Citizens in Ukraine’s Donbass region will face their fourth uncertain winter during Ukraine’s conflict, which has seen more than 10,000 killed and at least 23,000 injured. In January 2014, Ukraine had no displaced people; yet, now it can be found on the world’s top ten list, with approximately 2 million people displaced. The world has turned its back on citizens caught up in the Ukraine crisis, and more must be done.
The roots of the Ukraine crisis date back to November 2013 when President Yanukovych’s cabinet abandoned a promise to enter an agreement which would strengthen trade ties between Ukraine and the European Union (EU). Instead, the government chose to seek closer co-operation with Russia. Ukrainians who wanted stronger links with Europe were outraged and protests quickly began with nearly 800,000 people demonstrating in Kiev early the next month. Within months, violence erupted in Eastern Ukraine. On the 20th of February, snipers firing at protestors in Kiev resulted in at least 88 deaths in 48 hours. Since then, thousands of armed pro-Russians have invaded Eastern Ukraine, remaining there to this day. Russia initially argued these men were simply ‘local self-defence forces’ before later confirming they were in fact Russian soldiers. As a result, the Eastern region of Ukraine has essentially been sliced in two.
The conflict in Eastern Ukraine is generally of low intensity but has regular spikes. As of mid-November, the number of ceasefire violations had increased. There were nearly 2,000 explosions set off in one day alone. The concentration of heavy weaponry in addition to the close proximity of the two sides to the conflict creates a significant barrier to peace. Apartment blocks, schools, hospitals and bridges found along the contact line are all affected by heavy shelling. When shelling does occur, it easily lands in highly dense populated areas which has a devastating impact on human life. Furthermore, land mines have also become an issue and many farmers are, as a result, increasingly fearful of working their land.
Those still inhabiting Eastern Ukraine face significant hardship, particularly during the Winter months. Many citizens have fled this area to other parts of Ukraine, Russia and Europe leaving those most vulnerable struggling to survive on international aid. A recent UN appeal targeted 3-4 million people who are in need of humanitarian protection and aid. 70 percent of these are either women, the elderly or children. According to UNICEF, more than 200,000 children live within 15 kilometers of the contact line, forcing approximately 2 percent to regularly take refuge in improvised bomb shelters. Those living along the contact line are increasingly finding themselves cut off from basic services. Having enough food has become rare for many communities. Access to water and sustainable heating, too, have become pressing concerns. The contact line also threatens two major water plants nearby, which would completely cut off water and heat for citizens. There is also the added risk of a chlorine gas explosion in the case of a wayward shell hitting storage areas at the plants. Many hospitals have been destroyed or are occupied by the military. Further, the children’s agency estimates that one in five schools have been damaged or completely destroyed. Other schools lack teachers. The conflict in Eastern Ukraine has resulted in a devastating 10,000 deaths and 23,000 injuries approximately.
Years of conflict have left deep psychological scars on the people of Ukraine. Repeated exposure to the horrors of war, displacement and the loss of family and friends have left many traumatized, particularly children. According to government figures, more than 235,000 Ukrainian children have been internally displaced since 2014. Deputy headmistress at Krasnohorivka primary school says nearly half of the school’s students show signs of war-related stress and are in need of psychological support. Students often experience panic attacks or moments of rage during school hours. Psychologists argue that although 80 percent of those dealing with psychological problems may be able to heal themselves, 20 percent will be severely affected and likely to experience increasing trauma over the long term. Citizens of the Donbass region will not forget what they have seen, even long after the war is over.
With several unsuccessful attempts, the potential for securing peace in Eastern Ukraine appears rather grim. Economic sanctions placed on Russia have worked in some ways, but not to the extent that was hoped for. This is largely due to Russia and the rest of the world being strongly economically interdependent. Experts and diplomats argue that even tightening sanctions against Russia may not be enough to make positive progress. Numerous rounds of peace negotiations between the Ukraine government, separatists and other European countries have led to some agreements. However, these agreements have yet to be put into practice. Additionally, there have been countless ceasefire violations from both parties. There is undoubtedly a significant disconnect between those in the conflict and those negotiating. Alexander Hug, Deputy Chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), argues that “a lack of trust hampers any lasting peace.” Recently, the United States is seeking Russian approval to allow 20,000 peacekeepers across Eastern Ukraine. Both Ukraine and Russia agreed to the peacekeeping mission; however, disagreements continue as Ukraine demands deployment throughout the conflict zone whereas Russia wants a mission that will be limited to the contact line. Both sides must compromise for progress to be made.
Negotiated talks are typically the most viable way of achieving peace in the Donbass region. However, substantial progress requires mutual cooperation. The international community must take a stronger, more direct role in establishing peace for Ukraine. Greater pressure from other countries and organizations, whether through sanctions or other means, must be implemented to create incentives for Ukraine and Russia to seek peace. Further, the international community can take more initiative in holding both sides accountable and assist in cooperation and negotiations between them. Most importantly, citizens in the Donbass region need to prioritize discussion and negotiation. Greater humanitarian aid and support must be provided to those at risk in this conflict, avoiding further loss of life. The future stability of not only Ukraine but Europe as a whole depends partly on how parties manage and resolve this ongoing conflict – one that the international community must not turn its back on.