In eastern Ukraine, a broad desire for peace. But whose peace?

Why We Wrote This

The desire for peace isn’t enough to bring an end to war. Witness eastern Ukraine, where locals on both sides of the country’s east-west split want peace, but have conflicting views of what it will take to make it happen.

Nikolai Ryabchenko/Reuters/File
People walk past a house damaged by shelling in Mariupol, Ukraine, in January 2015. The city has been on or near the front lines of Ukraine's civil war for years.

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In Mariupol, near the front lines of Ukraine's civil war, people want peace, whether they want a future aligned with Europe or one back in Russia's familiar orbit. But their starkly different visions for what that peace would entail could prove a major obstacle for ending the conflict.

Maria Podibailo, a political scientist and activist, found that a three-quarters majority of local people supported a future as part of Ukraine, not Russia. “That’s when we knew we were on the right track,” she says. “We were not a beleaguered minority at all. We were part of the majority who want to be Ukrainian.” Her view is that the separatist republics will have to be forcibly brought to heel, and those who collaborated with “the enemy” would have to be punished, as after World War II.

Maxim Tkach, regional head of the “pro-Russian” Party of Life, disagrees. “Of course we need to negotiate directly with” the rebel republics, he says. “The task before us is to bring them back to Ukraine, and Ukraine to them. It must be accomplished through compromise and negotiation, because everyone is tired of war.”

Almost every conversation in Ukraine these days will touch upon the grinding, seemingly endless war in the eastern region of Donbass. People speak of overwhelming feelings of pain and weariness. And they express near-universal hopes that the new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, will finally do something to end it.

Here in Mariupol, where the front line is a 10-minute drive from downtown, those conversations tend to be intense.

But depending on whom you talk to, the path to peace can look very different.

Much of the population around here speaks Russian, is used to having close relations with nearby Russia, and can’t imagine any peace that would impose permanent separation. Many people have family, friends, and former business associates living just a few miles away on the other side of the border. More than half of voters in the Ukrainian-controlled part of Donetsk Region, of which Mariupol is the largest city, expressed those instincts in July 21 parliamentary elections by voting for two “pro-Russian” political parties. Both of them would like to forge a peace on Moscow’s terms and return at least this part of Ukraine to its historical place as part of the Russian sphere of influence.

But there are also many who espouse an emerging Ukrainian identity, who see the 2014 Maidan “Revolution of Dignity” as a breaking point that gave Ukraine the chance to escape the grasp of autocratic Russia and embrace a European future. They want nothing to do with Russian-authored peace plans, say there is no alternative to fighting on to victory in the Donbass war, and want to quarantine Ukraine from its giant neighbor – at least until Russia changes its fundamental nature.

Despite the two groups’ shared desire for peace, their starkly different visions for what that peace would entail could prove a major obstacle for ending the war in eastern Ukraine.

Karen Norris/Staff

Looking east, looking west

These divisions are rooted in Ukrainian history. The country’s eastern regions have been part of Russian-run states for over 300 years. Three decades of Ukrainian independence have brought little in the way of economic development or other strong reasons to embrace a Ukrainian identity. At the same time, Russia has become a far more prosperous, orderly place that exudes confidence and power since Vladimir Putin came to power. Millions of eastern Ukrainians have gone to Russia as guest workers – and more recently as war refugees. Today, the Ukrainian diaspora in Russia is by far the world’s largest.

The western regions of Ukraine, on the other hand, were part of European states like Austria-Hungary and Poland until World War II, when they were annexed by the Soviet Union. Now, people overwhelmingly speak Ukrainian as their first language, take a suspicious (and historically grounded) view of Russia, and tend to look west for their inspiration. In 1990, living standards in Ukraine and Poland were about equal. Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, its living standards have doubled and it has become a vibrant European state. Millions of Ukrainians go to Poland and beyond as guest workers, and their impressions help to fuel the certainty that Ukraine needs to seek a European future.

Fred Weir
The Party of Life, of which local businessman Maxim Tkach is a regional head, argues that peace can be achieved in eastern Ukraine only by following a Russia-favored plan for the region.

Not coincidentally, the enthusiasm and conviction of western Ukrainians have disproportionately driven two pro-Western revolutions on the Maidan in Kyiv in the past 15 years, with little visible support from populations in the country’s east.

“People in the western Ukraine are different from us. It’s not just language, or anything simple like that. They took power away from a president our votes elected, and they want to rip us out of our ways, abandon our values, and become part of their agenda,” says Maxim Tkach, regional head of the Party of Life, the pro-Russian group that was the front-runner in parliamentary elections here in Mariupol.

“When they started that Maidan revolution, they said it was about things we could support, like fighting corruption and ending oligarchic rule. But none of that happened. They betrayed every single principle they had shouted about. Instead, they want us to change the names of our streets and schools, honor ‘heroes’ like Stepan Bandera that our ancestors fought against. These are things we can’t accept. ...

“If there had been no Maidan, we would still have Crimea. There would have been no war. There would be no pressure on us to change our customs, our language, or our church. It was this aggressive revolution, by just part of the country, that caused these problems,” he says. “Russia is Russia. It is acting in its own interests, but why do we need to antagonize it?” 

“The majority who want to be Ukrainian”

Maria Podibailo, a political scientist at Mariupol State University and head of New Mariupol, a civil society group founded to support the Ukrainian army, offers a completely different narrative. She originally came from Ternopil in western Ukraine and has made Mariupol her home since 1991.

Fred Weir
Maria Podibailo is a political scientist and the head of the New Mariupol group, in whose offices she is standing. The civil society organization was created to promote public support for the Ukrainian army.

She says there were no separatist feelings in Mariupol, or the Donbass, until after the Maidan revolution when Russian agitators started traveling around eastern Ukraine, spreading lies and stirring up moods that had never existed before. Local pro-Russian oligarchs wielded their economic power to support separatist groups, while passive police and security forces allowed Russian-led separatists to seize public buildings and hold anti-Ukrainian protests in Mariupol. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Ukrainian army – first in the form of the volunteer Azov Battalion – that the separatists were driven out and the front line was pushed back from the city limits in 2014, she says.

“That is why we support the army, and only trust the army,” she says.

Ms. Podibailo’s university-sponsored opinion surveys in 2014, after the rebellion began, found that a three-quarters majority of local people supported a future as part of Ukraine, not Russia. That majority was subdivided into several visions of what kind of Ukraine it should be, but only 12% wanted to join Russia, and 8% wanted Donbass to be an independent republic – a point often overlooked in the simplistic pro-Russian versus pro-Western scheme in which these events are frequently portrayed.

“That’s when we knew we were on the right track,” she says. “We were not a beleaguered minority at all. We were part of the majority who want to be Ukrainian.”

But while the two nearby separatist statelets, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic, may be backed by Russia, they emerged from deep local roots. That is a clear observation from one of the most exhaustive studies of the war to date, Rebels Without a Cause, published last month by the International Crisis Group.

The war has done great and possibly irreparable damage to Ukraine’s economy, and the longer it continues, the harder it may be to ever reintegrate the former industrial heartland of Donbass with the rest of the country.

“We cannot talk to the leaders of these so-called republics. How could we possibly trust them?” says Ms. Podibailo. Her view is that, after victory, the population of the republics should be sorted out into those who collaborated with the enemy and those who were innocent victims, as happened after World War II.

“There is no way for this war to end other than in Ukrainian victory. I have never heard of a war that ends leaving things the same way, or just through some talks. People say it might take a long time, and the threat will last forever because we have such a neighbor.

“But we have the United States behind us, we have the West behind us, and they are attacking Russia from the other side with sanctions. We will win,” she says.

“These are our people”

Mr. Tkach, the regional party head, says the idea of victory is a dangerous chimera, and what most people around here want is peace and restoration of normal relations with Russia.

“Of course we need to negotiate directly with” the rebel republics, he says. “These are our people. We understand them. Perhaps we need a step-by-step process, in which they are granted some special status. What would be wrong with that? They have also suffered, had their homes shelled by Ukrainian forces, lost their loved ones. Trust needs to be restored, and that might take some time.”

But he is adamant that those territories need to be recovered for Ukraine. “The task before us is to bring them back to Ukraine, and Ukraine to them. It must be accomplished through compromise and negotiation, because everyone is tired of war. Once we have done this, and have peace, then we can talk about Crimea.”

One of the leaders of the Party of Life – which came in a distant second in the national parliamentary elections – is Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who has strong connections to the Kremlin and whose daughter has Mr. Putin as her godfather. Attending the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum along with Mr. Putin this spring, Mr. Medvedchuk was introduced as “a representative of the Ukraine that can make a deal.”

Mr. Tkach says so too. “We wish Zelenskiy well, but we really doubt that he can make peace happen. Our party has the connections and the right approach, and we think it will be necessary to bring us into the process.” He’s talking about dealing with the Russia that exists just across the Sea of Azov and a few miles down the road.

Ms. Podibailo will have none of that. “After victory, Crimea has to be returned. Donetsk and Lugansk have to be returned. Russia has to pay reparations. And it has to change. Russia cannot be an empire anymore,” she says.

To which Mr. Tkach retorts, “Some people think the sun might freeze over one day. But must we wait for impossible things to happen? Why can’t we try to make peace now?”

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