KIEV—The people of Ukraine desperately need peace, and none with more urgency than the children. The side effects of the brutal, grinding war between Russian-backed separatist rebels and the pro-Europe government in Kiev include a surge in HIV infections that infants contract from their mothers because of a shortage of antiretroviral drugs. In the rebel-held city of Donetsk, under frequent shelling and rocket attacks by Ukrainian government forces, as many as 1,000 children are now living large parts of their lives underground in fetid cellars and bomb shelters, according to UNICEF.
On Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande went on a peace mission to Kiev to meet with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and Friday sees Merkel and Hollande in Moscow meeting with President Vladimir Putin, but the failure of past initiatives and agreements suggests there is slim hope for this one.
In the past few days dozens of Ukrainian civilians and solders had fallen victim to violent clashes. Rebel leaders have threatened to mobilize 100,000 more fighters in 10 days and take over the entire Donetsk region, including Mariupol. The strategic port city stands astride the land route between Russia and Crimea, which Moscow annexed, now, almost a year ago. All told, over 5,000 people had been killed in the war in eastern Ukraine since last May.
Putin is rumored to have sent Merkel a note Wednesday with suggestions for changing the existing ceasefire line defined by a protocol signed in Minsk in September. He appears to be proposing an accord. “Merkel would not travel all the way to Moscow unless Putin gave her a firm promise there will be a deal this time,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, a Russian historian and liberal politician, told The Daily Beast.
Aleksander Lukashevich, with the Russian ministry of foreign affairs, is quoted by the Interfax news agency saying that the matter for discussion with Merkel and Hollande on their visit to Moscow is the possible deployment of UN peacekeeping forces to Donbass, as the eastern region of Ukraine is known.
“Putin’s plan looks like another Transnistria,” says Igor Bunin, the president of the Russian Center for Political Technologies, referring to a breakaway region of Moldova that has been under de-facto Russian control since 1992. “The border between separatist republics and the rest of Ukraine would include territories conquered by rebels in the past few days,” Bunin told The Daily Beast. “The conflict is most probably going to be frozen forever, like Transnistria.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also arrived in snowy Kiev on Thursday to meet with President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. At a joint press conference, Kerry said the U.S. was “reviewing all options,” including “the possibility of providing defensive systems to Ukraine.” Kerry added that President Barack Obama will decide soon whether to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons to fight against pro-Russian forces, which would significantly upgrade Kiev’s antiquated military. But American and European leaders say they prefer diplomatic solutions rather than an escalation of a bigger and bloodier war in Europe.
What made Putin decide to renew peace talks now? "It strikes me that it did not happen before the Russian economy began to suffer badly,” says Bunin. “I think the escalation of the conflict reminded one more and more of Vietnam. If they don’t make the peace deal now, America will supply their weapons, Russia will send more serious and newer weapons, too.” A quagmire is more likely to be dangerous for Moscow than Washington, whereas a peace deal now could be chalked up as a victory. “It was really important for Putin to show to the Russians that he once again outsmarted everybody and won the conflict,” Bunin said.
But it is not only the Russian economy, hemmed in by sanctions and undermined by the collapse of oil prices, that is in deep trouble. The war has driven the Ukrainian economy on to the rocks as well. On Thursday, the Ukrainian hryvnia lost 34 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar.
The country had a fragile law-enforcement system to begin with, and it could take up to 10 years to reform Ukraine’s judicial system. The army has had to depend on volunteer soldiers and civil society for support.
The surge in HIV and AIDS cases among children, with hundreds contracting the disease who might have been kept free of it, was reported by Sky News and confirmed to The Daily Beast by UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac.
“Before the crisis, Ukraine achieved significant progress in the reduction of mother-to-child transmission of HIV,” said Boulierac. “Unfortunately, the combination of economic crisis and military conflict made the health system fragile and many pregnant women, especially the most vulnerable, who should have received antiretroviral therapy did not get access to it.”
“Given the situation in the country, given the full-blown Russian aggression that we’re facing, given the financial crisis, I think we have a grip on the situation,” Ukraine’s new health minister, Alexander Kvitashvili, told SkyNews, but field workers cast doubt on that assertion. “At the moment I feel I am not in Ukraine, that I am in Africa or somewhere,” Vera Checheneva, an HIV specialist and pediatrician, told Sky.
Despite all its burdens, Ukraine is far from ready to concede defeat.
“The society is strongly motivated to reform its courts, law-enforcement institutions, the entire judicial system and especially get rid of corruption,” says Virgilijus Valancius, leader of the EU project on development and implementation of the Judiciary Development Strategy for 2015-2020. “The war is not an excuse for slowing down the reforms.”
This month Ukraine was preparing to celebrate the one-year anniversary of its Euromaidan revolution, which ousted the previous regime, which was closely allied to Moscow. Its goal was to liberate people from state repression.
Can such a future be secured through the talks in Kiev and Moscow this week? The country’s leaders have to find a solution acceptable for Ukrainian society. “To restore peace, there must be a ceasefire, foreign troops must leave from the territory of Ukraine,” Poroshenko said firmly in the interview with the German newspaper Die Welt.
The director of the Kiev-based Democrat Initiatives Foundation, Irina Bekeshkina, says these will be “a tough couple days” for her country. “I see that Putin expects Ukraine to capitulate,” she told The Daily Beast. “That is his plan; he would like Ukraine to pay for the restoration of destroyed villages and towns in Donbass but make the so-called DNR and LNR republics (Donetsk and Luhansk) independent politically from Kiev.”
The war goes on. The children continue to suffer.
With additional reporting by Christopher Dickey.