Is it worth risking the lives of the most vulnerable to teach a "lesson-by-blockade"?

I'm continuing a series of translations of eastern Ukrainian writers and activists about the huge moral questions raised by the Donbas blockade.

Anna Khripunkova is a fiercely pro-unity Ukrainian journalist from Donetsk. In the piece below it is clear she sees no future in the "Peoples Republics" and loathes the separatist cause. But she writes searingly of how Ukraine's efforts to isolate and starve the separatists are causing a humanitarian crisis for its citizens remaining on that side of the line.

As she points out, terrorists do not go through the roadblocks. But food and medicine, and people fleeing the brutal fighting, do go through them. It is they who have no choice. The blockade has made crossing the front line an arduous, sometimes impossible task, probably as a deliberate measure to force people to make a choice - which side will I live on?

Here is the original. And my translation:

14 kilometers to freedom
Anna Khripunkova, DonPress

Blockade. We heard that word long before June, but namely the last month made it has become one of the most popular whenever the subject turns to the occupied territories.

After the attack by the separatists on Mariinky on June 3, which was the turning point for contact with those territories temporarily not under Ukrainian control, it became extremely difficult to leave the towns and cities of the ATO zone. And that difficulty is felt most acutely by law-abiding citizens. They protest, but the blockade remains impenetrable. And more and more often we hear in Ukraine that it is simply unavoidable.

You can’t go home

It all began on June 16. That’s the day all hope disappeared of more or less free passage from the ATO [anti-terror operation] zone and back. The new laws about crossing the line of contact came in to effect, which in practice blocked that path entirely for many Donchane [residents of Donetsk].

You’re not in the Ukrainian Security Agency database for crossing the line of contact from the ATO zone, which is to say, you don’t have a travel permit? You can’t go home.

You have a travel permit, but not the strength to use it? For instance, in order to sit all day in a bus and then go through the checkpoints on foot? You can’t go home.

You have a travel permit and strength, but you are afraid of the risk, since anything can happen at the checkpoints, and you are traveling with the elderly or with children? You can’t go home.

It’s just the same if you remain in Donetsk but want to get over to the other side. The paths are blocked. Even a few months ago there were several “sectors” and a few directions you could travel through. You could even get a driver to take you without a travel permit, and everyone had the chance to get out. Today just one route remains, the most distant – through Artemivsk. Sometimes the road through Volnovakha is also open. But in both places you have to cover a significant distance between the checkpoints. In both places they require travel permits. You didnt get one in time? You can’t… well, you get it.

Image from

“Blockade” isn’t some exaggerated phrase for effect. It’s reality. And it affects everyone – those who live in Donetsk and those who’d like to get there. More than that, it affects not only people but the products essential for their survival. After the harsh new rules came into effect,  food and medicine are crossing less and less often into the ATO zone. Since June 16 it has often been able to transport them only covertly. With bitter irony volunteers write on social media about how they smuggled products critical for the survival of the elderly or children in by hiding them in a bag of tomatoes jammed artfully into one corner of the trunk. That’s one way to do it.

Right now only humanitarian convoys can get through, although they’ve had to change their tactics considerably. For instance, the Akhmetov Fund, which continues distributed “gumanitarka” (humanitarian aid) in Donetsk, slashed the number of trucks in its convoy by half, but compensated by making more trips. They try to piggyback on other humanitarian convoys, going through the inspection together. Several foreign organizations are also keeping up their efforts, sending a variety of aid into the ATO zone, but of course this help is little compared to the scale of need. And the saddest point of all is that many who need that help the most remain “overboard.” In first order that means people who have relatives on unoccupied [government-controlled] territories and who earlier received help from them. Many people sent their parents in the ATO zone money, food and medicine. Now that route is closed. In social media we are seeing more and more posts asking for help in getting medical supplies for parents suffering from cancer into Donetsk, or providing assistance for bed-ridden grandmothers there. Sometimes such posts even attract people who’d like to help, but if the shipment of medicine is large the chances of getting it through are very low. Parents and grandparents, who for whatever reason have stayed on in Donetsk are left to fend for themselves.

Do svidaniye, Donetsk?

Even for those who have a travel permit, simply entering or leaving is already a challenge. The trip is an adventure in itself, in the worst sense of the word. How do people get out of Donetsk?

One of the popular transport companies, “Sherrif-Tour”, has its own way of doing things. It transports willing travelers by bus to the roadbloack at Volnovakha, where they unload and set off… 14 kilometers to the next blockpost. There those who made the grueling trek, or got picked up by a passing car, are loaded into a different bus, which carries them on to Kyiv. The return route operates on the same principle.

Other transport companies offer trips to Kyiv… through Russia. No travel permits! Several trips a week!” they tell unsuspecting travelers. To get to the capital, which in peaceful times took 7-8 hours from Donetsk, now requires around 30. “DreamTrans” for instance, buses people through Belgorod. A different company, “LuxAvtoKom” figured out a route through Rostov.

These are good methods, many people gladly use them but not everyone can afford such travel. Today the trip Donetsk-Kyiv costs from 800 hryvnia if you want to economize and don’t mind walking the distance between the checkpoints. If you chose a more comfortable option you’ll need 1000. With no changes of vehicle it will cost you 1500 hryvnia, a cost inaccessible for the majority of Donetsk families, especially if several people travel at once.

Considering that tightening of the rules about crossing the line of contact always comes on unexpectedly, residents of the ATO zone must plan for the very real chance they will suddenly lose their last chance to cross over to Ukraine or return home. In truth, Donchane already need to decide for themselves where they will live from now on and organize their lives accordingly, in order to minimize the number of future trips. But not everyone can do that.

How can you live?

When the soldiers who man the Ukrainian roadblocks are asked how many terrorists they have caught thanks to the stricter travel permit system, they burst out laughing. That’s a good joke. Everyone understands that those who wish to organize terrorist acts on Ukrainian territory will take entirely different routes to get there. The routes without checkpoints. And they know how to travel them in safety.  Unlike normal people they don’t have to anxiously check the website of the transport companies to see whether the minivan that should pick them up has made it to the checkpoint. And if they really want to they can get into Ukraine faster than even those law-abiding citizens who chose the most expensive and expedited option.

But when it comes to non-terrorists, things are much more difficult. They suffer greatly from the blockade, and the most vulnerable suffer most of all. But in Ukraine more and more often we hear that the blockade is the only way forward. The subtext of this idea is pretty clear: some Ukrainians think that residents of the ATO zone (especially those who still haven’t weaned themselves off of Russian propaganda and still believe in the non-existent future of non-existent republics) have to learn that living in made-up states is impossible. And the only way to do that is to blockade them, so that the last chances for normal existence are lost. When it was possible to come and go with relative ease, and move food and humanitarian shipments, even the conditions of war didn’t seem that awful. Now they want to force Donchane to look reality in the face. The reality of the “republics,” where there can be no conditions for normal life.

The undeserving

It might seem that his gambit is worth it. The sooner Donchane understand the hopelessness of the “DNR”, the sooner “everything will become Ukraine again.” But is forcing that realization on thousands worth the death of the hundreds who won’t survive illness or hunger? Is it worth allowing the death of dozens of the elderly and children who won’t receive the help they need? Aren’t those costs too high?
Today the “DNR” is located 14 kilometers from freedom, if you count the nearest checkpoint. They are both real, physical kilometers, that some people are willing to cover on foot to get back to normal life, and symbolic ones. Everyone that remains there has their own 14 mental kilometers, which they must cross by themselves. You can help them find their way by various means, you can nudge them along or even try to make conditions such that they have no choice. But to consciously condemn people to hunger and death… Yes, sometimes it seems like the “DNR” is worse than hunger. But even those who still believe in it today deserve to be set free. Living in this country is a chance that every one of us should have.

Undoubtedly some people don’t think they need that chance. And they will stay there, believing that everything is as it should be.

And undoubtedly there are those who deserve punishment, but that clearly should not be done with a blockade. Because by punishing them in this way, we can also accidentally strike at those who don’t deserve it. And despite the certainty of many that “all the normal people have already gotten out” there are still plenty such “underserving” people in Donetsk.

Why de-Communization makes me nervous

Lately it occurred to me why I am instinctively uncomfortable with de-Communization as it is being carried out today in Ukraine, despite being fully aware of the historic crimes of the Soviet state. Well, I already thought it was a terrible idea tactically; igniting a culture war at the moment when the country needs to do everything to assure Soviet nostalgics in the east that they have a place in post-Maidan Ukraine is just terrible policy. But even in more peaceful times I think that Ukraine (and Russia, for that matter) has more to gain from the ideological tension between western liberalism and the Soviet experience than from the victory of one and the purge of the other.

While not rejecting capitalism, Russia seems in a mood to do away with many of its liberal trappings in pursuit of some lost national idea. To no good end, I fear. And Ukraine is well on its way to officially stigmatizing everything about the Soviet experience, even though millions of its citizens sincerely believe that 1991 was the last time any government in Ukraine was oriented on and capable of providing them with a decent living.

That last bit requires some explanation. Probably one reason that I have such conflicting feelings about the Soviet Union (i.e. not exclusively negative) is that my job as a forester takes me not only to rural regions of Russia and Ukraine, but to taiga regions (despite its general shortage of forests Ukraine does have places you could put in this category, such as the less touristy corners of the Carpathians or the swampy Polissie along the Belarus border). Of all places it is taiga towns that were most dependent on central planning for survival; in many cases they were established in order to serve some sort of local enterprise, be it sawmill, fur workshop, pine nut or resin collection center or miniscule collective farm. Pure market forces likely never would have spread people so deep into such remote places, let alone guarantee them steady work, decent infrastructure, education, subsidized transportation and even culture. And so even the young, educated and ambitious often sought the chance to be sent to work in such a place, where you could rise in your profession faster, get a decent salary with a bonus for living in “the north” and even have your own house.

Perhaps this was all a socialist mirage, but it is one that millions of people remained in when all of that support and subsidy collapsed. And today taiga towns are some of the most depressed, run-down, thrown-overboard parts of Russia and Ukraine. Their signature feature is the ruins of those very same enterprises around which they were built, constantly imposing the memory of relative prosperity on everyone who lives there.

no title
Russian Far East 289.jpg
Pining for the Soviet past isn't helping Dalny Kut (Russian Far East) or Selezovka (Ukrainian Polissie) much, but what does de-Communization offer them in turn?

I think of one remote village deep in the taiga of Khabarovsky Krai in the Russian Far East, where the remaining houses are dwarfed by a vast, crumbling sawmill complex, entirely abandoned save for one boarded-up corner where Chinese guest workers saw up stolen logs. The woods on the outskirts of town are littered with old wrecked Zaporozhets and Zhiguli cars from the 70s, when foresters or sawmill foremen could obtain a private car much easier than their urban compatriots. Right on the entrance to the village is the last standing wall of a ruined worker’s dormitory, in which a huge Lenin silhouette of  dark bricks gazes on its residents. The symbolism just about clubs you. I have been in maybe a hundred such towns in various remote corners of these two countries, and there are uncounted thousands spread across the 9 time zones of the former Soviet Union.

Why should the residents of such places recall the entire Soviet experience as some terrible burden to be finally liberated from? When 24 years of independence have offered many of them little more than a subsistence lifestyle? That’s not natural to expect of them. I’m not afraid of liberalism’s fate if it is forced to engage critically with the Soviet model; history has shown that it more than holds its own. But until it can offer some kind of decent life to the residents of taiga towns (and most of rural Ukraine and Russia for that matter, and much urban as well), then I am turned off by liberals’ almost Marxist certainty that everything about the Soviet experience belongs in the historical dustbin. And by their certainty that modern Ukraine has absolutely nothing to learn from or, God forbid, even emulate from its own Soviet past.

(*Disclaimer.* Again, I am not for ignoring the horrific, cruel or dysfunctional parts of the Soviet experience. Holodomor alone gives Ukraine ample reason not to pine for a mythical lost Communist utopia. But the late Soviet Union, the one that most adult Ukrainians and Russians actually experienced, was a different place than that of the terror-filled ‘30s, just as the United States in the ‘80s not that of Jim Crow and mass lynching. Crude de-Communization asks them to denounce virtually every part of that historical experience and to me that’s artificial).

Evgeny Shibalov: "They denounce those they cannot defend...just like 70 years ago"

One of the best sources on the humanitarian and social crisis in the Donbas is Evgeny Shibalov, a Donetsk journalist and volunteer. He is one of the founders of "Otvetstvennie Grazhdane" (Responsible Citizens), which provides humanitarian assistance across separatist-controlled Donbas while openly holding a pro-unity position. He, like many of his colleagues in Responsible Citizens, remains in Donetsk.

Shibalov provides some of the best commentary on how many policies of the Ukrainian government are deepening the divide between the Donbas and the rest of the country. In particularly he highlights a strain of angry, pitiless patriotism that inclines some Ukrainians to harsh punitive policies towards the Donbas. As Shibalov points out in the text below, that attitude often has its roots in frustration and helplessness.

Image from Evgeny Shibalov's Facebook page

Several weeks ago Shibalov wrote a post on his Facebook page that has had significant resonance in Ukraine. After some delay I got around to translating it. Here's the original (in Ukrainian), and here's my translation:

    During the Second World War millions of Soviet citizens fell under German occupation.

    The Soviet government could not protect these people.

     And so the Soviet authorities «harshly and justly»... punished them.

     Everyone who remained on occupied territory was declared a traitor.

     Many of them later passed into filtration camps, concentration camps and work camps.

     These people remained deprived of their rights until the end of their lives. Especially for them a lower status was created in Soviet identity papers.

    «Engaged»Soviet citizens took every opportunity to denounce these «traitors»in the pages of Pravda and Izvestiya.

    Today the Ukrainian government is acting in the same way. It has deprived those people that it cannot defend of their rights. Of their rights to free movement, to welfare, to choice of their place of residence, against self-incrimination, etc.

    «Engaged» Ukrainian citizens, just like 70 years ago, passionately defend the «party and government line» on the pages of Facebook and on TV.

    A rhetorical question: does anyone really believe that «de-Communization» is when you re-name the streets?


A few weeks later, on the first day of the blockade, Shibalov wrote the following text . When reading his direct, angry challenge to his fellow Ukrainians (in which he pointedly references Euromaidan), remember what he is doing today for  a united Ukraine. And keep in mind that he was one of the participants in the pro-unity demonstrations in Donetsk in May, 2014, when the DNR was already in control, for which he was beaten bloody (see below). In short, these are not the words of a Kremlin troll, but of an agonized patriot.

Image from Evgeny Shibalov's Facebook page

Here's my translation:

     There are already multiple confirmations: from today on no buses will be allowed through the line of contact.

     People will have to cover the distance between the line of contact and the “zero km” roadblock on foot, if some kind soul in a car doesn’t pick them up. There they can board a bus.

    To orient you, here are the actual distances [line of contact to zero km roadblock]:

    Volnovakha-Novotroitskoe – 19.8 km
    Artemovsk-Mayorsk – 30 km.

    The temperature outside is 27 C. For the past few days it was 32 C.

   I can't stop asking myself the question: how did a country which purportedly had a Revolution of DIGNITY sink to such debasement of its own citizens?

Who on earth are "Enclavians"? A response to Alexander Motyl on the blockade

The well-known Ukraine commentator Alexander Motyl published a recent piece in World Affairs called "Should Kyiv Blockade the Donbas Enclave?" He puts forward for and against arguments, in which he sees the for being that a blockade could "hasten the Donbas enclave’s economic decline and make the region ungovernable" and the against the obvious humanitrian consequences.

In the end he decides that the blockade is justified, and explains it with this terrible argument:

   "Would the people of the enclave suffer as a result? Yes, but remember this. The choice before Kyiv is not who should     suffer, but who should suffer more: the 40 million Ukrainians in Ukraine, who are already paying an exorbitantly high     price in terms of blood and money for Putin’s war, or the 3 million “Enclavians” in the Donbas, who are also paying an     exorbitantly high price for their misguided support of the separatist adventure? For me, 40 million who made the right     choice beats 3 million who made the wrong choice hands down."

If you read the commentary after Motyl's argument you will see that I'm not the first person to take issue with his characterization of the Donbas as "the 3 million people who made the wrong choice" or the truly bizarre title for millions of Ukrainian as "Enclavians." But it's worth going at his logic in more detail.

Does Motyl really believe that the only way to end the suffering of the 40 million Ukrainians not in separatist-held territories is to make life unlivable for the 3 million in the "enclave"? (Actually, with 1.3 million already displaced as internal refugees, and up to 800,000 as external refugees I don't know if there are still 3 mln people in separatist-held Donbas).The suffering has indeed spread across the entire country, and I don't mean to downplay the sorrow felt over the death of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers. But what he writes as if there's just one choice - starve and collapse the Donbas enclave or Ukraine will keep suffering.

Isn't it even possible any more to imagine ending the suffering across the entirety of Ukraine, gov't- and separatist-held both?

What about a major push to call Moscow's bluff and implement the political aspects of the Minsk agreement? Afford autonomy, language rights, special elections and the other political demands of the separatists in order to stay within Ukraine? I have been told by some Ukrainian acquaintances that I am naive to believe this deal could be struck, and even if it could it would not be right to let Moscow and Donetsk dictate the terms (although Poroshenko more or less agreed to them at Minsk-2). And yet while that is inconceivable, many people are seriously considering the idea of sealing off the "cancerous growth" of separatist-held Donbas (in the phrasing of Poroshenko's parliamentary leader Yury Lutsenko) which could only lead to several terrible outcomes: it's total loss to Ukraine in the form of a new Pridnistrovie or a continuation of the awful stalemate, with thousand and thousands more Ukrainians deliberately turned into refugees by government policy in an attempt to depopulate the enclave. These outcomes are inconcievably worse than an ugly compromise with the separatists.

(For the record, I understand that the military aggression of the separatists has done as much or more as Kyiv's obstinance about implementing the political portions of the deal to bring Minsk-2 to its current sorry state. They remain morally culpable for the prolongation of the suffering of "their" people. If I spend more time writing about what Kyiv should do it is because I think it is capable of much better policy than what is being implemented now.)

Motyl's logic becomes a little more comprehensible (but no less inhumane) when we understand that he thinks the enclave must be cut off if Ukraine is to recover from this crisis:
"The choice before Kyiv—and it’s one that Ukrainian policymakers have assiduously been pretending doesn’t exist—is     quite stark. Either a reformed, Western-oriented, and prosperous Ukraine without the Donbas enclave or an unreformed,     Russia-oriented, and backward Little Russia with the enclave. You can’t have both. And if you don’t believe me, listen to     Yuri Shvets, a former Ukrainian KGB agent now living in Washington: “The Donetsk and Luhansk province territories     captured by the aggressor … are a Trojan horse. Putin created it; let him now feed it. To let that ‘horse’ into Ukraine is     tantamount to political and economic suicide.”

Motyl is wrong, first of all, to image that there is a homogenous bloc of "Enclavians" who all think alike and who Ukraine would be better off excluding from the country. He does not indulge the fantasy of some Ukrainian commentators that separatist supporters are a small, marginal minority in the Donbas, but he swings to the other side and imagines that everyone there is a dedicated separatist who made their choice and now must take their medicine ("the 3 million who made the wrong choice"). And so he neatly sews up the problem that should be haunting Kyiv - how to help those dedicated pro-unity Ukrainians who remain on the wrong side of the line? They simply aren't there, says Motyl, just a bunch of Enclavians. If by some chance they do exist, well, let them become refugees and move to the government side. (I won't even mention the even more underexplored question of how Kyiv might try to win back the loyalty of some separatist supporters, make them want to return to the fold.)

I can somewhat understand Motyl's reasoning that if Ukraine is to give up on the "Enclave" it should first try to make it ungovernable by starving it of resources. I think he casually glazes over the huge human suffering this would cause, but it has a certain internal logic. Separatist leaders have indeed claimed they wish to expand to the boundaries of Donetska and Luhanska Oblasts (although recently their rhetoric has been tamer, claiming they instead want a few key cities like Slavyansk that 'were always Republican'), so trying to starve them of resources is a comprehensible strategy for reducing further Ukrainian casualties.

What is just so damn sad is that Motyl (and numerous other commentators) are talking as if this is really the only way - the Donbas enclave is lost, for pro-unity Ukrainians there the only choice is to throw in their lot with the blockaded "Republics" or become internal refugees. Reconciliation, reintegration - just pipe dreams. And meanwhile the ugly, ideologically suspect (but vastly preferable to war or a frozen republic) political deal of Minsk-2 is left to wither on the vine, with no seriuos attempt having ever been made to implement it.

"Uncitizens": Gleb Prostakov on the moral implications of the Donbas blockade

In my opinion the best writing about the Ukrainian crisis and the war in the Donbas is in the journal Vesti.Reporter. In contrast with many other media Vesti sends its writers deep into the war zone, and in fact publishes works by people who remain in separatist-held territory. The article Линии жизни Донецка, or "Lifelines of Donetsk", written by a Donetsk resident about the hellish artillery duel of last autumn and winter, is the most powerful thing I have read about this war.

On my trip to Ukraine I had the chance to meet the senior editor of Vesti.Reporter, Gleb Prostakov, and interview him several times. Today on Facebook Gleb wrote an extensive post about the most important question facing Ukraine today: whether or not to impose a full blockade on the separtist-held portion of the Donbas. I translated most of it, because I think Gleb captures the essence of this debate much better than I can express it.

Here is the original:

And my translation:


What is this war for? For people or territory?

Hostages, accomplices to separatism or lost sheep? How the Ukrainian authorities choose to identify those people living on occupied territories will determine their fate and, unquestionably, the future of our country. The intense debates over the need to tighten the blockade of separatist-held territories in the Donbas have raised a critical question: who are these people who live on the “other side,” and what rights do they have? Or rather, do they have any rights at all?

It hasn’t been a month yet since the Verkhovna Rada adopted a motion which established our country’s refusal to further observe the norms of the Convention on Human Rights in the zone of the anti-terror operation (ATO). Seeming at the time to be a sheer formality, it now has taken on ominous significance. The tightening of the Donbas blockade, right up to a ban on shipments of food and medicine, is being seriously discussed in the highest levels of government. Such a decision would be equivalent to the diagnosis “amputate, impossible to treat.” It would deny people work on both sides of the conflict line, and thus would deny them the means of survival. In practices it would deny them the fundamental human right to a living. And in many cases this is by far not journalistic exaggeration.

Image from

A final breaking of all economic connections would not be a means for fightin g financing of the separatists, which is facilitated by contraband through the front lines and bribe-taking by regular soldiers and their superiors. For that we need different methods. Is it meant to cause a popular uprising in the occupied territories, which would somehow bring the war to an end? Raising the costs for the aggressor? Maybe. Alls fair in war, after all. But what is our final goal? That’s what we are having the most heated arguments over, that’s the question that is causing governors to lose their heads and the government coalition to shake apart.

So what is it that we want? Are we fighting for people, or just for territory?

Ukraine is sometimes named as a candidate for status of “failed state.” And this is not only because we are amongst the poorest countries of Europe and the world, or in connection with our underdeveloped government institutions and unending social strife. The real issue is that we don’t love our own people. We irreversibly break off any connections with them. We don’t recognize dual citizenship, because we fear capital flight that is happening anyway. But we happily give citizenship to ministers and foreign governors. We don’t pay pensions to emigrants, who even without Ukrainian passports don’t stop being Ukrainians. Even when we know that this contradicts our country’s Constitution. We easily give the label of second class people to anyone who, despite everything, has remained on occupied territories. These are people who can be sacrificed. After all, they’ve only got themselves to blame, they’ve got nothing to complain about.

So in the end who are we and who are they: just people who coincidentally ended up in one state structure, left over in the ruins of the USSR? Or a cohesive nation, connected by something more than just sharing the same kind of passport?

The blockade of separatist-held Donbas

The desire of many Ukrainian politicians to "seal off" rebel-held territories in the Donbas may be coming to pass. The head of Poroshenko's bloc in parliament, Yury Lutsenko, has declared that the president desires to extend the present automotive blockade of the so-called Luhansk Peoples Republic to all separatist held territories. Passage into them will be possible only by foot or compact car.

Effectively this would do two things: stop shipments of food and other essentials onto separatist held territories, and prevent residents of those areas from crossing back and forth regularly (such as pensioners who live in Donetsk but have registered their pension on the government-controlled side), since the poorer of them do so by bus.

"Large industrial holdings that are registered in Ukraine can move their loads and pay their taxes. But trucks with groceries and consumer goods should not be allowed to cross over onto occupied territories of Donetska and Luhanska Provinces. That is the president's firm decision," Lutsenko reported.

My first reaction is "My God, what are they thinking?" Such an order ignores the reality of life for hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million Donbas residents who cannot tear up their roots in their home towns and transfer their entire lives to those territories that today are under government control. It strikes me as atrociously hard-hearted, unbelievably tonedeaf. Don't they realize how much this will alienate the people that live there, the loyalty of whom they desparately need to maintain or restore?

Does anyone really believe that separatist fighters will go hungry because of this decision? They can get whatever they need from across the swathe of the Russian border that they control. This will fall almost entirely on civilians, especially the poorest.

If someone can put forward a serious argument why such a blockade will be more beneficial than harmful, I'd be glad to hear it. I'd like to believe this is not as cruel as it appears to me at first glance.

УПЦ: Блокада Донбасса приведет к массовому голоду мирных жителей
Archpriest Vladislav Dikhanov of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. From

But commentary is already coming out from Ukrainians who work with the most vulnerable in the Donbas. It seems to confirm my first reaction. Here is a quote from the Ukrainian paper Vesti from
archpriest Vladislav Dikhanov, who answers for social and humanitarian issues in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church:

“Areas located in direct proximity to the front lines will suffer the most from a blockade. The worst situation will be in the ‘buffer zone’ [one of the zones established by the Minsk protocol]. That is already where conditions are the worst – people are truly dying of hunger. Of course, people did their best to evacuate the children, but many elderly people remain, and also younger people who simply do not wish to abandon their homes. If you don’t associate the idea of a full blockade  with actual people, then of course it’s politically quite attractive. But it takes on an entirely different appearance if you remember that real people live there, many of whom cannot make the move or simply wish to stay on their native land, where they were born and lived all their lives.”

A surreal memory of bombs and bees

I remember a surreal recollection of one refugee from outside of Luhansk, whose village has been under sustained artillery fire for nearly a year. In February, during the intense artillery duel that preceeded the second Minsk summit, a shell landed in her front yard in the middle of the night. After waiting several minutes, she emerged from her basement bomb shelter to assess the damage. Thankfully only the windows were blown out, but as she stood in the bitter cold, with snow falling around her, she became aware of a buzzing separate from that which always happens in your ears after a shell lands.

She looked around and realized that the shell had landed amongst her husband's beeboxes. The bees that survived had woken from their winter stupor and were languidly buzzing all around her in the darkness and falling snow. "I decided to go inside before they started stinging me," she told me. "How would I explain that at the hospital - a bee sting in the middle of February?"

Today I came across this passage in Isaak Babel's 1920 field diary, published together with his great Red Cavalry, about his experiences during the Russian Civil War in Volynia and Galicia:

"I remember the broken frames, thousands of bees buzzing and beating themselves against their shattered hives."

True, it's only a small and coincidental resemblence. But in many more significant ways the Donbas War reminds of the brutal Civil War that so inspired Babel, Bulgakov, Sholokhov. I wonder - will there be a literature of the Donbas War? Or will its chronicle just be Russian and Ukrainian state TV and the online polemic of bloggers and trolls?

War words: "Obratka"

Obratka comes from the Russian word obratno - back, return, reverse. In present conditions it occurs in the following context:

Very often the warring sides position their mobile artillery within towns and cities, since in the open Donbas steppe they are so much more vulnerable. They  fire off a volley of shells in the direction of the enemy lines, then roll off to a different location and reposition. Then the obtratka comes flying in, that is, the answering fire. Sometimes the obtratka is in time to hit its intended target, but very often it just wreaks destruction on those civilian objects (houses, apartment blocks, schools, factories) that are not on wheels or tank tracks and which remain behind once the artillery is gone. And, of course, on any unfortunate people in or around those objects.

I heard refugees and front-line civilians bitterly curse both the Ukrainian army and the separatist fighters for turning their towns into targets for obratka. True, I heard this complaint more often directed at the army, but that is likely because I was only on the government-controlled side of the front line. Anger about obtratka is inherently directed at armed forces that base themselves among the civilian population, and the separatists are amply guilty of that.

An example of obratka, relatively mild in this case, near the Donetsk airport.

The death and destruction caused by obtratka are so inherently outrageous because it demonstrates how the two sides are imposing a mutual regime of violence on the Donbas, testing each other's strength on a battlefield of mining towns and black earth farm towns. I don't mean to suggest that the people of the Donbas are entirely passive objects, without agency in this war. Many civilians have played their part in directing the conflict to its present state, a role you can judge as heroic or villainous based on your personal ideology. But as in all wars, no one asks the locals what they think about heavy artillery being stationed in the courtyards of their apartment blocks and schools, on their public squares or near the gates of their factories.

How to lose hearts and minds in the Donbas

It became very obvious to me in the Donbas how wide the gap in understanding is between people who live there and the Kyiv government regarding the movement of goods and people.

Eastern Ukrainians usually speak out for the free movement of goods and people across the line of demarcation because they recognize that many people cannot utterly cut themselves off from their homes in separatist-held territory. If they stay there, or if they cross back and forth with some frequency, that does not clearly demonstrate their support for separatism. Many pro-unity Ukrainians live in this way, and the government should be interested in supporting them, like strands that bind the breakaway territories to the rest of the country. It should not try to drive people out of the "Peoples Republics" by making life there unbearable, since the first to leave will be the pro-unity residents, leaving a population dominated more and more by its irreconcilable opponents.

Many government officials, unfortunately, think otherwise. Here's a recent example from Minister of the Interior Arsen Avakov:

“Three days ago the Prime Minister held a meeting on the problem of contraband in the zone of the Anti-terror operation [ATO]. The temptation is great, for one tractor trailer truck enormous sums are paid, we need to do something about this. I have the following position: we need to seal off the line of demarcation entirely. Seal it off to everything. That's my radical point of view, ‘junta’ style, our style. Just close the line. You can cross it on foot, in civilian compact cars, go ahead, but no goods. Let them get their goods from Russia.”

Ah yes. Let "them" get their goods from Russia. That is, Ukrainians. They are Ukrainians, aren't they? You could forget it when reading the Minister's comments. He speaks as if everyone who lives on the other side of the line is irrevocably lost to Ukraine and deserves to be taught a tough lesson.

This is a logical position only if his first priority is to look maximally tough. It is not logical if  Avakov were to recongize that there are many people on the other side of the line who are not "them" but "us" (that is, who consider themselves Ukrainians; to be semantic, I don't belong to the "us" in this case). Does he really wish for all of these people to abandon their homes? And does he not realize that trying to starve the Donbas and force it under Russia's sponsorship is a major factor in turning "us" into "them?"

And if he really believes there are no 'no Ukrainians' left there, then what's the point of spending so much blood and treasure on dragging the Donbas back? For the black earth? For the factories that are being bombed to ruins in this war? Or just for revenge's sake?

Image from

And something approaching Avakov's desired shut-down of the border is already coming into effect. Recently a ranking officer of the Ukrainian Security Council (SBU) confirmed what many have long suspected: there is an official "grocery blockade" imposed against separatist held territories. The Donetsk journalist Anna Khripunkova wrote about how the remaining pro-unity Ukrainians in Donetsk received the news: "It demoralizes them: they can and want to work for their country and earn their living, but they have been placed in conditions in which realizing their potential is impossible. It's impossible to work for Ukraine, impossibe to be useful and needed, impossible to feed you family."

Yet if Avakov's comments seem like a tour de force of alienating public discourse, he was quickly outdone by the vice-head of the Interior Ministry police in Donetska Province, Ilya Kiva, who wrote on Facebook:

“I call on public organizations and activists in Kyiv to block the movement of busses between Donetsk and Kyiv, which allow for the spread of the terrorist plague and filth across the territory of Ukraine. If I had my way I’d just shoot these tourists to the DNR [Donetsk Peoples Republic], these lovers of referenda and parades of Ukrainian prisoners of war… Only a harsh public position will force the Donbas to sober up! There are no more nuances! There’s only ‘ours’ and the enemy! That’s the only way we’ll defeat this plague.”

The mind boggles. It isn't even that there are no more Ukrainians left in the Donbas in Kiva's understanding. There are no more people there. Just "plague and filth." Who must be quarantined from Ukrainians, and if need be shot for trying to infect the commonwealth.

Pro-unity Ukrainians in Donetsk responded to Kiva's rabid post on Facebook:

Journalist Veronika Medvedeva:They [politicians] can talk so much about "Unified Ukraine," but just one sentence from this man in epaulettes tears off the mask.

Businessman and activist Enrique Menendez (I know it's an unexpected name for Donetsk, but he does live there):
I thought we had already experienced the maximum of humiliation and insult at the roadblocks. When they address everyone as a potential criminal, despite the presumption of innocence (what about that, anyway? They haven't repealed it yet?)...But no. That's not all. Now it's straight to shooting. And this isn't written by some delerious junkie, but by the vice-head of the Donetsk Police.

Reading Kiva's scree, I thought about one of my new acquaintances from the Donbas, one of the occupants of those busses that cross the demarcation line. That is, one of the "plague and filth" crowd, in his understanding. She is a dedicated pro-unity Ukrainian, who worked diligently in an 'evacuated' government agency on Ukrainian territory to develop a more conciliatory information policy, which would highlight the bonds that connect Donbas residents on both sides of the line. She recently quit, partially because she realized that her bosses always prefered the "tough" position, and partially because she was hounded by rivals who accused her of aiding the separatists. You see, she travels every weekend to see her husband on the other side of the demarcation line. She is a human being, not capable of regarding everyone on the other side of the barricade as "plague and filth."

An extraordinarily resilient love for her homeland keeps her pro-unity, despite the humiliation and the realization of what many government officials think of people like her. But how long will the Avakovs and Kivas test that resilience? Eastern Ukrainians like her are Kyiv's to lose. And if it does, then any hope of a unified Ukraine is lost as well.