Donbas Tragedy

Donbas refugees in Simferopol (Reuters / Andrey Iglov)

Refugees from Ukraine’s conflict-ridden Donbas in Simferopol, Crimea (Reuters / Andrey Iglov)

Note: An updated and slightly expanded version of this piece was published in The Nation magazine as Is Ukraine on the Brink of Tragedy? on 3 September 2014.

As the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas (also known as “Donbass” in Russian) continues to rage, there is ongoing debate about what will happen if Kiev manages to reassert its control over the region. To some in Moscow, the defeat of the rebels means the defeat of Russia. They argue that if Kiev succeeds in taking the Donbas, it will mean the whole of Ukraine proper in NATO with possible fighting even in Russian-controlled Crimea. By contrast, Washington’s view is that a victory over the rebels in the Donbas would signal a “victory for democracy” and for Ukraine’s “European choice” (and possibly even “Euro-Atlantic choice”).

Are these narratives accurate? Will Russia really lose out geopolitically if Kiev defeats the rebels? Would this really be a victory for Washington? Would Ukraine become stable and would the defeat of the rebels really signal the start of Ukraine’s “path toward democracy?”

In reality, even if Kiev manages to defeat the rebels and reestablish its control over its rebel oblasti, there will still be many more daunting challenges to face.

First and foremost, the vast majority of Russian-speaking Southeastern Ukrainians from Odessa to Kharkov (many of whom did not even support the rebels) will still view Kiev with distrust and as a “coup government” regardless. Additionally, if Kiev persists with driving through painful IMF-sponsored economic austerity “reforms,” it will turn not only the entire Southeast but also the more mixed areas of Central Ukraine against them. The situation will likely be even more challenging for Kiev in the Donbas itself where civilians have faced near-constant shellings, bombardments, and atrocities. Many of their neighbors, friends, and families have also made the trek to Russia as refugees. According to the UN, close to a million Ukrainians have fled to Russia since the crisis in Ukraine began.

Then there are bombed-out towns like Slavyansk, the remnants of the “anti-terrorist” assault. Kiev will already have difficulty supplying itself and Europe for a long, cold winter. How will they supply a city like Slavyansk where the infrastructure has been virtually bombed into oblivion? It is doubtful that anyone would want to stay in a bombed-out shell of a building for a freezing cold winter, especially a family.

Further, despite the persistence of US State Department officials and the US political elite, the American government can realistically go only so far in supporting the scenario that they helped to create. They will quickly discover that they simply do not have the resources and funds to continue supporting Kiev. Even if they did, those funds would be almost guaranteed to be misused and misspent by Ukraine’s corrupt political elite.

Certainly, for those supporters of Maidan, the reality of the corrupt Ukrainian political elite will come to roost very soon. In addition to painful economic reforms, it is unlikely that there will be any major effort to tackle Ukraine’s massive corruption issue or pay off its astronomical debt. That said, the disappointment with Maidan may well come faster than did the disillusionment with the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Therefore, while it may seem to some in Moscow that a defeat of the Donbas rebels signals the “imminent defeat of Russia,” in reality time is on Russia’s side.

However, then the question becomes: until the realities of the situation begin to set in, how much more suffering will the Ukrainian people have to endure?

After all, the greatest tragedy of the Ukraine crisis is that when future historians look back at all the damage that has been done by this conflict – the deaths, the divided families, the refugees, the destroyed cities, the severed economic links, the ruined diplomatic ties, etc. – they will perhaps wonder, as historians of other unnecessary wars do today: was it really worth it?

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10 thoughts on “Donbas Tragedy

  1. It’s disgusting that the US has helped foment this situation. Now I heard somewhere that Russia was willing to provide aid even if Ukraine joined or closely allied with the EU while the EU/US were not willing to see that. Any thoughts on that issue?

    • Carol, thanks for the comments! On Russia, you got it half-right: early on, Moscow proposed the idea of Ukraine being a “neutral” country between the EU and the Russian-backed Eurasian Union. In such a scenario, Kiev would have good trade relations with both entities and thus get “the best of both worlds.” However, in the end, the EU refused this proposal. This was really early on, before Yanukovych refused to sign the Association Agreement and before the Maidan revolution.

  2. Few in the U.S. realize the pervasiveness corruption of the political class in Kiev, and the devil’s bargain our government is making. There is nothing but tears to be gained as any intervention from the west, as you point out, will be 1) misguided (austerity) 2) not enough to be decisive and 3) siphoned off by criminal politicians. Thanks for your efforts to bring some sanity to this debate.

    –Jim Forrester
    Ann Arbor

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