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Hard choices await a war-weary Ukraine

Lingering fighting and economic disarray have left Ukraine divided not only between east and west, but even among patriotic Ukrainians at odds about what to do next.

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    A track from a Ukrainian army tank is pictured as road workers cleared debris near the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine in early September.
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    Mothers of soldiers confronted a Ukrainian soldier who wanted to drive his truck through their blockade Sept. 10 in Kiev.
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One sunny afternoon in early September, several dozen people, mostly middle-aged women, raced across Kiev’s broad Vozdukhnoflota Avenue, just in front of Ukraine’s main military headquarters, and sat down in a long hand-holding line to halt traffic. Police quickly sealed off the area, and the women began stating their grievances to a handful of journalists who showed up.

They were mothers, wives, and friends of members of Kiev’s 12th territorial defense battalion, a military reserve unit whose job is to guard local bridges, rail stations, and other key points in an emergency. Instead, the men were shipped off to the front line in eastern Ukraine four months ago, the women accused, without training, equipment, or even enough ammunition.

“I want my son back,” said Natalia, who, like all of the protesters, declined to give her last name. “I had to buy him a uniform, body armor, even a helmet. But he’s been there for months, sleeping on the ground, no food to eat, and isn’t allowed even a weekend at home. Enough.”

Maxim, a student, said he was there on behalf of a university pal in the 12th battalion. “The conditions out there are hellish. No one knows what they’re supposed to be doing there. I want to see him again, alive.” Asked if he was just protesting the alleged bad treatment of the 12th battalion, or the war itself, Maxim answered firmly, “I’m against this war.”

That’s a distinctly minority opinion, at least in Kiev. Several passersby accused the sit-down strikers of being “separatists,” in league with eastern Ukraine’s rebels, and one hissed, “Why don’t you go live in Russia?”

The official Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, the oldest antiwar group in the former Soviet Union, refuses to endorse protests like this on the grounds that they are unpatriotic. “Of course we support our army. Ukraine has been invaded by Russia. It’s every man’s duty to fight,” says Valentina Artamonova, the head of Ukraine’s Soldiers’ Mothers, who got her own start organizing much the same sort of flash mob-style resistance against the USSR’s war in Afghanistan three decades ago. She insists that the organization is not uncritical of military negligence, but directs most of its efforts toward raising money to equip the troops. “We have to stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” she says.

The war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region – where until recently, government forces had been fighting Russia-supported rebels who sought independence from Kiev – has left the country torn, not just between east and west, Russia and Europe, but within the ranks of peaceniks and patriots.
With the conflict now effectively frozen with rebels in charge of a major slice of Ukraine’s industrial and coal-mining center of Donbass, Ukrainians of all stripes are being riven by fears of new fighting, failures of Kiev’s governance, and the prospects of a once close relationship with Russia turned cold.

‘The war’s been canceled’

Ukraine has fractured further and faster than anyone would have expected in February, when President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by the Maidan movement in what Russian-speakers in the country’s east and south saw as a putsch. The Crimean peninsula was the first to break off, in a speedy referendum and annexation by Russia – which the West and Kiev decry as illegal.

Armed pro-Russia rebels in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk launched an insurgency seeking similar ends in May.

But with Kiev still smarting from the loss of Crimea, new President Petro Poroshenko stepped up an “anti-terrorist operation” to crush the rebels. The campaign went well for several months, capturing vast swaths of land and containing the rebels within the rebel capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk. But the prospect of swift military victory evaporated early this month when the insurgents, allegedly backed for the first time by regular Russian troops, dealt a stunning defeat to Ukrainian forces besieging the cities. That forced Mr. Poroshenko to agree to a humiliating Kremlin-authored truce.

Vladimir Paniotto, head of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, Ukraine’s premier pollster, says that war-weariness has been on the rise for some time, and the apparent introduction of a Russian iron fist into the equation has convinced a majority that the attempt to force a solution had to be abandoned. Many Kiev experts believe that, despite daily cease-fire violations in the east, the war is basically over. Poroshenko will have to turn and face the daunting array of political and economic problems that threaten Ukraine’s very existence.

“No one is ready to go on,” says Vadim Karasev, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. “Putin got some of what he wanted, but he was stopped from getting the whole eastern Ukraine. The West has signaled that they want this to end. Poroshenko needs to get a working parliament and government out of the Oct. 26 elections in order to go forward with any major policy. So, the war’s been canceled,” he says.

Disquiet out east

The mood is quite different in Zaporizhia, a grimy industrial city of just under a million people on the banks of the Dnieper River, not far from the eastern war zone. The city is on edge, full of refugees from next-door Donetsk, and rife with rumors of rebel advances that never quite materialize. Outside Zaporizhia volunteers are digging defensive trenches, while an 800-man “self-defense” militia operates checkpoints at all entrances to the city.

“I don’t believe this war will end soon. The aggressor needs water, electricity, and a road to [Russian-annexed] Crimea. He needs Zaporizhia for all that,” says Tatiana Suleiman, who runs a Christian charity to help war refugees called Urban Assistance. “We pray for peace, but the forecasts are all bad.”

Zaporizhia is a mainly Russian-speaking place, where the majority voted for deposed President Yanukovych in the 2010 elections. When he was overthrown there was disquiet here. The city’s mayor, Olexandr Syn, says he immediately gathered leaders of all local political parties and made them sign an agreement to do nothing to oppose the new government.

He admits that trust in the new Kiev authorities is still not very high. “Some politicians talk about the need for national dialogue, but, frankly, we’re doing everything possible to avoid that discussion here,” he says. “We need to concentrate on surviving.”

An officially sponsored peace rally through downtown Zaporizhia one day in mid-September attracted about 2,000 people, many of them apparently workers of state industries who’d been given the afternoon off to attend. But there was a substantial contingent of enthusiastic patriots as well, including Valentina Rozhko, a pensioner in traditional Ukrainian dress with a placard praising the armed forces and volunteer brigades fighting the rebels next door.

“We want peace, but we won’t let aggressors pass here,” she said.

Economic crisis

What everyone seems to fear, even more than the prospect of renewed warfare, is the onrushing winter. Ukraine’s economy is in free fall, and the government appears no closer to agreeing with Moscow on a resumption of gas supplies, critical for heating homes and powering Ukraine’s flagging industries. Walking around Kiev, it’s impossible not to notice the proliferation of “for rent” signs in empty display windows.

Zaporizhia is worse. Once known as “the Detroit of Ukraine” because of its concentration of automobile factories, the city has seen tens of thousands of layoffs as car sales collapsed in recent months. Mr. Syn, the mayor, says other industries are operating under tough restraints because of looming power shortages. About 50 percent of Ukraine’s electricity is generated by Soviet-era nuclear plants, but the rest comes from gas- and coal-fired plants. With Ukraine’s coal-producing center in ruins and no new Russian gas coming in, “we’re going to be under a lot of pressure in coming months,” he says.

Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, has lost about 70 percent of its value so far this year. With both government and millions of households owing huge debts in foreign currency, it’s increasingly difficult to keep up the payments. With the near collapse of exports to Ukraine’s biggest trading partner, Russia, the country faces a perfect storm of bad economic news.

A need for reform

Economists say that Poroshenko needs to restore public confidence by moving forward with the sweeping reforms promised by the Maidan revolution. So far, they say, there’s been little progress in combating corruption or reducing red tape.

“At least our government now understands that reforms are vital for the survival of the Ukrainian state,” says Alexander Paraschiy, research director at Concorde Capital, a Kiev investment firm. “Either we will make rapid changes, and see significant improvement, or this country will fall apart.”

But first Poroshenko needs to get a parliament he can work with. Yanukovych’s pro-Russian Party of Regions, the biggest force on Ukraine’s political landscape just a year ago, has all but disintegrated. Unfortunately for Poroshenko, all attempts to get Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk to join forces in a single electoral bloc have failed, and their parties will now run against each other. Still, the four major parties in the running are all different flavors of anti-Russian and pro-European.

“This is a whole new situation in Ukrainian politics. There is no longer any pro-Russian force on the political landscape, and Ukraine’s move toward the West seems assured,” Mr. Karasev says. “The Kremlin should study these results carefully. The outcome is that Russia has lost Ukraine forever, and gotten the Donbass in exchange.”

 
 
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