We should remain vigilant concerning the Donbas in 2022

15 January, 11:04 AM

The reintegration of the Donbas relies not solely on diplomacy, but also on the attention we pay to those still living in Donetsk and Luhansk.

While Kyiv residents spent the holiday season reinventing the recipe for Olivier salad, those who remain under occupation by Russian proxies in the Donbas had a very different drama unfold before them.

An absolutely staggering-in-scale effort to provide free food took place in Luhansk on Dec. 27, 2021. Field kitchens, operated by “uniformed Russian Cossacks”, were treating the residents of the troubled city to soup and gruel. Lengthy queues to these kitchens were comprised of senior citizens, as well as younger, perfectly able-bodied cohorts.

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This charity stunt was likely concocted in response to the COVID stimulus program of Ukraine’s government, under which all fully-vaccinated citizens are eligible for UAH 1,000 to spend on arts and tourism businesses across the country.

The logic of it seems rather straightforward: while Ukrainians are tinkering with their smartphones and apps to get this “virtual thousand” to be spent on books and theaters, the regime in Luhansk is going to dish out concrete, no-nonsense material goods – hot soup, with no need for apps and digital transactions.

Even over the holidays, Russia kept supplying Luhansk, Yenakievo, Pridorozhne, and Samsonivka with truckloads of armed goons, and trains full of perishables.

The Kremlin clearly aimed to provide the population of the Russian-controlled areas of the Donbas some semblance of security; provide them with food to put on their Christmas tables, to be feasted upon while listening to old concerts of Joseph Kobzon or Lyuba Uspenskaya (old Russian pop stars known for their pro-Russian views) on YouTube.

Meanwhile in Kyiv

In Kyiv’s Pecherska Lavra, the city’s oldest Eastern Orthodox monastery, Alexey Ovsyannikov was ordained to serve as the bishop of Jankoy in Russia-occupied Crimea. The ceremony was performed by Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOCMP), on Jan. 2. Ovsyannikov is known for appearing on Russian TV stations, where he makes claims that Orthodox Christians are suffering from persecution in Ukraine.

The city of Jankoy itself is a critical juncture in Crimea’s infrastructure, through which vast volumes of trade pass through, including plenty of less-than-legal transactions.

On Moscow’s direction, the UOCMP is actively promoting the cult of St. John, the Archbishop of Shanghai, stuffing all of its churches in Kyiv with St. John’s biographies and religious imagery with his likeness.

The Russian church is clearly trying to make Ukrainians identify as Russians, merely living abroad: “If the Archbishop of Shanghai, who hails from Slovyansk in Donetsk region, can become a prominent Russian overseas – so can you!”

Western media have been producing a constant barrage of stories about the crisis on Ukraine’s borders for some weeks now, mapping the movement of Russian forces and analyzing the situation.

Esteemed print media, such as The Economist and Wall Street Journal, who have journalists of their own stationed in Moscow, have published in-depth long reads covering the tensions between Ukraine and Russia.

National Interest, the very same U.S. magazine that printed Putin’s WWII article back in Summer 2020, published an article by David T. Pyne, a national security expert, on Jan. 1. Pyne advocated for further Russian appeasement, arguing that defending Ukraine’s political interest would be too costly.

He cautioned that the current Ukraine crisis could prompt Russia, China and North Korea to enter a military alliance of their own, one that could then steamroll not only Ukraine, but Taiwan and South Korea as well.

This looks like the typical Kremlin strategy of ratcheting media tensions and hysteria – a part of the Russian playbook on hybrid military and political warfare. As it stands, Moscow’s key moves remain limited to diplomatic rhetoric.

When Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov tells NATO to “pack up and beat it back to your 1997 borders,” he engages in typical bravado; not unlike what professional wrestlers do before a fight. In this case too, being bold, rude and insulting before a fight scarcely ensures victory.

It is vital that our society keeps the goal of Donbas reintegration in mind, from the very first days of this new year. Even a cursory glance at our media, social and otherwise, paints a picture of Ukrainians going about their normal lives: traveling, making plans, doing sports, shopping, etc.

Such attitudes create a breeding ground for resentment among our compatriots under Russian yoke. They start feeling victimized, thinking that residents of Kyiv, Odessa, Lviv don’t care for them at all, and are indulging in hedonism, spurred by the improving COVID-19 situation.

We’ve allowed the Donbas to slip to the back of our minds, getting ready to live with this festering wound the same way India has learned to live with the risk of war with Pakistan, or how Israelis have grown accustomed to the constant threat of Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, and Hamas.

Occupied areas of Donbas can still be integrated back into Ukraine, if we set our minds on it. T

But India and Israel are hardly examples for us to try and follow, since it took those countries half a century to get to where they are now. hat would have its price, though.

The 2014 Minsk Protocol is unlikely to become a basis for restoring Ukraine’s control of its eastern regions. Minsk accords are no Treaty of Riga, let alone the Treaty of Versailles. This document merely codified a ceasefire. Meanwhile, Russia ensures that the Normandy talks remain frozen.

Why Moscow is adamant about the Normandy format remaining inactive? Putin is convinced that this particular configuration of talks leaves Russia in a weak minority position: forced to deal with Ukraine, Germany and France – adversarial-minded liberal democracies. Russia would much rather prefer the table included China, Brazil, or some other hostile-to-liberalism countries.

Ukraine is need of not a new format, but a new tone in conversation about the future of the Donbas. Putin’s position is crystal-clear: Our country is allegedly unable to formulate a coherent policy, acts chaotically, and therefore should be punished for such political carelessness. In contrast, in Putin’s eyes, Russia’s geopolitical approach is firm and systemic, and has been so for many decades.

In interview with NV.Radio, the head of the sociology department of Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences, Yevhen Holovaha, made an interesting point:  Putin is hardly a lunatic or a freak, he acts in accordance with his particular worldview.

Ukraine has a number of powerful arguments when it comes to the subject of reintegrating Donbas. Firstly, our constitution clearly defines Donetsk and Luhansk regions as integral parts of Ukraine’s territory. Secondly, Russia-controlled areas of Donbas are in the midst of a humanitarian disaster.

Putin could have argued that Russia finally brought order to the region, but that requires nothing short of an economic miracle of rising standards of living, growth, and booming investments. These aspirations were shattered by the long queues of Luhansk residents clamoring for free soup on Dec. 27.

While the Kremlin finances a lavish, resplendent and vast new business center, Lakhta, in Saint Petersburg, those under its “care” in Donbas are witnessing old Soviet structures ever crumbling. Concrete roadblocks and checkpoints remain the only kind of capital investment in Donetsk and Luhansk from Moscow.

It’s important we spend this year talking not so much about Donbas-related diplomatic efforts, but about the lives of those who live there, instead. They are still our compatriots, who deserve to spend their “COVID thousand” to order books by contemporary Ukrainian authors online. They deserve to be able to watch Ukrainian TV stations, read news on our websites, and communicate with people from the rest of the country,

Donetsk and Luhansk must not be led to feel that we’d all forgotten about them, engaging in a restless pursuit of consumerist bliss. Perhaps, we ought to send a text to someone we know in Donetsk, using our flashy new iPhone 13.

The increase of freedom and liberty in Ukraine created a space for a full-throated celebration of our individuality.

So, we are naturally inclined to bask in this jubilant exceptionalism, flaunting our success on social media and elsewhere. However, we must show a little empathy towards those of us who fell victim to geopolitical circumstances of our time.

Perhaps we could retire the motto “I succeeded” in favor of “I helped.” I’d wager it would make the lives of many of our citizens a bit more bearable. Despite whatever we may achieve as individuals, our collective goal remains the same – development of the whole of Ukraine, including the Donbas; economic growth, investment, and (a flowering of) vibrant culture in our cities and villages.

Leave behind the scholastic disputes over diplomatic formulae, focus on the very human conversation about what the residents of Donetsk and Luhansk can hope for. They deserve better lives than the ones they have now.

Ukraine has plenty of resources to give those people the future they deserve. We simply have to keep talking about it, as opposed to the usual fixation on our individual successes, on how lovely and liberal Kyiv is, and other fruits of our democracy. Donetsk and Luhansk are looking not for our success stories, but for us to properly engage with them, despite the differences in how we think.

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