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Inside Donetsk, a city at war, while jaw-jaw over Ukraine continues

The past few days have seen another round of the seemingly endless cycle of escalation and de-escalation that has characterised the crisis in Ukraine for several months. The Ukrainian government has claimed…

Devastation: the remains of Donetsk’s history museum. EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

The past few days have seen another round of the seemingly endless cycle of escalation and de-escalation that has characterised the crisis in Ukraine for several months. The Ukrainian government has claimed military successes against separatist rebels and Russian forces. The Kremlin has denied any incursion into Ukrainian territory, which was, however, confirmed by NATO and journalists.

Russia, in turn, has achieved official recognition from Ukraine that it’s convoy is solely humanitarian. Similar assurances were apparently accepted by US, following a phone conversation between the US and Russian defence ministers.

The separatists in eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, lost further ground, but also claim to have had their ranks and capabilities boosted by the arrival of Russian-trained fighters and equipment. At the same time, some Russians among the rebel leadership were replaced by locals in an apparent further factionalisation of separatists.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis seemed to make some progress amid both conciliatory and confrontational statements from all sides. Ukraine, on the one hand, played down the significance of its military confrontation with a Russian convoy earlier in the week. Western leaders appeared moderately optimistic about a meeting at the weekend in Berlin between the Ukrainian, Russian, French and German foreign ministers. The hope for a more sustained political process, building on an earlier meeting in Normandy last month, was also echoed by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

On the other hand, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, in a phone call with German chancellor Angela Merkel, called for an end to Russian arms supplies to the separatists. In another phone call with the US vice president, Joe Biden, the two leaders agreed that continuing Russian military activities at the Ukrainian border were inconsistent with its declared humanitarian intentions. The Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, meanwhile urged NATO and the EU to supply arms to Ukraine.

So it appears that at present all sides may be willing to give a political solution another try while at the same time hedging their bets if the political process does not get off the ground or stalls as on so many previous occasions.

Russia in the box seat

Even if a political process eventually gets off the ground, Russia will be in a much stronger negotiation position. The Kremlin has clearly demonstrated its resolve to have its way in Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea and the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine are, however, only one side of the coin.

Jaw-jaw: foreign ministers from Russia and Ukraine meet with their counterparts from Germany and France. EPA/Maurizio Gambarini

Moscow’s current aid efforts also need to be considered – they clearly offer some hope for improving an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation which neither Kiev nor its Western allies seem to be able or willing to address. The Russian aid convoy will be welcomed by civilians in eastern Ukraine, but it will also reinforce the region’s alienation from Kiev and its population’s perception of Russia as a powerful patron of its interests.

Where Moscow can act swiftly and decisively, switching easily between humanitarian gestures and military threats, Western capitals are far more constrained. Decision-making within NATO and the EU is notoriously difficult because it requires consensus among countries with different political, economic, and military priorities and different perspectives on how to deal with Russia.

The Western approach to the crisis is further complicated by the way in which the Ukrainian government has handled the situation over the previous days and weeks. On August 11, the government appealed to the civilian population of Donetsk and Luhansk to leave both cities ahead of an intensification of Kiev’s anti-terrorist operation. With roughly two-thirds of the population of Donetsk remaining in the city, civilian casualties are inevitable.

Nor does the Ukrainian government provide much by way of relief to people displaced by the conflict, despite the fact it is spending around $3-4m a day on its anti-terrorist operation. A shelter in the building of the railway station in Kiev, for example, is nothing more than a space without furniture, access to water, food or medical assistance.

Most of the assistance is provided by volunteers and religious organisations, rather than by the government. By contrast, Russia has already found shelter for some 500,000 refugees from the conflict in eastern Ukraine, offering them free housing, financial assistance, and medical services.

While it is easy to dismiss these Russian efforts as cynical propaganda and a response to a crisis wholly or mostly created by the Kremlin, Ukrainian civilians who live in fear of Kiev’s military operation – or are in receipt of much more effective Russian humanitarian assistance – are unlikely to see a Moscow-sponsored conspiracy at work here.

Outwardly, the situation in Donetsk appears more under control than in Luhansk where people have lived without access to water and electricity for more than ten days. Municipal authorities in Donetsk, by contrast, are still effectively running the city’s services from public transport to gas, water and electricity, while also managing repairs to critical infrastructure destroyed as a result of the conflict.

That said, Donetsk also is a city in a state of war. The National Bank of Ukraine has closed all its departments in Donetsk, putting a stop to any operations with commercial banks. Any state funding of public hospitals has been stopped as well. As a consequence, living conditions for socially vulnerable groups: the elderly, children and the sick, has become particularly difficult. The rebels, too, have not helped the situation: there is a curfew in place, a (rebel) military prosecutor office has been created, alcohol has been prohibited and the death penalty has been introduced for, among others, espionage and looting.

With the battle lines thus drawn locally and internationally, neither a political nor a military solution are likely anytime soon. Russia needs to do very little to sustain the current stalemate and the West is unlikely to push hard enough against Moscow’s approach. The Ukrainian government is too weak to defeat the rebels and take Donetsk and Luhansk quickly without a severe toll in civilian casualties, although Kiev may be tempted to launch a serious offensive ahead of August 24 – which is Independence Day in Ukraine.