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The Donbass War. Assessing the Aftermath. How the ‘Russian Spring’ came to an end in eastern Ukraine

Source: Meduza
Photo: Max Black / AP / Scanpix

The war in eastern Ukraine has ended, or at least finished its phase of peak intensity. Unresolved questions include control over the border with Russia, local power, the disbanding or legitimization of armed groups, and – finally – the status of Donbass territories still beyond Kiev’s control. The juridical chaos in disputed regions is compounded by the catastrophic fall in the living standards of the local people. Having worked in the region for the entire period of the armed conflict, Pavel Kanygin, a special correspondent for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, reviews for Meduza the results of the war.

In terms of prosperity and the quality of life, prewar Donbass was essentially on par with Kiev – significantly surpassing other Ukrainian and most Russian regions. Donetsk had one of the three biggest airports in all of Ukraine. Skyscrapers of glass and concrete housed the offices of international companies working directly in the region (rather than remotely through offices in the capital). The city was home to many expats. Local trams and buses offered wireless Internet, even beating the Moscow Metro by a few years.

In 2012, the city hosted the European Championship for football. Looking at Donetsk today, it seems impossible to believe that this was all in the recent past.

In the span of a few summer months in 2014, the financial and industrial capital of eastern Ukraine was transformed into a ghost town. The empty central streets conveyed only military trucks and desperate taxi-drivers with reporters in tow. To the north, to the west, and even in the center of the city, shells exploded every day. Several neighborhoods were destroyed entirely – down to their very foundations. Throughout the province, dozens of towns and villages were burned, annihilated.

Many Donetsk residents – service companies, bureaucrats, foreigners, local hipsters, and intelligentsia – were already leaving by the summer of 2014. And yet the overall population of the provincial center dropped very little; people from the devastated surrounding areas were drawn into Donetsk. Now they make up the new face of the city.

The war has come and gone, leaving behind poverty and pain. The buses and trams have been stripped of their wifi routers. High-voltage cables smashed in the shelling have been sold for scrap. Half-empty shelves in the stores have become customary. The city’s Petrovsky district still has many living in the bomb shelter of the local mine, fearing renewed artillery strikes. The nearby municipal psychiatric hospital has become home to fighters for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). Already last winter, I joined volunteers taking food and medicine to the neighborhood, where typhoid plagued people crowded in basements. What goes on now in Petrovsky and other areas around Donetsk is virtually unknown. This fall, DPR authorities banned volunteers from bringing in medicine and equated NGO activity with espionage.

Below, I have assembled some figures and observations by which readers can judge the current state of affairs in Donbass.

Pensions and education

According to estimates by volunteer organizations, around 900,000 people now live in Donetsk (the official population prior to the war was a little over a million). During the months of heaviest fighting the population dropped to 600,000. People of working age with their families made up a large portion of those who fled.

With the beginning of the truce, however, also began the partial return of displaced residents. In addition, people from other parts of Donbass, including those who lost homes due to the war or are simply searching for work, have resettled in Donetsk.

Universities, grade schools, and kindergartens still function in the DPR. Education is based on Ukrainian state standards, with schools permitting instruction in one of two languages based on the preference of children and parents. As of now, two-thirds of students are schooled in Russian, and the remaining third study in Ukrainian. Diplomas and certificates from the DPR are recognized neither in Ukraine, nor in Russia. Some universities in the DPR are negotiating with Russian counterparts to present diplomas by their standards.

Some 250,000 pensioners live in Donetsk. Regular payment of their benefits began in the spring of 2015. Before that, from the creation of the DPR government in May 2014, their pensions were paid just three times.

In the neighboring self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), centralized payments went out only twice.

Moreover, pension installments and humanitarian aid from Russia never made it to many towns in the Lugansk region. In December 2014, hungry elderly residents of the 40,000-person city of Pervomaisk formed lines for bread. The “people’s mayor” Evgeny Ishchenko, even then accused of stealing from the aid convoys, had organized a handout (half a loaf per person). In January 2015, Ishchenko was killed by unknown assailants. Warehouses controlled by his people were found to hold large shipments of foodstuffs, clothing, and fuel.

Today, pensions in the LPR and DPR are distributed on the basis of prewar Ukrainian norms, but in a ruble equivalent based off of a 1 hryvnia to 2 rubles rate. The actual market exchange rate, however, is closer to 1-to-3. (The fixed rate is applied only for communal services and public transportation fares.) By way of an example, the minimum pension in Donetsk of 1,000 Ukrainian hryvnia corresponds to in-hand payments of 2,000 rubles. The same 1,000 hryvnia traded in cash at an exchange booth, however, would be worth closer to 3,000 rubles.

The first day of school in the village of Aleksandrovka, Donetsk region, September 1, 2015.
Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko / TASS / Scanpix


In 2013, the gross regional product of Donbass made up around 15 percent of Ukraine’s GDP, roughly equivalent to the role of Moscow in the GDP of Russia (17 percent). According to data from the Ukrainian Central Bank, the region’s economy has fallen by two-thirds since the start of the war. Both Ukrainian and international business started leaving Donbass en masse, freezing anything – factories, equipment, or real estate – that couldn’t be carried away. Once the second richest city in Ukraine, Donetsk now sits near the bottom even among the cities in the eastern part of the country.

The major retailers and car dealerships closed up and left Donetsk. Not a single major electronics store remains in the city. Following several incidents of armed robbery, there are still no mobile phone stores open in Donetsk.

Banks are also not functioning (with the exception of First Republican Bank, which operates solely in the DPR and the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia). Neither are cash machines, insurance companies, or brokerage firms.

The entire retail sector in Donetsk now consists of food and cleaning products. The blockade notwithstanding, there are still Ukrainian-made products on store shelves. Their delivery to the DPR and LPR passes by the checkpoints – either through corrupt Ukrainian customs and border officials or through Russian territory.

The costs of corruption and additional transport expenses (like the detour through Kharkov region) significantly inflate the price of Ukrainian goods, yet their ultimate market price still remains lower than goods brought in from Russia.

Dairy products, sunflower oil, alcohol, cigarettes, and some groceries come in from the Rostov region in Russia. As a rule, this involves goods from the lowest price segment. Still, according to Human Rights Watch, local residents complain about the high cost and low quality of Russian products.

Over the last six months the price of essential commodities has risen 50-60% on average; this while the real mean income in the region has fallen by 65-75%. Now it stands near 2,500 rubles per month.

These high prices in the LPR and DPR are resulting in swings in “grocery migration” of people into territory controlled by Kiev, where the same goods cost three-fourths to two-thirds as much. Thousands of people daily complete trips back and forth across the blockposts. Human Rights Watch reports that people sometimes spend several hours in lines, often having to spend the night on the road since the checkpoints close at 6 p.m.

In spite of the conflict, however, some Donetsk restaurants still serve oysters. In one establishment called Shato, employees explained that they are brought in at the request of “high-level guests of the restaurant from Moscow.” Who these guests are and how they ended up in the frontline city, Shato refused to disclose.

Media censorship

For quite a while the DPR authorities were favorably disposed towards foreign reporters and tolerant of criticism. The leaders of “Novorossiya” (a common nickname for the rebel-controlled territories meaning “New Russia”) agreed to interview requests without any conditions or preliminary discussion of questions. Without regard to the tone, separatist were satisfied with the material because it allowed them to speak their mind.

The mood started to shift after the publication of Novaya Gazeta’s article about the “Buryat contract soldier” (a serviceman from eastern Russia who was wounded and captured fighting in Ukraine in February 2015). The interview with “special forces officers in the GRU” (Russian Military Intelligence) – Captain Erofeev and Sergeant Aleksandrov – proved to be the last straw for Donbass leaders. I felt the changes personally; in June 2015, members of the DPR security services lured me into a setup in Donetsk, where they beat me and listed my articles that had displeased separatist leaders.

The local media within the DPR and LPR started strict censorship even earlier. Some publications were closed by their owners at the beginning of the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (as Ukrainian officials have dubbed the conflict), evacuating their editorial staff to territory controlled by Kiev. But the majority of media outlets willingly changed their editorial policy in line with the expectations of the leaders and overseers of the unrecognized republics. Events are reported and interpreted in an exclusively pro-Russian vein.

Foreign journalists working in the region and critically reporting on what goes on can be expelled from the unrecognized republics. Local media representatives acting independently run the risk of ending up in the dungeons of the Ministry of State Security.

Over the last half year, reporters from many independent western and Russian media organizations – including Novaya Gazeta, Kommersant, the Moscow-based tv channel Dozhd, The Independent, The Times, Newsweek, and others – have been banned from the DPR.

During his last trip to Donbass, Dozhd special correspondent Timur Olevsky nearly ended up in prison; separatists gave him two hours to get out “the good way.” I got it the bad way; I was removed from the DPR by force, accused of working for the CIA, sabotage activity, and using twelve kinds of narcotics.

In 2015 alone, five local reporters have been arrested in the LPR, and three more in the DPR. Meanwhile work permits have been given to Russian state television channels and the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. The former Radio Liberty writer Andrei Babitsky ran an internet-tv station in Donetsk for a short stretch. The journalist left Radio Liberty in summer 2015 after declaring that the station refused to published his material on atrocities committed by the Ukrainian army, and he moved to Donetsk.

Censorship and questions on the proper presentation of news are handled by the deputy head of the Ministry of Information and the Press of the DPR, Igor Antipov (before the war, general director of Komsomolskaya Pravda’s Donetsk publisher). Two printing houses are now active in Donetsk.

Novaya Gazeta sources say that before going to press, newspaper pages are sent in PDF format for Antipov's review.

Subsequent proofreading and approval of the pages is done by a group of censors under his leadership. In addition to their own material, each paper also prints several columns recommended by officials.

There are also so-called blacklists, which include names and topics that are not to be mentioned.

As in Russia, the tv channels LifeNews and Rossiya-24 play a particular role. Cable providers in the republic are obligated to keep these stations in their listings. Ukrainian and several foreign channels are banned in the self-proclaimed DPR. As before, the main Moscow tabloid newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, is printed daily.

There have also been multiple attempts at armed raids on the local office of the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.

Only the involvement of the paper’s head editor, Pavel Gusev, and Moscow overseers of the unrecognized republics stopped these DPR attacks.

Civil society organizations

At the beginning of June 2015, DPR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko signed a decree banning foreign social organizations. As Zakharchenko explained, “these organizations are used in part as cover for reconnaissance and sabotage activities to the detriment of state security.”

Among others, the ban applied to the International Rescue Committee, the Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders.

Last week, DPR officials accused Doctors Without Borders of espionage and smuggling psychotropic substances. Only the Red Cross was later able to obtain accreditation to work in the DPR.

The charitable foundation of the Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov – who remains influential in the region – has also been banned in the self-proclaimed republics. Until recently, Akhmetov’s organization “Pomozhem” (We'll Help) was the only group providing medicine and other aid to the LPR and DPR in multi-ton shipments – aside from the Russian “humanitarian convoys.” Now the foundation’s trucks cannot cross the DPR checkpoints.

Volunteer organizations previously cooperating with Akhmetov’s fund have faced harassment. “Responsible Citizens,” for example, the largest volunteer group in Donetsk, is also being accused of sabotage and spy activity.

According to volunteers, Donetsk hospitals have encountered medication shortages after civil society organizations ceased to operate.

Journalists with local publications are forbidden from mentioning Akhmetov’s philanthropic activity.

Any community initiatives are required to go through approval procedures with the DPR government.

Distribution of humanitarian aid from Rinat Akhmetov’s foundation. December 1, 2014.
Photo: Valerii Sharifulin / TASS / Scanpix

Human rights

Several organizations are involved in monitoring in this sphere – UN representatives, OSCE, and Human Rights Watch. Judging by their reports, the legal system in the LPR and DPR can be described as a quasi-military dictatorship. Institutions of civilian authority, including the judiciary and police, function de jure in the unrecognized republics. But this means little in practice, as residents have no access to such institutions.

Once, while photographer Pyotr Shelomovsky and I watched, in the center of Donetsk, an intoxicated fighter from the armed group “Oplot” killed a passerby as he left a store with his purchases. The man was talking with somebody on the phone, and the soldier thought he had a background with the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag on his screen. “You ukrop [a slang pejorative for Ukrainians]!” the fighter yelled. “Go work for them, bitch!” With one strike he knocked the man off his feet, and the impact of his fall broke his neck. Somebody called an ambulance out of habit. But first a minibus with tinted windows and no license plates arrived and whisked the “Oplot” fighter in an unknown direction. Then the ambulance removed the body. After an hour the DPR police showed up, and one of them said with frustration: “Fuck, why did we [even] come?”

The ranks of the DPR police are made up of essentially the same people who worked in Donetsk region police before the “Russian spring” (as the revolt of eastern Ukrainian separatists has been labeled). As before, the influence and authority of official law enforcement remains negligible.

Disputes, especially of the business variety, are resolved with the use of “protection” from among the armed brigades. The need to have “protection” has become an indispensable condition of making commercial deals. “Fixers” and leaders of various armed groups have set themselves up in place of judges and law enforcement. Moreover, they are established in the very power hierarchy of the unrecognized republics, carrying out security and policing functions, administering punishment and tax oversight.

Citizen initiatives on the territory of the republics have been reduced to practically zero. After an antiwar demonstration on June 16, 2015, Aleksandr Zakharchenko demanded that the organizers be found and “an end be put to [such] subversive activity.” Since then Donetsk residents are afraid to gather in sizable groups. The DPR Ministry of State Security and its LPR analog monitor activism among the population. These are the heir organizations to the disbanded SBU (Ukraine’s intelligence force) for the Donetsk region, from which many agents swore allegiance to “Novorossiya” in the summer of 2014. The Ministry has its own detention facility, which locals simply refer to as the “basement.”

Human Rights Watch activists have received reports about the absence of access to medical assistance or the insufficiency of medical supplies. In addition, information is still coming in about arbitrary arrests and disappearances of citizens. Ukrainian authorities report dozens of political prisoners in the DPR, including journalists, pro-Ukrainian activists, university instructors, officials, and judges. The DPR Ministry of State Security does not deny having these prisoners, but it calls them "diversionists" and "spies."


With the end of hostilities, the breakaway territories of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics plunged into internal conflict.

“Boss wars” – that’s what locals call the jostling among the leaders of the separatist republics.

Speaker of the DPR People’s Council and one of the ideologues of the “Free Donbass” movement, Andrei Purgin, was relieved of his post amidst a scandal. His removal has been rumored to be the work of Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, often considered the main “curator” of the rebel territories. Surkov purportedly decided to swap a particularly ideologically-driven separatist in Purgin for a more careerist functionary in Denis Pushilin (former coordinator of the infamous MMM financial pyramid in Donetsk).

Denis Pushilin. July 21, 2015.
Photo: Viktor Tolochko / RIA Novosti / Scanpix

In the LPR, the “coal minister” Dmitry Lyamin was recently arrested. His interrogation, accompanied by beating, was recorded on video and circulated online. The incident has been linked to the growing influence in the region of billionaire Sergei Kurchenko, linked to the family of ousted President Viktor Yanukovich and holding large stakes in the Donbass energy sector. In Lugansk, they say Lyamin interfered with Kurchenko’s schemes to extract coal and petroleum products within the LPR. Kurchenko and his family are hiding from the accusations of Kiev authorities in Moscow. Meanwhile, Kurchenko is doing business in eastern Ukraine, and letting the new authorities in Donbass know he has Kremlin backing and should be given necessary leeway.

The reallocation of markets and spheres of influence among the region’s new bosses, equipped with tanks and anti-aircraft artillery, has been protracted. In Donetsk, Kurchenko’s people are opposed by Aleksandr Zakharchenko. The head of the DPR and leader of its largest armed contingent, the “National Guard of the DPR, Zakharchenko was also formerly the trade representative of the poultry producing company Gavrilovsky Chickens. In Lugansk, the armed conflict between local security groups and the former fire inspector – now LPR head – Igor Plotnitsky has not subsided.

Economy, borders, and taxes

A year has passed since Ukrainian authorities introduced an economic blockade of the DPR and LPR. Territories beyond Kiev's control are formally cut off from all domestic business. No trains or scheduled buses go to Donetsk or Lugansk, and Ukrainian business owners are forbidden from trading with separatist territories or delivering their cargo. In actuality, the uncompromising brigade remains mostly on paper. Corruption is flourishing at the blockposts of the Ukrainian forces.

Separatists also profit from transporting Ukrainian goods, imposing on merchants their services their “accompaniment on the territory of the republic.” The “protection” of smuggled goods is considered the main source of income for the second most powerful person in the DPR, Aleksandr Khodakovsky (head of the Vostok regiment and head of the DPR Security Council).

The blockade has made life inside the DPR and LPR significantly more expensive. Meanwhile the border with Russia is open, but only a few are taking advantage. The above-mentioned Aleksandr Khodakovsky has been frequently sighted by journalists in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. The DPR Foreign Minister, Aleksandr Kofman, seems to be living in Moscow full-time. That’s also where the “people’s governor” of Donetsk region, Pavel Gubarev, spends his vacations. Workers in the Russian state media arrived in the region via Rostov region, which borders Donbass (automatically incurring a ban for future work in Ukraine). Others got there legally (as defined by Ukrainian law), entering via territory controlled by Kiev, and thus preserving the possibility of reporting on both sides of the conflict.

The blockade has also created an energy crisis in the region. No fuel is delivered from the Ukrainian side, while supplies from Russia were monopolized by groups linked to businessman Sergei Kurchenko. In October 2015, Donetsk and Makeevka were left without gas for several days as a result of conflict between Zakharchenko’s people and a distribution company owned by Kurchenko.

In the DPR, commercial operations and deals worth more than $10,000 must gain the approval of people in Zakharchenko’s circle. The separatists have also established their own system of tax obligations in the territory. Private enterprises are liable for taxation in one of two chosen forms – either 20 percent of net profit or 2.5 percent of gross revenue. Citizens are required to pay an income tax at the rate of 13 percent of their salary. From September 1, 2015, the ruble is considered the official currency of the DPR and LPR.

The assets of Ukraine’s richest businessman, Rinat Akhmetov, remain untouched. He still holds coal mines, power plants, retail chains, hotels, and the battle-damaged Donbass Arena — all on territory outside of Kiev control. Taxes on these assets continue to flow into the Ukrainian budget. Sales from these companies’ products in Ukraine are also arranged in circumvention of the blockade.

Pavel Kanygin


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