely to continue. There are few indications that peace is possible in the near future, leaving millions of Ukrainians with pessimistic views about their future.